Survivors of sexual assault/abuse may elicit a range of emotional, physical, and mental reactions to the trauma of being violated, including not having any reaction at all. Every survivor will respond and react to trauma in their own way. Accordingly, there is no prescribed response nor method of healing from sexual assault; however, it is common for a survivor (regardless of how long ago the abuse/assault occurred) to experience some of the following symptoms:
Anger, sadness, guilt, fear, embarrassment, depression, helplessness, isolation, tension or anxiety, numbness, confusion, denial, hyper-vigilance, inability to concentrate, intrusive memories of the assault (“flashbacks”), change in eating and sleeping habits, increased alcohol consumption or the use of substances as a coping mechanism, avoidance of loved ones or activities that were enjoyable prior to the abuse, lack of trust, need to regain control, increase or decrease in sexual activity, low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts, the need to escape or forget, or other physical symptoms such as eating disorders, nausea, diarrhea, insomnia, muscle-tension, anxiety, trouble breathing, gynecological problems, headaches, and/or panic attacks.
These are just a few of the reactions a person may have. These reactions are not unique to sexual assault; anyone in crisis may show some of these behaviors. They may indicate that your friend's ability to cope has been compromised or thrown out of balance, and that your friend is now struggling to manage trauma. As a friend, you may also experience some of these responses because your friend's experience may stress you directly.
You may not recognize "visible" indications of crisis (such as the responses listed above) because your friend’s coping efforts are taking place inside of them. Indeed, some people cope by making an extra effort to "look normal" and only gradually let on that they have had a traumatic experience.
What can I do to be supportive?
As a friend, you probably know what behaviors and emotions are typical of your friend. If your friend, for no apparent reason, begins to act in an atypical manner, don't be afraid to ask if your friend is doing okay and let him/her know that you noticed changes in their affect or behaviors. You may be the first person to check-in or ask about what's going on with your friend. Here are some strategies that you may find useful in helping support your friend.
- BELIEVE THEM. Believing someone when the person tells you he/she has been sexually assaulted/abused without question or hesitation, is the most important thing you can do for your friend.
- LISTEN. You don't have to know exactly what to say or do. Just be there with them. You don't have to talk. We all tend to analyze and question when someone tells us a story. Active listening skills teach us to talk less, and make space in a conversation for your friend to express themselves comfortably. Don't question their actions or details of the assault, or why your friend did or didn't do something or feels the way he or she does. Instead, If you are having difficulty understanding what your friend may be saying, ask them to clarify. Paraphrase or relate feelings back to the person to ensure that you are not assuming that your friend's feelings reflect your own beliefs or judgments.
- Be GENUINE. Just be yourself.
- Be PATIENT. Your friend is processing and experiencing a variety of feelings and emotions. They may or may not know what they want to do next and may feel conflicted or confused about their options. Don't rush their healing process.
- ASK how you can help. Don't assume that you know what's best for your friend, even if you've had a similar experience. They've already had their power and control taking away once, don't do it again by making decisions for them.
- ASSURE YOUR FRIEND THAT IT IS NOT HIS OR HER FAULT AND YOUR FRIEND IS NOT TO BLAME FOR THE ASSAULT IN ANY WAY. Survivors of sexual assault often blame themselves for what has happened. It is important that we help them understand that they are not to blame, no matter what happened. Someone else chose to violate their boundaries.
- ASSURE YOUR FRIEND THAT THEY ARE NOT ALONE. Survivors of sexual assault often feel isolated, scared, and powerless. Be there for a friend; your presence and attention can reassure the survivor that they have support.
- EMPOWER YOUR FRIEND. Provide resources and options for them to utilize as they desire.
- Keep their information PRIVATE. It took a lot of courage for this person to tell you about the assault/abuse. Do not spread their personal information with others, unless you are concerned about their well-being. If you fear they may hurt themselves or someone is going to hurt them again, call Safety and Security immediately.
To be a supportive and empowering resource to your friend, try some of these phrases:
- What do you want to do?
- How do you feel about that?
- Tell me more about __________?
- What have you tried so far?
- What does he/she/they think about that?
- What does that mean to you?
- What do you think about that?
- What is it that bothers you about that
- In what way?
- Do you want to?
- What would you like?
- What would you like to see happen
- What I'm hearing you say is _______.
- What is the best thing that could happen?
- What is the worst thing that could happen?
Things to try to avoid when helping a survivor of sexual assault:
- We often want to respond to violence with aggressive action. This is not helpful for a friend who has been assaulted and could, in fact, make things worse. RESPECT YOUR FRIEND’S RIGHT TO MAKE HIS OR HER OWN CHOICES.
- Evaluating: you shouldn't, you ought to, you're wrong.
- Interpreting, analyzing, diagnosing. Remember: be an active listener; ask for clarity, but don’t interpret for your friend what occurred or what he or she is feeling.
- Ridiculing, shaming: What were you thinking? Why did you do such a thing?
- Warning, ordering, threatening: If you don't do _____, you'll regret it.
- Criticizing, blaming: This wouldn't have happened if you hadn't...
- Interrogating, cross examining: When did it happen, where did it happen, why did you do that?
- Giving too positive evaluations: I'm sure you'll be fine, it will all work out.
- Distracting, diverting: It isn't that bad, let's talk about something more pleasant.
Information on Helpful and Non-Helpful Responses adapted from the VAASA Volunteer Manual, 2nd Edition,1998 and Avalon: A Center for Women and Children"Active Listening" handbook.