Understanding Symptoms of Sexual Abuse

By John Drescher-Lehman, LCSW

There are many reasons why sexual abuse survivors do not come forward, especially in their church communities. Many have noted that when they have shared their experience with their church, they are met by ignorance leading to a poor handling of the situation and a lack of support for them. The reality of sexual abuse is something most of us do our best not to think about, including many of the victims of sexual abuse; at times, especially the victims. There are many responses to being the victim of sexual abuse that may seem abnormal, are difficult to understand, or even frighten those who are unaware that they are normal responses/ symptoms of sexual abuse. Here we will discuss some of those things.

When someone is the victim of sexual abuse, they are not able to do anything to stop the abuse.  Therefore, sometimes the best way to deal with it is to try not to notice it is happening, or not to remember that it has happened.  We have many psychological defenses that help us deny, avoid, and reinterpret what has happened to us, especially when what happened was overwhelming and traumatic.  Often this is the best line of defense for a child who is being sexually abused, when no one except the abuser knows what is happening.

God has created our minds to be able to block out overwhelming information or pain that we aren’t prepared to deal with.  This helps us survive and go on living, yet the trauma and its impact do not go away. It is fairly common for adults to carry traumatic experiences out of their childhood, even without memory of the abuse.  Sometimes later in life, these memories can be triggered by life events, like having your own children, or having another traumatic experience that brings up the trauma from years ago; even something as simple as a smell can trigger memories.  Symptoms can then manifest themselves in the person in what to others may look like an over-reaction or hyperarousal of the nervous system, or an under-reaction or hypo arousal of the nervous system.

When a person is in the hyperarousal state, they can appear very anxious and vigilant, even in non-threatening situations. This is the state of increased stress we often refer to as fight or flight.  They may not be able to trust those they are the closest to, especially if their abuse was perpetrated by someone familiar to them.  According to a 2003 National Institute of Justice report, 3 out of 4 adolescents who were sexually assaulted were victimized by someone they knew well.  In a hyperarousal state, a survivor may startle easily, become quickly irritated by small provocations, find it difficult to sleep, appear to be very defensive and angry, including  directing their anger at God.  They also can have thoughts of suicide and make suicide attempts as the constant anxiety and inability to rest becomes overwhelmingly painful and exhausting and death seems the only possible option remaining to have peace.

When a person is in the under reactive or hypo arousal state, they may appear calm and distant.  Inside they feel frozen, paralyzed and numb.  They often are detached from activities and relationships and can show symptoms of depression.  Sometimes during this state the use or abuse of alcohol and or drugs may also increase as the substance may provide some ability to feel alive and have the energy to be involved in life. Victims of sexual abuse also may partake in self-injuries behavior as reported by the National Center for PTSD reports, often as an attempt to feel something.

Some victims of sexual abuse will also have intrusive memories and body sensations of the abuse, sometimes through flashbacks and nightmares, where it feels like the trauma is happening in the present time.  It is also common at this stage for some individuals to take more risks, sometimes risks in the area of acting out sexually.  It is often an attempt to somehow confront the traumatic event, and hope this time they will not be harmed or overwhelmed by it. It can also be an attempt to normalize the abuse they once experienced. This is somewhat like a person going back through the intersection where they had a bad car accident months ago, as a way of not avoiding this route, and therefore not continuing to be affected by the accident.

When someone comes to you with memories of trauma it is important to simply listen. Next, acknowledge the trust they have placed in you with this painful story and ask them what would be helpful at that moment.  Providing resources available to survivors is important also, so that when the person is ready to engage in recovery, she or he will know how to proceed. Hearing about someone’s trauma is not something to be afraid of, especially if you are equipped with the tools needed to listen and offer support.

For a list of resources to assist you in understanding abuse and how to respond visit: http://franconiaconference.org/church-safety/.

For local support groups, search your local victim advocates office. In the Lansdale, PA area there is Survivors Safe Haven: a self-help group for survivors of sexual abuse that meets the 2nd Wednesday of every month at 6:30 pm in Lansdale. See the flier with contact information here.

The National Resources for Sexual Assault Survivors and their Loved Ones is full of helpful information and compiled by RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network).

John Drescher-Lehman, is a licensed clinical social worker, therapist,  and a member of Franconia Conference’s Addressing Abuse Taskforce.