Understanding your emotions and responses
Disclaimer: This guide is not intended to replace professional support, guidance, advice, or diagnosis.
Trigger warning: A trigger is a word or an event that can cause an action to take place. In this toolkit certain words can be triggering for survivors. Which means that reading those words or sentences can cause a survivor to either feel uncomfortable or anxious and might even take them back to an unpleasant memory. If while reading someone does experience this, it is best to do a quick grounding exercise.
Common Feelings & Responses
Fear is one of the most common response to sexual assault. When an incident of assault happens, survivors may experience an intense fear of being physically harmed or losing their life.
These responses could include
- A fear of being alone
- A fear of the assailant
- More general fears about your safety and wellbeing
- A sense of doom
The survivor can continue to respond with fear to smells, sights, sounds, or thoughts associated with the assault - even weeks, months, or years after it happened. We call these “triggers”.
You may find yourself avoiding these triggers by staying away from certain situations, people, or places that remind you of the incident, speaking about the incident, or using coping mechanisms such as alcohol or drugs. This is called “avoidance”. It is a way of avoiding or escaping certain thoughts and feelings that are uncomfortable.
Loss of Control
Some people experience a sense of lack of control over their body, life as well as thoughts and feelings after surviving a physical or sexual trauma. They may see life as unpredictable and full of danger.
Your feelings of anger are an appropriate and healthy response to the incident. These feelings can emanate as a response to situations that occur after the assault as well as insensitive responses from family or friends, a lack of freedom, the frustration at the difficulty or impossibility of changing something, or the lack of justice with regards to the incident.
Intense Feelings or Lack of any Feelings
You may feel
- Easily overwhelmed or confused
- Uncertain about your feelings
- Denial about the incident
- Emotionally detached
Feeling disconnected from our feelings can sometimes lead us to experience strong emotions unexpectedly such as tearfulness and irritability. It may lead us to feel isolated and/or isolating ourselves from others.
Anxiety can also be a common experience for some people. Feeling nervous or worried may be accompanied by other physical and cognitive difficulties such as
- Feeling afraid or scared
- Feeling restless or tense
- Experiencing an increased heart rate
- Breathing rapidly
- Experiencing sweating, trembling, or weakness
- Having trouble focusing or concentrating
- Having trouble sleeping
- Experiencing gastrointestinal issues
- Having an urge to avoid situations that could trigger the anxiety
These symptoms can come up shortly after the incident and persist for weeks, months, or years.
Guilt and Self-Blame
It is common for those who were sexually or physically assaulted to feel as if this was their fault or that they could have done something to prevent being hurt.
It is common for people to feel disinterested in sex or sexual activity after experiencing sexual trauma. If you are in a sexual relationship, it is okay to define your boundaries and revisit them from time to time depending on your comfort and healing.
You may think about whether you will ever enjoy or want to have sexual relations. You might feel like you do not want to have sexual relationships.