Thank you for asking this question and we are sorry you are dealing with so much discomfort and confusion. Those are some really challenging feelings to work through, but you are not alone.
We want to start by saying that it is perfectly normal to feel discomfort and confusion after experiencing sexual violence. These feelings do not need to last forever, however, and will decrease over time.
Let's start by addressing why you may feel confusion. When you go through a traumatizing situation, it can be difficult to label what occurred. You might compare your experiences to the experiences you see on TV or read about online, causing you to question whether or not your experience “counts” as abuse. You also may struggle to remember what happened to you due to the way traumatic memories are stored in the brain, particularly if you were a child and did not have the language to name what was happening to you. Only you can define your experience, but honor the feelings you are feeling. Sexual abuse can take many different forms, but one thing remains the same: it’s never your fault.
Let's now address why you might feel discomfort. Trauma reactions vary by person. Everyone has different thresholds for stress in their lives and has differing reactions and needs as a result. People can respond to trauma in many ways. Some emotional responses you may experience include numbness, mood swings, anxiety, fear, guilt, shame, withdrawing from others, feeling sad or hopeless and even self-blame. Trauma can also manifest as physical symptoms such as insomnia, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, racing heartbeat, and being startled easy. Remember, just because you are experiencing symptoms now, does not mean they will last forever. Typically, symptoms get better with time, although it is common for triggering events to occasionally resurface some of our traumatic feelings. If the intensity of these feelings interferes with your ability to do daily tasks, consider consulting a healthcare professional. Your responses to trauma are normal reactions to abnormal events. Resist the urge to be hard on yourself or compare your experiences to others. Remember that all experiences are valid and it is important to seek help if you need it regardless of the circumstances. You do not need to go through this alone.
One way to manage the discomfort and confusion you are feeling could be learning how to manage the triggers you experience in every day life. Triggers are emotional reactions produced by the part of our brain called the amygdala. Triggers are personal and unique to the individual experiencing them. Our triggers connect to stored memories or feelings. Some triggers can be more obviously linked to traumas from the past such as facing rejection, feeling neglected, someone showing up late, raising their voice, grabbing your arm etc. Other times, however, it can be a taste, smell, or other sensory input that triggers a memory.
If we know our triggers and understand where they come from, we can prepare ourselves and look out for situations that may cause our bodies to go into fight or flight. The event isn't what causes the intense reaction-- the emotions attached to the trigger inspire a reaction. Start by noticing what your body does when it begins to feel triggered. If you can recognize signs of distress in yourself, you may be able to mitigate that response.
You can also begin to identify your triggers by making a list of external events that bring an intense, emotional response that feels out of proportion when looking objectively at the event. Identify the trigger, take space from the trigger, and develop strategies to shift your perspective and find peace (taking a walk, drinking tea, taking deep breaths, etc). Entering back into a state of clarity and balance will enhance your abilities to respond to an event how you choose. Remember: learning to manage triggers takes time, practice, and patience. Be gentle with yourself.
While there is no simple answer to this question, here are some other things you may try. First, safety and security is an important foundation to trauma recovery. If you are able, separate yourself from locations or people that trigger painful memories or perpetuate abuse. Establish a safe and nurturing environment to provide a strong foundation and minimize harm that can occur when you do not have a safe place to heal. Next, build your support network. This can be people in your personal life, trusted professionals, or a community of survivors. Processing trauma can be challenging at times, and is important to have people to fall back on to encourage you to keep going even when things get tough. When you feel ready to tell your story, it may be time to disclose and process your traumatic experience. We suggest doing this with a trained professional, but you can also seek out educational materials on your own, engage in journaling or other self-reflection activities, or share your experience with a trusted friend or family member.
Finally, look inwards with curiosity to reconnect to your true self as you find things that make you feel capable, hopeful, and powerful. While your trauma may always be a part of you, as you find more things that hold meaning to you, it will slowly become less central. Healing is an active process. It may be painful at points and you may have setbacks, but it is possible. Set goals for yourself, acknowledge small victories, and let people in. You deserve so much more than what you have experienced. Thank you for reaching out to us. We are here for you always.