Have I Been Sexually Abused?
Survivors of sexual abuse can be both male and female. Some survivors are well aware of the trauma they experienced in childhood. They are troubled by memories of abuse, and they continue to live with the pain, confusion and feelings of loneliness they experienced as a child. They may be plagued by nightmares and flashbacks.
Other survivors may not remember that they have been abused, or they may only remember some experiences of abuse. They may not be aware that what they experienced was abuse. It is very common for survivors to deny that an experience was abusive, or to minimise the seriousness of the abuse with 'it only happened once' or 'it wasn't so bad'. This is a way that can help them to cope as they may believe the implications of disclosing the abuse will be catastrophic.
Many survivors live with symptoms of abuse, such as panic attacks, strange body sensations, inexplicable fears, or aches and pains that they are unable to explain. Their body remembers what happens to them, and they relive the emotions and feelings associated with abuse over and over again - but many survivors don't connect these symptoms to their childhood abuse.
Impacts Of Abuse
A history of child abuse can impact on an adult's quality of life in fundamental ways. It can make basic day-to-day activities, such as eating, sleeping, working and study, very difficult. Childhood sexual abuse can also affect your mental health, physical health, and your relationships with the people around you.
Impact on Feelings
Survivors are often out of touch with their feelings - confused by emotions or reactions they cannot explain. They have often not learnt how to express their feelings appropriately. They may have learned to attribute the negative emotions associated with abuse, such as shame and anger, towards themselves, rather than towards their abusers.
This confusion often persists into adult life, resulting in heightened experiences of:
- Grief and sadness
- Shame, self blame and guilt
- Helplessness, hopelessness and powerlessness
Like everyone, survivors have a right to enjoy life, but often survivors can live with chronic distress and pain. For many survivors, these emotions are such a basic part of their day-to-day life that they don’t realise that there are any alternatives. They may try to control their feelings through alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, or other compulsive behaviours. Many survivors can harm themselves as a coping mechanism.
Understanding about emotions/feelings – what they are, where they come from, and how to respond to them – is a crucial part of healing. Survivors can learn new, effective ways of acknowledging their feelings, so that they don’t need to use negative coping strategies to express their emotions. For many survivors, learning about the psychological impacts of abuse helps to clarify why they have struggled for so long, and how to move forward. Acknowledging these feelings, understanding where they come from and why they are so intense is an important part of any survivor’s journey.
Impact On Relationships
Survivors often find it difficult to trust. This is normal as when they were children they might have been betrayed by the very adults who were meant to nurture and protect them. As a result, survivors often find it difficult to form and sustain relationships. When children are abused they come to believe the messages their abusers deliver, such as: 'You are worthless' and 'You have no value'. Of course, these messages are not true, but children naturally accept the messages that adults pass on. These messages become internalised so that, when a child who has been abused grows up, the adult survivor will often experience feelings of low self-worth or poor self-confidence. Rebuilding self-esteem is a gradual process, but a crucial one.
Impact on Health
Impact on physical health. Childhood abuse doesn’t just affect the mind - it affects the body too. Children who feel perpetually in danger grow up with a heightened stress response. This in turn can heighten their emotions, make it difficult to sleep, lowers immune function, and, over time, increases the risk of a number of physical illnesses. Adult survivors of child abuse can be at increased risk of chronic pain and fibromyalgia, gynaecological problems, irritable bowel syndrome, diabetes, arthritis, headaches, cardiovascular disease, and chronic fatigue syndrome.