Effects of Child Sexual Abuse
As a survivor of child sexual abuse, you know that what you experienced was scary, confusing, hurtful, traumatic even, but do you realize that the abuse itself was actually trauma? Any sort of trauma can have long-term impacts. This is especially the case when a trauma is experienced in childhood or adolescence and/or is sustained repeatedly—as is often the case with sexual abuse. Survivors of child sexual abuse may experience effects of their trauma well into adulthood. Often times, because of the nature of this particular type of trauma and the stigma that unfortunately accompanies it, survivors are reluctant to share this information with medical professionals, friends and family, and other contacts, which means they are more likely to suffer in silence.
Sadly, some survivors will go their entire lives without disclosing the abuse to anyone and may never totally understand why their brains and bodies function and respond in the ways that they do. Other survivors will seek treatment after treatment and feel like nothing works for them, not realizing that, in many instances, the root of the problem is inextricably connected to the trauma they experienced. They may also be unaware that certain symptoms they experience in adulthood are coping mechanisms that their brain and body learned in the past in an attempt to protect them during the abuse. And while years or even decades have passed since the abuse ended, a survivor’s brain and body may still be using these same coping mechanisms to keep them safe.
What Are Common Long-Term Effects of Child Sexual Abuse?
Just as no two people are the same, there is no list of long-term impacts that every survivor of child sexual abuse experiences. The nature of the abuse, the relationship to the abuser(s), the age, even the personality and genetics of the survivor can have a great impact on the survivor’s trauma response. However, there are two long-term effects of child sexual abuse that are very common across the experiences of survivors:
Trauma and Its Effect on the Brain and Body
Think about the way you feel when you wake up in the middle of the night to an unfamiliar noise. Your heart begins to beat harder and your senses strain to focus on anything out of the ordinary. Or remember how it feels to get a text or email from a boss or coworker who is difficult to get along with; you may experience dread or anxiety as you recall the previous interactions that make you want to avoid this person altogether. You know the feeling you experience when you almost get in a car accident with another car? Your muscles may tense up and your hands shake, even though you are safe. All of these situations are great examples of your brain’s automatic response to danger, to situations that are potentially traumatic.
As a survivor of child sexual abuse, your brain is well-trained to take specific actions to keep you safe from situations or people that remind you of the abuse you experienced. And while some of those actions may have served you well in your childhood, they can be troubling and disruptive in situations where there is no immediate danger. In fact, you may feel like you are in a never-ending loop of trying to predict or prevent the next crisis. For instance, as an adolescent, you may have spent long hours during the day sleeping in order to manage the harsh reality of your abuse. As an adult, however, this coping mechanism may lead to more difficulties than relief, including missed opportunities, short-lived jobs, and strained relationships. You may be experiencing a range of symptoms without realizing that those symptoms are connected to the childhood trauma you endured.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way. Whether you have been diagnosed* with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or you experience symptoms like triggers, sleep issues, or using drugs or alcohol to cope, we believe you can benefit from learning more about trauma and its impact on the brain and body. As you do so, you will begin to notice more of your own automatic responses and the things in your everyday life that lead to those responses. Gradually, you can work to improve the communication between the parts of the brain that help keep you safe (limbic system) and the parts that help you analyze situations and solve problems (frontal lobe).
As a survivor of child sexual abuse, you may experience varying levels of shame that can impact your perception of yourself, of others, and of the situations you experience. Shame can also influence you to default to coping behaviors that are not conducive to your long-term healing and well-being. You may feel as though you are a “lost cause,” “broken,” or “unworthy of love and happiness.” These overwhelming feelings may be a reflection of the shame that colors the way you see the world, your potential, and especially yourself. Shame is a barrier to healing, so we invite you to learn more about shame and ways you can work to manage it.
Are the Effects of Child Sexual Abuse Permanent?
As much as we would love to offer a quick fix to challenges and struggles you face, we recognize that healing from such a trauma requires work, practice, and support. So, while we can’t offer a quick fix, we can provide some great resources to help you better understand your brain, reconnect with your body, find support, and implement strategies for managing symptoms. The brain is amazingly able to change and adapt (often referred to as neuroplasticity), and at Saprea, we’re dedicating our time and resources to finding solutions to help you begin your healing journey.
Learn More About Our Services for Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse
In addition to our online resources, you may be interested to learn more about all of the services Saprea has to offer, including our retreats and support groups. Saprea exists to create safe spaces for survivors to learn and grow; it is an honor to be a part of your healing journey.
*The information on this site is in no way meant to provide or infer diagnosis. For mental or physical health diagnostics, please work with your team of health professionals.