How Long Does it Take to Recover?

Rape trauma is similar to other types of trauma, such as losing a child or parent. That means that there is no set time for recovery — it may take several months or many years. Surviving a rape or sexual assault is a life-changing event, one that changes how you view the world, how you view your relationships, and how you view yourself. But there is one thing many rape victims have in common: they do recover and are able to move on with their lives.

Rape Trauma Syndrome

There are three phases to Rape Trauma Syndrome:

1. Acute Phase: This phase occurs immediately after the assault, and usually lasts a few days to several weeks. In this phase, individuals can have many reactions, but they typically call into three categories of reactions:

  • Expressed — This is when the survivor is openly emotional. He or she may appear agitated or hysterical; he or she may suffer from crying spells or anxiety attacks.
  • Controlled — This is when the survivor appears to be without emotion, and acts as if "nothing happened" and "everything is fine." This appearance of calm may be shock.
  • Shocked Disbelief — This is when the survivor reacts with a strong sense of disorientation. He or she may have difficulty concentrating, making decisions, or doing everyday tasks. He or she may also have poor recall of the assault.

2. The Outward Adjustment Phase: During this phase, the individual resumes what appears to be his or her "normal" life, but inside is suffering from considerable turmoil. In this phase, there are five primary coping techniques:

  • Minimization — Pretends that "everything is fine" or that "it could have been worse."
  • Dramatization — Cannot stop talking about the assault, and it is what dominates one's life and identity.
  • Suppression — Refuses to discuss, acts as if it did not happen.
  • Explanation — Analyzes what happened: what the victim did, what the rapist was thinking/feeling.
  • Flight — Tries to escape the pain (moving, changing jobs, changing appearance, changing relationships, etc.).

There are many symptoms or behaviors that appear during this phase, including:

  • Continuing anxiety
  • Severe mood swings
  • Sense of helplessness
  • Persistent fear or phobia
  • Depression
  • Rage
  • Difficulty sleeping (nightmares, insomnia, etc.)
  • Eating difficulties (nausea, vomiting, compulsive eating, etc.)
  • Denial
  • Withdrawal from friends, family, activities
  • Hypervigilance
  • Reluctance to leave house and/or go places that remind the individual of the assault
  • Sexual problems
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Flashbacks

All of these symptoms and behaviors may make the individual more willing to seek counseling and/or to discuss the assault.

3. The Resolution Phase: During this phase, the assault is no longer the central focus of the victim's life. While he or she may recognize that he or she will never forget the assault, the pain and negative outcomes lessen over time. Often, the individual will begin to accept the rape as part of his or her life, and choose to move on.

NOTE: This model assumes that individuals will take steps forward and backward in their healing process. While there are common phases, it is not a linear progression and will be different for every person.