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Understanding Triggers and Managing PTSD Symptoms After Sexual Abuse

Sexual abuse is a deeply personal crime that can completely upend your life. It is normal to suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a survivor of sexual abuse or assault. While it can be difficult to live with PTSD, there are steps you can take to manage your symptoms, improve your quality of life and feel more like yourself again. Remember: it is always okay to ask for help from professionals when you need it.

What Are PTSD Triggers?

Being a victim of sexual violence can lead to short-term or long-term post-traumatic stress disorder, which is characterized by sudden feelings of fear, anxiety or panic, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, trouble sleeping, difficulty concentrating, and irritability. A PTSD trigger is a stimulus that evokes unpleasant or distressing sensations associated with a traumatic event.

For a sexual abuse survivor, PTSD triggers may include:

  • Being in a setting or situation that is similar to where the incident took place.
  • Sensory triggers, such as tactile sensations, smells, tastes, sights or sounds.
  • Specific words or phrases that are reminders of the abuse.
  • Certain people, such as an individual who looks like the perpetrator.
  • Dates or anniversaries associated with the sexual abuse.
  • Environmental cues, such as activities, objects or circumstances.
  • Emotional states or internal sensations, such as certain thoughts or feelings.
  • Social interactions and relationships with others.

Triggers can unexpectedly make someone with PTSD feel unsafe, scared, anxious and out of control. A trigger can bring on a physical, mental and emotional reaction. As someone with PTSD from sexual trauma, it is important to learn and identify your triggers. This can help you avoid and cope with them.

How to Cope With Sexual Abuse PTSD Triggers

Triggers can vary widely from person to person. They can arise unexpectedly and may not be immediately unnoticeable in the moment. For these reasons, triggers can be difficult to always avoid. A better solution is to learn how to manage and cope with triggers if they occur. 

When triggered, there are techniques and strategies you can use to help manage a distressing reaction, such as:

  • Deep-breathing exercises 
  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Grounding techniques
  • Self-soothing actions
  • Peaceful visualizations
  • Progressive muscle relaxation

Trauma-focused therapy can be particularly helpful to sexual abuse survivors with lingering PTSD. This type of therapy can help you process the abuse and reduce distressing episodes of PTSD symptoms and triggers. It may involve cognitive-behavioral therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, and other types of therapies.

Safety Planning and Support

Safety planning is a concept that can help soothe PTSD symptoms by helping you feel more in control. It involves developing a plan that outlines steps you can take to ensure your well-being if triggered. These steps may include deep breathing, contacting someone for support, removing yourself from the triggering situation and seeking professional help if needed.

Solutions are available to deal with symptoms of PTSD after a sexual assault. You should always seek professional help as you embark on your healing journey. The help and support you receive from therapists, counselors, psychiatrists, doctors, support groups, and friends and family can be invaluable as you navigate this difficult time. You can learn how to protect your mental health and manage your symptoms to live the life you were meant to.