Dr. Maria D. Reyes
The world is a place of stunning beauty. There is much in it that we can delight in, celebrate, and enjoy. But it’s also true that we don’t live in a perfect world. We do not live in the Garden of Eden where we and our relationships with other people are in harmony.
We live outside of the garden, after Genesis 3, in a world where sin and its effects run rampant. The roses have thorns; pain confronts us in our day-to-day lives. Brokenness abounds in our world, and this is abundantly clear when we encounter or experience sexual abuse.
The trauma of sexual abuse can outlive the event itself by months or years, negatively impacting quality of life. Alongside the trauma of sexual abuse, one can find feelings of confusion, shame, and isolation. However, the trauma of sexual abuse is not the last word on the matter. There is life after sexual abuse. There is hope for healing, restoration, and a return to an abundant fullness of life.
What is sexual abuse?
Sexual abuse can happen to anyone, regardless of gender, race, age, or any other demographic distinction. According to some statistics, around 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men are sexually abused in their lifetime.
To move together on the same page, it may be helpful to try and define sexual abuse. Sometimes people go through an experience, but they are uncertain and question whether the experience was sexual abuse.
Sexual abuse (whether it is further categorized as rape, sexual molestation, or sexual assault) occurs when unwanted sexual activity occurs. Often, physical violence accompanies this unwanted sexual activity, though physical violence or the threat of violence may also be absent.
Whether it is unwanted touching or penetrative sex through the use of force or when a person is vulnerable (due to their age, a mental health condition or if they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs), sexual abuse violates the sexual integrity and sense of safety of those victimized.
Sexual abuse can be perpetrated by familiar people such as family members, a spouse, siblings, a teacher, friends of the family, or a spiritual leader. In some of these cases, the victim may be manipulated into either performing or witnessing sexual acts, which can leave them confused about whether sexual abuse occurred. It can also be perpetrated by total strangers. Whether it happens only once or over a longer period of time, sexual abuse induces trauma that can last for a long time.
One key thing to remember as you embark on your healing journey is that your experience of sexual abuse was not your fault. Though our bodies are designed to respond positively to physical touch, when that touch is unwanted and inappropriate it can lead to feelings of conflict.
People who experience sexual abuse may have feelings of shame and guilt and may even blame themselves for what happened. Part of the process of healing and recovery is to realize that it was not your fault.
You do not have to walk alone
After you or a loved one experiences sexual abuse, it can seem as though the light has been sucked right out of life, and you can feel robbed of a sense of self, safety, and normalcy. The rollercoaster of emotions, which include fear, anxiety, stress, depression, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can be debilitating.
Without being addressed, these and many other feelings may surface and result in sleeplessness, substance abuse, eating disorders, self-harm, and other harmful behaviors.
The aftermath of sexual abuse can be devastating, and while it is true that things will not go back to what they were before, a new normal in which you live a healthy and happy life is possible. Knowing the hardships that we all face in this world, the Lord Jesus encourages us to take heart because he has overcome the world.
God intended for us to live lives that are full of joy and peace, and free from anxiety and fear. He has provided us with communities of support and professionals that can help us to find healing after sexual abuse.
While there are people who have been able to work through the trauma and complex emotions of sexual abuse on their own, it is wise to seek out the help of a professional therapist who specializes in helping people overcome sexual abuse.
These professionals are trained to help you process the traumatic event and provide a safe healing space where you can unburden yourself to start working through your experience and get back to living life to the full. If you are in doubt about whether you or a loved one have been sexually abused, a trained professional can help you make that assessment.
The benefits of professional therapy cannot be overstated. Knowing that you are not alone, and journeying with someone else gives you the support you need to navigate a difficult situation.
Therapy with a Christian counselor can help you to address feelings of depression and anxiety, help you to process the negative memories associated with the abuse, help you to think in healthy ways that promote your well-being, (re)build your spiritual health and a healthy narrative around the subject of sex, deal with the feelings of blame and find solutions for nightmares or flashbacks that may be caused by the trauma.
Several therapies are helpful as you or your loved ones cope with and overcome the aftermath of sexual abuse. These include but are not limited to:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which helps you develop understanding and control over damaging or negative behavior and thoughts connected to the traumatic experience
- Psychodynamic Therapy, which gives you tools and space to express your feelings in a safe environment
- Somatic Experiencing, which focuses on your reactions to emotional and physical trauma and works with your body’s natural ability to heal itself.
Each therapist will approach treating the trauma of sexual abuse differently, and you need to find a therapist that is right for you and meets your needs. You and your therapist can set goals for your healing, including:
- Being able to talk about the abuse without shame or negative feelings towards yourself
- Not carrying blame and knowing that the abuse was not your fault
- Differentiate healthy and unhealthy relationship behaviors, and be able to maintain healthy relationships
- Healing from harmful behaviors that manifested in reaction to the abuse
You can find healing
Our sense of bodily integrity and safety is something we all highly value. Sexual abuse threatens that, and it is a heavy burden for anyone to bear. The feelings of shame, powerlessness, fear, isolation, anxiety, and depression that can result from sexual abuse are an added weight to the trauma of abuse.
You do not have to embark on the journey of healing alone. Recovery and healing from abuse is possible. The pain and disorientation from sexual abuse is real. Just as real, and more so, are the promises that Jesus gives His people that though trouble may come, it will not swallow and overwhelm them.
Take that courageous first step by first telling someone you trust and then seeking help. With the help of a strong community and the expertise of a trained professional who specializes in treating those who have gone through sexual abuse, you can find healing.
A Christian counselor can create a healing space where you will be treated patiently and with compassion. Using spiritual resources such as prayer and Scripture, as well as proven trauma-focused therapies, your counselor can provide a non-judgmental and supportive space, and they understand the sensitivities of dealing with sexual abuse and the complex emotions involved.
They know that each person’s story is unique, and so your journey toward healing will be different. Your counselor will meet you where you are and tailor their trauma recovery techniques to meet your needs. You can begin your journey toward healing today.
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