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A psychologist's guide to recovery following sexual violence

Updated: Sep 25, 2023

By Niamh Delmar - RTE Lifestyle - 20.09.2023 - [IRELAND] Sexual violence is one of the most under reported crimes. Due to its highly sensitive, traumatising and humiliating nature, many can't face coming forward.

Going through the process of reporting can be an added source of distress, and has been referred to as the "second assault." Victim blaming, recounting disturbing details, invasive examinations and being interrogated deepen the impact.

However, progress is being made with training and expertise now imparted to those involved in the reporting process. According to the CSO survey The Sexual Violence Survey 2022, 40% of people in Ireland have experienced sexual violence at some stage. Fifty-two per cent were women, and younger people reported higher levels.

People are affected in individual ways. It leaves a person vulnerable to risks such as sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, PTSD, depression, anxiety, panic attacks, dissociation and sleep disturbance.

Substance abuse may develop as an attempt to block out painful memories. A sense of safety and trust is violated, and the person may not be able to be on their own or is fearful going out. Emotional reactions often include guilt, shame, numbness, confusion, shock or denial.

Psychologically, the individual may suffer with flashbacks, mental health conditions, eating disorders or low self-esteem. Physical effects such as changes in appetite, sleep patterns, libido and hyper vigilance often feature.

A wide range of medical conditions have been linked to sexual violence including cancer, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure and gastrointestinal problems. Interventions help your mental and physical health. While in the early stages it feels overwhelming, there are specialised supports, and there is a recovery process. Recovery When it comes to recovery, it is important to go at your own pace. Be mindful not to bury yourself too deep in keeping too busy. Reactions are complex and can be confusing.

Gaining information about consent and what sexual violence is helps to clear confusion, and validates your experience. Linking in with a Crisis Centre or Support Organisation can guide you through the processes. Accompaniment services are also available to be with you at a Garda station or Court.

Attending therapy with a professional with experience working in a trauma-informed way helps with the healing process. If you feel ready to open up to a trusted person, prepare how you would like to say it and meet in a comfortable and safe place to do this. Choose a person who will respect your privacy, will listen and support you. Grounding techniques

Symptoms such as flashbacks or being triggered can be helped with grounding exercises.

Hyperarousal can be settled by using certain strategies: focus your attention on where you are now, and feel your feet on the ground or hold the chair or yourself. Name and describe everything that you see around you.

Use the "five things" method: Notice five sounds and absorb them slowly into your soundscape then notice five other things you see, touch, taste and smell. Sensorimotor strategies can also help by re-orientating the body. Holding something in your hand, walking to another part of the house or feeling water on your body are just some examples.

Use self-talk messages, such as "I am safe." Breath work has a powerful and calming effect on body and mind. Traumatic memories can be contained when needed by imagining putting them in a sturdy safe or a drawer and closing the lid and locking it until a more appropriate time.

Visualisation strategies are also beneficial: Imagine a place where you have visited where you felt at ease and content and go into detail about what you see around you and the feelings you felt there.

Try to engage in soothing strategies and healthy distractions. Surround yourself with nature, gentle movement and other activities you enjoy. Nurture yourself with good nutrition, adequate rest and healthy habits.

Avoid programmes or news reports that could be triggering. Communicate and request confidentiality prior to any potentially triggering situations, such as certain medical procedures. Place the responsibility on the perpetrator, not on yourself. Take it at your own pace when it comes to intimacy. Supporting someone

Thank them for disclosing to you and assure them you will keep it in the strictest of confidence. Convey empathy and validation with your words, tone and body language.

Put your own emotional reactions, such as upset or anger, to one side. The person needs you to hold steady for them. Listen and don’t ask for details, as it could come across as nosiness. Respect their pace and boundaries.

Try not to jump in and take control. Be mindful that physical contact may cause discomfort, so check first.

Watch the language that you use and don’t minimise what happened. Let them know that you will be there for them throughout the process and offer to accompany them to wherever they need to go. Educate yourself on sexual violence and the supports that are available. Content By Niamh. Niamh Delmar is a Chartered Registered Counselling Psychologist and provides Psychological Support Workshops to work environments. If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can contact Dignity4Patients, whose helpline is open Monday to Thursday 10am to 4pm.



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