PTSD After Sexual Assault: Just How Common Is It?

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Studies have found that 31 percent to 57 percent of women who have experienced sexual assault or rape also experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some point after the assault.

PTSD After Sexual Assault or Rape

PTSD after sexual assault is common. Victims of sexual assault experience changes to their hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the system that controls our stress response.

These changes may be the underlying reason that sexual assault survivors may develop PTSD.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, if you develop PTSD after a sexual assault, your symptoms may include:

  • repeated thoughts of the assault
  • memories and nightmares
  • avoidance of thoughts, feelings, and situations related to the assault
  • negative changes in thoughts and feelings
  • increased arousal (e.g., difficulty sleeping and concentrating, jumpiness, or irritability)

In one study, almost all of the female participants who were raped experienced these symptoms during the two weeks after the assault. After nine months, about a third of the women still had these symptoms.

Rates of Sexual Assault and Rape

The term "sexual assault" refers to a range of behaviors that involve unwanted sexual contact, such as sexual molestation or rape. Unfortunately, sexual assault is quite common in our society.

Large surveys of the general population have found that anywhere between 13 percent to 34 percent of women will experience a sexual assault at some point in their life. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly one in five women and one in 71 men have reported ever being raped.

Rates of sexual assault are generally higher when you look at certain groups of people. For example, among patients at psychiatric hospitals, rates of sexual assault among women patients average around 38 percent. High rates of sexual assault are also found among college students.

Other Consequences of Sexual Assault

The experience of sexual assault is connected with a number of negative consequences in addition to PTSD. People who have experienced a sexual assault are more likely to develop depression, an anxiety disorder, suicidal thoughts, and alcohol and drug problems.

If you have experienced a sexual assault, it is important to take action right away. The United States Department of Health and Human Services provides information on sexual assault, as well as information on what to do if you have been sexually assaulted. It is not your fault. There is help available.

Sources:

Chivers-Wilson KA. Sexual assault and post-traumatic stress disorder: A review of the biological, psychological and sociological factors and treatmentsMcGill Journal of Medicine. 2006.

Elliott DM, Mok DS, Briere J. Adult sexual assault: Prevalence, symptomatology, and sex differences in the general populationJournal of Traumatic Stress. 2004;203-211.

Sexual Assault Against Females. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Updated 8/13/2015.

Sexual Violence Facts at a Glance. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2012.

Ullman SE, Brecklin LR. Sexual assault history and health-related outcomes in a national sample of women. Psychology of Women Quarterly. 2003;27, 46-57. 

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