Healing Sexual Trauma is Possible

The difficult reality of sexual abuse and its traumatic consequences recently returned to the front of public awareness. It’s at times like these that education regarding the impact of sexual abuse can be the difference in the beginning of the path toward healing.

It’s important to remember that talking about sexual abuse is difficult. Human sexuality is a great gift, giving us the capacity — because we have bodies — to experience the world, express ourselves and eventually, our love, through which we become a gift to others. A violation of human sexuality can have a huge impact on the psyche and relationships to others, the world and most importantly one’s sense of self. When something so innate, existential and sacred to the person has been violated, confusion, self-blame and withdrawal are often the result. It can be daunting enough to share with someone about private matters and much more so when it comes to sexuality.

When asked which age group suffers most from sexual abuse, Benjamin Keyes, Ph.D., Ed.D., the Director of the Center for Trauma and Resiliency Studies at Divine Mercy University (DMU), said “the highest percentage of sexual abuse happens in early childhood and is most often perpetrated by someone that the child knows, such as a parent, step-parent, relative or neighbor.”

This is common knowledge among mental health professionals, who understand that abuse in the early years can result in serious psychological disruptions, including personality changes, behavioral problems and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms. Such betrayal by a trusted adult can also, in some cases, manifest as dissociation — a sort of “trip wire” in the human brain — where one’s sense of connection with the event or self becomes separated from reality.

Consequences for adult victims can be just as strong. Hypervigilance, a continual and sometimes subconscious monitoring of one’s surroundings to try and ensure personal safety, is very common, as are symptoms of anxiety, depression, relational difficulties and PTSD. While people of more vulnerable demographics are at a higher risk of suffering such an assault, sexual abuse has shown that it doesn’t discriminate, being seen in all demographics.

“It’s smattering across all ages and all socioeconomic groups, all situations, professionals, non-professionals, but it’s unfortunately an epidemic all over the world,” said Dr. Keyes.

Faced with facts like these, it may seem that something as pervasive and delicate as sexual abuse is impossible to counteract. Thankfully, that isn’t the reality.

Since the late 1980’s, the field of psychology has made incredible advances in understanding trauma, PTSD and the phenomenon of dissociation. Various therapeutic interventions exist to help restore the sense of integrity and safety that is damaged by sexual abuse. Greater skill and understanding have helped talk therapy guide someone through the healing process. Interventions such as Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), biofeedback and emotion regulation skills have developed to assist one to heal the traumatic memories and learn coping skills to navigate daily functioning.

There is hope. There is a way to heal and restore dignity and peace after the experience of sexual abuse. The recovery process often requires significant work and time.   

“It usually takes a fairly long time, unless we get them as children,” said Dr. Keyes. “If we get them as children actually, the healing process usually takes on average 9 months to a year and half … if they are adults, it ranges anywhere from 2-10 years, on average.”

The other important factor to keep in mind is that, while healing needs to happen primarily through therapy with a qualified professional, those who love and support victims of abuse are not helpless in the process. There are steps you can take to help, to prevent and even intervene when necessary.

One easy action is to know who in your area is qualified to help those have suffered sexual abuse or know where to find them. The American Counseling Association and the American Psychological Association have referral links on their websites to find a professional in your area, and the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation has a very good search tool listing counselors that are members of their society worldwide.

Informing yourself of the local resources available can be a good way to connect to local organizations, such as Catholic Charities, who can assist with referrals and recommendations. It is very important to know when and to whom to refer someone so those that are suffering can receive the help needed as soon as possible. You can also request that a professional come and educate your local community, whether that be your church, school or organization, about how to identify potential problems and what to do with them.

Divine Mercy University hosts training and educational workshops offered by the Center for Trauma and Resiliency Studies (CTRS). These workshops are open to the public either onsite at DMU’s campus or online via video conferencing. The next workshop offered by the CTRS is a two-day training applying the HEART Model to sexual trauma and human trafficking. (The HEART Model is Healing Emotional/Affective Responses to Trauma.) While this workshop alone does not qualify anyone to directly treat those suffering sexual trauma, it can be a beneficial training for teachers, police officers, firefighters, nurses, laity, child workers, youth workers. 

But with all these different ways of how we look at, understand, address and treat sexual trauma, there is one main thing that Dr. Keyes wished all people could understand.

“Regardless of the level of hurt and the level of dysfunction, the level of trauma,” he said, “ you can get well and you can heal. That’s true for people that are fragmented in their psyche such as Dissociative Identity Disorder clients. It’s true for PTSD clients, true for all of us, that healing is possible; healing is possible. And if you are a clinician or minister or whatever, remember that one person can make a huge difference. It may be in your town or in your practice, but, the ripple effect of one person getting well is huge. It goes out to children and family members and friends and other situations. We all have a huge responsibility to be effective with those that we work with.”

As a university committed to the study of psychology and the whole understanding  of the person, all degree programs at Divine Mercy University are imbued with the idea that humans are a gift, designed not only to live well, but to flourish. DMU seeks to educate  its students to see the human person in all dimensions of life  – the spiritual, psychological, emotional and biological — in order to treat people on all levels and guide them to personal flourishing and fulfillment. If you would like to take the steps to guide others in their healing process, please go to our website and look into our M.S. in Counseling and Psychology programs.