Rape Trauma Response

RTS, or Rape Trauma Syndrome was first documented by Ann W. Burgess, DNSC and Linda Holmstrom, PhD in the 1970’s. It received attention from women who worked with survivors of rape and noticed a commonality to the healing process. RTS was included in the diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the 1980’s, and renamed to Rape Trauma Response in 2008. Changing the language from ‘syndrome’ to ‘response’ is important for survivors so there isn’t a stigmatization around how one responds to the trauma. The word ‘syndrome’ can make a survivor feel as if they have been diagnosed with a sickness or disease from the violence that has been afflicted on them.

It’s necessary to note that every survivor reacts differently to an assault. Some have emotions and struggles that others can visibly notice, while some can appear completely unresponsive. The range, especially in immediate crisis can be large.

Stages of RTR:

1) Pre-Assault/Discomfort Stage – This stage is a little tricky because it is NOT a universal stage for all survivors. It is an intuitive sense that something is about to happen. For example, sensing that someone doesn’t seem completely trustworthy. However, survivors often won’t act on these feelings, if they have them, for fear of offending someone.

2) Assault Stage – This stage is when the actual sexual assault is happening. Reactions of the survivor in the stage include:

Fright – includes rapid heartbeat & shock

Flight – dissociation. in other words, completely disconnecting from your body as to not ‘feel’ what’s happening; zoning out

Fight – trying to physically protect oneself

Freeze – a sense of paralysis

Focus – intense focus on a detail in the environment, such as a clock or other object

3) Acute Crisis Stage – this stage can last several days to weeks following the assault. reactions can include: shock, disbelief – “why me?”, fear; physical reactions like nausea, soreness, infection, headache, fatigue, sleep disturbances; and emotional reactions such as anxiety, self-blame, nightmares, anger, guilt, and shame

4) Outward Adjustment Stage - this stage may last days or weeks, and sometimes forever. this is the time where survivors are trying to go back to their everyday life before the assault and will attempt to suppress any negative emotions from the trauma. they can often refuse counseling during the phase.

5) Resolution Stage - if a survivor gets to this stage in their healing process, this is the time they may seek counseling to fully understand their feelings around the rape. entering this phase can be triggered when coping tactics in stage 4 are no longer working and/or there is a trigger related to the event, relationship difficulties, etc… this stage shifts the responsibility of the rape from internal (self) to external (assailant/culture). the trauma gradually loses its power over a survivor to hopefully result in empowerment.

Learning these stages really resonated with me because it was like reading my own experience. I was stuck in stage 4 for about 6 years before stage 5 felt necessary. I feel I’ll always continue to evolve in my healing process, but without seeking therapy, I would never have been able to start my journey and training in rape crisis work. Therapy has been and continues to be one of the best and most important things I’ve ever done.

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