What is Rape Trauma Syndrome (RTS)?

March 26, 2021

Traumatic life experiences can cause deep emotional, psychological, and possible physical damage to an individual. Although types of traumatic experiences and severity of reaction can vary among different people, most individuals will undergo a similar set of responses.

Although everyone’s circumstances are unique, survivors of sexual assault will often feel the effects of Rape Trauma Syndrome, or RTS. Rape Trauma Syndrome is a stress-related disorder that often occurs in individuals who have been affected by rape, sexual assault, or abuse.

Self-reported incidence of rape doubled from 2017 to 2018. It is estimated that over 730,000 people were raped (threatened, attempted, or completed) in 2018.

RTS describes symptoms of trauma including disruptions to normal physical, cognitive, interpersonal, and emotional behavior. Although it shares many similarities to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), it is more specific to circumstances surrounding sexual assault.

*Content warning: this article contains information regarding sexual violence and self-harm.

Symptoms of Rape Trauma Syndrome

Because of its relation to PTSD, those with RTS are likely to experience similar symptoms

These may include:

  • Recurrent, distressing memories: Survivors of rape may experience recurrent nightmares related to sexual violence. They may also experience flashbacks or have persistent, intrusive thoughts related to their assault.
  • Avoidance behaviors: Survivors of sexual assault may repress memories of their rape or avoid discussing the traumatic event. They may also have a desire to avoid areas or situations that remind them of their rape. Survivors may also experience social withdrawal and isolation.
  • Changes in physical and emotional reactions: Individuals with RTS may become easily frightened, startled, or upset at seemingly mild stimuli. They may be hypervigilant when in public settings, have difficulty concentrating, or have trouble sleeping.
  • Depressive symptoms: Individuals may experience hopelessness about the future, negative thoughts about themselves, or detachment from family and friends. Survivors may also experience suicidal thoughts or engage in self-harming behaviors.
  • Substance misuse: Sometimes, survivors may turn to drugs or alcohol as coping mechanisms to help forget or dilute the memory of their assault.

Stages of RTS

Each sexual assault survivor will go through a coping process at their own speed and intensity. However, there are a few phases in which people with RTS will often undergo. 

Acute Stage

The acute stage of RTS can begin hours, days, or weeks following a traumatic experience with sexual violence. Generally, it lasts for a few days or weeks. Survivors will normally start to experience symptoms at the acute stage once the initial shock of an assault has worn off.

Emotional reactions are commonly manifested in two ways.

  1. Controlled: The survivor appears to be calm and rational about the situation. They may seem unbothered, possibly joking or trying to make light of the event.
  1. Expressive: The survivor deploys obvious outward expression of shock and dismay. This can include crying, shaking, tenseness, restlessness, and panic attacks.

The time immediately following a sexual assault may also cause practical stressors on an individual. These may include:

  • Informing family and friends
  • Uncertainty and fear surrounding pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections
  • Fear of retaliation by an assailant
  • Physical examinations and discussions surrounding legal action
  • Concerns about the event becoming public

The first few weeks after an assault are often the most stressful. Survivors may feel a great deal of self-blame and guilt, often feeling shameful and responsible. On the other hand, some individuals may express anger and hostility towards the assailant.

Some survivors may also experience trauma bonding in which they feel an emotional connection to their abuser. This often occurs after prolonged periods of abuse rather than just one single instance. Individuals with a trauma bond may try to offer excuses for their abusers harmful behavior or become defensive when others try to stop the abuse from continuing.

Outward Adjustment

Following the acute phase, a survivor of sexual violence may outwardly appear to have “moved on” from the traumatic event. While they may appear fine, this stage is typically marked by an immense amount of inner stress, anxiety, and denial.

During this phase, it is likely that an individual will use coping mechanisms to try to diminish feelings of anxiety surrounding the event. This might include minimization, where the survivor acts as though the assault was not a big deal. Some may also suppress the event, refusing to discuss the violent act.

On the other hand, some individuals may become overwhelmed by their rape, talking about the assault very often. This may be a way for a person to try to justify the situation to themselves.

