Resources for friends & family

Thoughts and feelings the person you care about may be experiencing

The feelings and thoughts that people experience after being raped or sexually assault can be varied and complicated, and can change over time. Some of them are listed below to help you think about what might be going on for the person you care about in the days, weeks and months after this experience.

  • Numbness
  • Confusion
  • Guilt
  • Shame
  • Fear of rejection by partner/family
  • Terror
  • Hurt
  • Anger/rage
  • Grief
  • Disgust
  • Self-blame

These difficult and complicated feelings affect the way that a person behaves after they have been raped or sexually assaulted. Below are some things that you might see happening with suggestions about how you can support the person you care about.

Sleep problems

Difficulty sleeping is normal after a traumatic experience. However sleep is when the brain organises and stores our experiences and without this difficult memories can become trapped resulting in feelings of anxiety, frequent intrusive memories and difficulty living in a way that feels meaningful.

Encourage them to exercise. This might mean a gentle walk or an aerobics class, whatever is most normal for that person. Regular times for waking, eating and going to bed can also help with sleep. Respect their space and choices but small gestures of support that make these activities and routines easier may be helpful. These might include doing the food shopping or preparing healthy meals that you know they will enjoy, running a warm bath towards bedtime or preparing a hot drink that can help with sleep such as hot chocolate or chamomile tea. Lavender oil in a bath or on a pillow can help with relaxation in preparation for sleep.

Intrusive memories and nightmares

People who experience trauma often feel that they have lost control over themselves and their world. One way that they experience this is through unwanted thoughts about the assault or the perpetrator while awake or in the form of nightmares. This can affect their concentration and sleep making it difficult for them to work, study or relax.

If you become aware that they are struggling with intrusive memories or witness them waking from a nightmare, help them to remember where they are in that moment. Let them know that you are there with them and that they are safe. Encourage them to take slow, deep breaths because this will help them to feel in control.

Unwanted thoughts and nightmares may become less frequent over time. However, for some people they continue and can become worse. Talking about their experiences and finding ways to re-establish a sense of control can help. They may find it easier to talk about these things with someone who is not a family member or friend. It can also be very difficult to hear about and cope with the details of such traumatic events without specialist training. You could give them our website details or one of our leaflets.

Flashbacks

A flashback is an extremely vivid memory where it feels as if the rape or sexual assault is happening all over again. You may see the person you care about behaving as if something is happening to them and this can be frightening for you as well as for them.

Try to call them back to the present. Tell them where they are, that you are with them and that they are safe now. Ask them simple questions about who they are and where they live, encourage them to count or describe something in front of them.

Encourage them to seek help from a specialist sexual abuse support service, especially if the flashbacks continue for more than a month.

Anxiety, depression and low mood

Exercise and routine can help with low mood and feelings of anxiety. Suggest going out for a walk together or remind them about an exercise class or activity that they previously enjoyed. Encourage them to get up in the morning, to do something that will give them a sense of achievement, and to have a regular bedtime. Time spent with loved ones or doing ‘normal’ things can help them to re-establish their sense of connection with other people and a feeling that their life has meaning and value.

Be prepared for your suggestions and gestures to be rejected and respect their need for space. You cannot take away what has happened to them or force them to feel better but you can let them know that you are there for them.

Withdrawal from relationships

The complicated mixture of feelings that someone can have after being sexually assaulted or raped can mean that they find relationships difficult. This might include close relationships with friends and family and more casual contact with colleagues or acquaintances. Feelings of shame, guilt or self-disgust may be part of the reason for these difficulties but it is also likely that the person you care about feels that it is very difficult to trust anyone.

Let them know that you care but that you respect their need for space. Actions may be more important than words in the beginning. They may ignore you or express anger towards you. Be willing to acknowledge the strength of their feelings and take time to look after yourself especially if you are a partner; the journey may be slow and painful.

Avoidance of situations

After someone experiences trauma, it is normal for them to feel that they want to avoid places that remind them of what happened or to feel that they cannot face social situations. While rest and privacy may be helpful for a week or two, avoidance can make it difficult for them to begin to recover and, over time, may make things worse.

If you notice that the person you care about is avoiding particular situations, ask them about it but respect their space if they do not want to talk. If it continues for a long time encourage them to seek help. This is especially important if they are becoming very isolated, if their job is at risk or if they stop leaving the house.

Angry outbursts

These are very normal and can be a healthy response to being sexually assaulted or raped. Acknowledge their anger and allow them to talk about it. Exercise can be a helpful outlet for anger, especially if it takes the form of aggression.

Thoughts and feelings you may have

It is not easy supporting someone who has been affected by rape or sexual assault, so you may need to take some time for yourself regularly, to think about how you are doing and how you are coping. You may also have lots of feelings and emotions about the situation. Below are some things you may experience, with some suggestions on how you can help manage these feelings.

Anger towards the perpetrator

It is natural to feel angry towards the person who did this and you may find that you focus on the need for them to be punished. You might have thoughts about hurting them physically or you might feel determined to ensure there is a successful police investigation and prosecution.

Remember that this is your anger. Your friend or family member was denied choice and power over themselves when they were sexually assaulted or raped. Help them to recover this by listening carefully and supporting them in their choices. It is important that decisions about reporting to the police are theirs and that they feel free to change their mind at any time. It will also be unhelpful to them if they are worried that you will take justice into your own hands through physical violence – the last thing they need is to feel responsible for your wellbeing.

We can offer you counselling to help you understand and cope with your feelings. Other things that may help are exercise, writing a journal or talking to someone else that you trust.

Anger towards your loved one

It is possible that you feel angry because of the circumstances in which your loved one was raped or sexually assaulted. You may feel that they made unwise decisions that resulted in them being in a risky place or with a dangerous person.

Acknowledge these feelings and then find a way to resolve them. As a society we find it hard to accept that rape and sexual assault really happen and perpetrators often appear very charming. Responsibility for rape and sexual assault lies with the man or woman who forced sexual acts on someone who did not want them.

We can offer you counselling to help you understand and cope with your feelings. Other things that may help are exercise, writing a journal or talking to someone else that you trust.

Feeling helpless and awkward

It is likely that you will want to help the person you care about but you may find it uncomfortable to think or talk about sexual violence. You may feel worried about saying or doing the wrong thing.

Tell them that you are there to listen and that you will support them. Give them space and do not pressure them to talk about what has happened to them or to report it. They may find it difficult to trust anyone and knowing that you are there for them when they choose to turn to you will help them to rebuild their capacity for trust. If you are a partner, sexual intimacy may be especially difficult for both of you. Give yourselves time. Be patient, kind and gentle. Allow emotional trust to return between you first.

We can offer you counselling to help you understand and cope with your feelings. At some point it may help to seek specialist sex and relationship counselling, but be careful about suggesting this too soon and ensure that your loved one does not feel that you are being sexually demanding or blaming them for difficulties in your relationship.

Guilt

It is very normal to feel guilty that you did not protect the person you care about, particularly if you are their parent or partner. Your guilt may be based on things that you did or did not say or do and it is important to recognise, and work with those thoughts and feelings. However, remember that the person who is responsible for your loved one’s suffering is the man or woman who forced sexual acts on them without their consent.

We can offer you counselling to help you understand and cope with your feelings. Other things that may help are exercise, writing a journal or talking to someone else that you trust.