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What is Rape Trauma Syndrome?

Many of you will have heard of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which is a normal emotional and psychological reaction to trauma such as war, natural disaster, accidents or rape, shocking experiences that are outside a person's normal experiences.

Symptoms of PTSD include recurrent memories of flashbacks of the trauma, nightmares, insomnia and/or lack of interest in family, friends or hobbies etc.

Rape Trauma Syndrome

Rape victims can suffer a significant degree of physical and emotional trauma during the rape, immediately following the rape and over a considerable time period after the rape.  A study of rape victims had identified a three stage process, or syndrome, that occurs as a result of rape or attempted rape.  This syndrome is an acute stress reaction to a life threatening situation that can last two years but in some extreme cases lasts a lifetime.  This is called Rape Trauma Syndrome or Rape Related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  

The stages in this syndrome are not linear and vary in the same way that the stages of mourning vary depending on the individual and their circumstances. 

The Acute Stage

This stage occurs immediately after the assault.  It may last a few days or several weeks.  The survivor feels violated, fearful and may be depressed, even suicidal.  The victim struggles with feelings of loss of control and there will be changes to her appetite, sleep habits or social function.

During this stage the victim may: -

  • seem agitated or hysterical or she may seem totally calm
  • suffer from anxiety attacks and be unable to stop crying
  • have difficulty concentrating, making decisions, and doing simple everyday tasks
  • show little emotion, act as though they are numb
  • have poor recall of the rape or other memories

The Outward Adjustment Stage

In this stage it seems that the victims begins to resolve their issues but in reality denial frequently masks underlying problems as survivors make an effort to re-establish the routines of their lives and bring back some semblance of control.  Victims often make dramatic changes to their lifestyle or environment, they may quit a long-standing job, move to a new location or dramatically change their appearance.

During this stage the victim resumes what appears to be normal life, however, there is considerable turmoil which may manifest itself by any of the following behaviours: -
  • continuing anxiety
  • sense of helplessness
  • persistent fear and/or depression
  • severe mood swings
  • recurrent nightmares, insomnia
  • physical ailments
  • appetite disturbances
  • efforts to deny the assault and/or to minimize its impact
  • withdrawal from friends and family
  • preoccupation with personal safety
  • reluctance to leave the house
  • distrustful of existing relationships or reluctance to form new relationships
  • sexual problems
  • disruption to normal everyday routines 

At this stage the victim no longer denies the issues and is more prepared to talk about what happened to her.  She will be more willing to get support and to get in touch with feelings and emotions associated with the rape. Survivors often feel overwhelmed as they attempt to come to terms with feeling they have suppressed since the assault. Often sensory stimulations trigger memories that call to mind the sexual assault.  Suddenly it can seem that the survivor is re-living the trauma as the rape comes to life again.   

The Resolution Stage

During this stage the rape is no longer the central focus in the victim's life.  She begins to recognize that while she will never forget the assault, the pain and memories associated with it are lessening.  She has accepted that the rape is part of her life experience and is choosing to move on from there.  Some of the behaviors of the second stage may flare up at times but they do so less frequently and with less intensity.  The woman who has survived has moved from being a "victim" to a "survivor".