During this stage, a survivor may begin to make practical decisions surrounding where they live, who they consider to be friends, and activities they choose to continue or discontinue. 

In an attempt to regain control of their lives, some individuals may turn towards alterations in physical appearance, self-harm, drug or alcohol misuse, or disordered eating. However, some coping mechanisms may be adaptive, such as relying on the support of family and friends or increased self-care.

Reorganization Stage

The reorganization stage usually only occurs when a survivor has experienced a life transition that has taken them out of the outward adjustment phase. Factors that influence this may include the degree of support from loved ones, personal strength of the survivor, treatment by a professional following the assault, involvement in the justice system, and more.

The survivors must resolve feelings about themselves, the assailant, and the gender of the assailant. Survivors often want to talk about their experience at this stage to try to gauge control and achieve mental clarity.

Often, survivors will feel a return to internal and external turmoil at this stage. This can be confusing for friends and family. Typically, survivors will start to encounter specific phobias that are related to their assailant or circumstances of the attack. 

This may include:

  • Fear of being left alone
  • General fear of the gender of the assailant
  • Fear of being touched
  • General feelings of paranoia when around strangers
  • Specific fears related to the event or the abuser, such as brown hair, the smell of candles, types of clothing, etc.

Renormalization Stage

Typically after treatment, support systems, or time, individuals may enter the renormalization phase. Survivors are able to process their experience and integrate it into their normal lives.

The assault no longer becomes a central focus and individuals may recognize and address maladaptive behaviors that have occurred as a result. 

While they may still feel sadness or weariness when looking back at the event, the sensations are not as disruptive or overwhelming as they once were.

Recovery from RTS

Recovering from sexual violence can be a long, stressful, and difficult process. It is important to be patient with yourself, understanding that there is no universal plan that works for everyone. However, there are a few things you can do to help yourself heal.

Maintain a Social Circle

It is important to surround yourself with people who will be able to offer comfort without blaming you or controlling your recovery process. While no one will be able to fully understand your specific circumstance, keep in touch with people who are willing to offer you close emotional support.

Not everyone will be able to give you the same amount of help as others. You might be able to ask certain people for more practical help, such as assistance with schoolwork or running errands.

Try a Support Group

Your circumstance is completely distinct to you, but it can be helpful speaking with individuals who have experienced similar traumatic events. Support groups can help break down the isolation and shame that many survivors feel, as it helps prove that you are not alone in your feelings.

It may also be therapeutic assisting others who are at different stages in the healing process. This can allow survivors to feel that their situation can be used as a tool for helping people cope with their own personal traumas. It can give survivors a feeling of agency and control.

Consider Professional Assistance

Individual therapy from a mental health professional can be essential for coping with sexual abuse and other traumatic events. Not only will a personalized treatment plan help to accelerate the recovery process, but it can be useful for a medical professional to monitor progress and assess possible maladaptive behaviors before they become self-destructive.

In Summary

Rape Trauma Syndrome refers to the symptoms of trauma including disruptions to normal physical, cognitive, interpersonal, and emotional behavior following an instance of rape, sexual assault, or abuse. These symptoms are similar to those seen in PTSD, including persistent, distressing memories, avoidance behaviors, depressive symptoms, changes to reactions, and possibly substance misuse.

Those with RTS experience their symptoms in stages. These stages are referred to as the Acute Phase, Outward Adjustment, Reorganization Phase, and Renormalization Phase. Some individuals may experience more intense symptoms or completely skip over some of these phases.

When recovering from a rape or assault, it is important to keep in touch with supportive friends and family as well as consider joining a support group. It’s also a good idea to seek professional help.

The most important thing to remember is that you are not alone. YANA is a virtual mental health clinic that matches you with a doctor who will tailor a treatment plan based on your experiences. They can even send prescribed medications directly to your door if you and your doctor feel it will benefit you.

Recovering from a traumatic event can be hard, but YANA is here to help every step of the way. Get the assistance you need at any time, from anywhere.

Sources:

Rape Trauma Syndrome — Washington University

Rape Trauma Syndrome — Fairleigh Dickenson University

Coping With the Aftermath of Rape — Winchester Hospital