Experiencing any form of sexualized violence, including sexual abuse and sexual assault (whether violent or not) can be traumatic and cause very uncomfortable reactions and responses. Sexual trauma can have a very powerful impact on a person’s brain, body, emotions, behaviour and attitude.

Normal and common responses a person may experience after a sexual traumatic event include:

  • Problems with thinking and concentration such as confusion, not being able to make a decision, unwanted memories and memory loss.
  • Emotional responses such as shock, fear, nervousness and anxiety (“feeling like something bad is going to happen”), feeling overwhelmed or lost, feeling numb or not sure how you feel, feeling “dirty”, intense sadness, feelings of shame, self-blame and guilt (like you have done something wrong), fear of harm to self or others, feeling alone and like no one can relate to what you are going through, re-experiencing the event over and over, experience thoughts of suicide.
  • Physical responses such as nausea or feeling “sick to your stomach”, feeling lightheaded or dizzy, increased heart rate or racing heart, shakiness, jumpy or easily startled, headaches, feeling tired, and grinding teeth.
  • Behavioural responses such as irritability (“moody”), wanting to be alone and withdrawing from friends and family, sleeping more or sleeping less, eating more or eating less, increased alcohol and/or drug use, not wanting to be touched in any way, and changes in sexual behaviour.

So what is the connection between sexual trauma and addiction?  – let’s take a look.

From the list above you can see that sexual trauma can have a powerful impact on a person and how they think, feel and act. Many of the normal responses to sexual trauma can be very uncomfortable and make a person feel terrible or “abnormal”. It is “normal” to feel “abnormal” after a traumatic event. In order to feel “normal” or “better” a person may seek out ways to reduce the discomfort they are experiencing. Some people will try to self-medicate with substances such as alcohol, and/or prescription and “street” drugs. Getting a “buzz” can provide a sense of relief or escape from the uncomfortable feelings and help a person feel “normal” or better. Who wouldn’t want relief from intense negative feelings like fear, shame, guilt, and feeling “dirty”. Unfortunately the relief a person experiences is temporary and does not last long unless you keep doing it. This is how a person can develop a dependency or addiction to alcohol and/or drugs.

It is “normal” to feel “abnormal” after a traumatic event.

Simply put, when a person is feeling “bad” they want to feel better and they seem to feel better or to cope when they use alcohol or drugs. The downside of self-medicating with alcohol or drugs to cope with uncomfortable feelings is a person can develop an emotional and physical dependency where they “need” it more and more. A person who uses alcohol and/or drugs to cope can find themselves in a cycle where they use alcohol or drugs to feel better, and then when the effects wear off they feel worse and then they have to use again to cope with feeling worse. This can become a very dangerous downward spiral where a person develops a dependency and need to have alcohol and/or drugs regularly to feel “normal”. Now a person is not only dealing with the impact of trauma but also the effects of dependency and addiction. There is support, resources and help available to anyone who has experienced the trauma of sexualized violence.

“Trauma creates change you don’t choose. Healing is about creating a change you do choose.” – (Michelle Rosenthall). “Life is very interesting… in the end, some of your greatest pains become your greatest strengths.”- (Drew Barrymore)

If you have experienced sexualized violence, sexual abuse or sexual assault please know it was not your fault, you are not alone and there are non-judgemental people out there who sincerely want to help and support you. You do not have to carry this alone. Talk with someone you trust and feel safe with about what you are going through and dealing with. For more information on sexualized violence please visit our website at colchestersac.ca.

Courage, strength & hope.

Written by Margaret Mauger
Executive Director and Counselling Therapist
Colchester Sexual Assault Centre