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What Is the Best Therapy for Sexual Assault Victims?

Updated: June 13, 2023

8 min.

Seeking professional help for sexual trauma can be life-changing. Here’s what you need to know about the best therapy for sexual assault victims.

By: Charlie Health Editorial Team

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

Learn more about our Clinical Review Process

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If you are a teen or young adult who’s a victim of sexual assault, sexual abuse, or sexual violence, you are far from alone.

Over half of women and nearly one-third of men have been victims of sexual violence throughout their life. Amongst kids and teens under 18, around one-fourth of girls and one out of 13 boys have been victims of childhood sexual abuse. Furthermore, it’s estimated that approximately 30% of instances of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are due to sexual violence, such as rape.

Sexual assault, sexual violence, and sexual abuse can result in long-lasting adverse mental health effects if you do not work through the trauma. That’s why getting professional help is so important. Therapy for sexual assault victims can be life-changing. With the help of a trauma-informed therapist, you can process your trauma and grow from it, improving your overall mental health in the process.

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What is the best therapy for sexual assault victims? 

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all treatment for trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resulting from sexual abuse/sexual assault. Everyone is different and may respond differently to various therapies.

Numerous types of therapy can help trauma survivors as they heal, including:

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy is a common treatment modality for many mental health struggles, including trauma. With CBT, you will learn how your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are interconnected with and influence each other. You will become more aware of your negative thoughts, which gives you the power to reframe these negative beliefs that might be weighing you down. You might realize that you have many unhealthy thoughts surrounding your trauma, and CBT will help you to tackle them. 

A central concept in CBT that you’ll work with is cognitive distortions –– essentially distorted and unhelpful ways of thinking. Some examples of cognitive distortions include engaging in black-and-white or all-or-nothing thinking and catastrophizing or expecting the worst possible outcomes. It is common for people with mental health conditions to be stuck in these thought patterns. CBT allows you to challenge existing cognitive distortions and, in turn, develop healthier thought patterns and behaviors that benefit your mental health. This is known as cognitive restructuring.

On top of this, your therapist may teach you new ways to cope, such as breathing techniques, mindfulness techniques, or grounding methods to help you reduce anxiety and stay present. These valuable coping skills may be beneficial when you’re in a heightened state of emotion or dealing with flashbacks of your sexual assault/sexual abuse. 

An offshoot of CBT is cognitive processing therapy (CPT). In the context of sexual trauma, CPT gives you the power to challenge the negative, unhealthy thoughts and beliefs linked to your sexual assault. Doing this will provide you with a healthier way of looking at the incident, empowering you to have a better outlook on life.

Prolonged exposure (PE)

Prolonged exposure is adjacent to CBT. It is a type of exposure therapy that is especially helpful for sexual assault/sexual abuse victims who may find themselves engaging in avoidance. It is common for survivors to avoid things that jog memories surrounding their trauma. For example, they may avoid the following:

  • Certain people
  • Certain places
  • Certain situations
  • Certain memories

Alongside your therapist, who is trained in prolonged exposure, you will gradually expose yourself to these potential triggers when you feel ready and safe to do so. If you continue to avoid situations, it will teach your brain to think that those things are dangerous and support your fear –– but if you safely expose yourself, you can retrain your brain to learn that these things are safe, you are in control, and you don’t need to avoid them. 

Some exposure methods your therapist might use include:

  • Imaginal exposure: This involves thoroughly imagining or speaking about the traumatic incident or a triggering situation. Your therapist will assist you in coping with any difficult emotions or physical sensations that pop up. 
  • Virtual reality (VR) exposure: VR helps take imagined exposures to another level by incorporating realistic sights and sounds. This is happening in a controlled and safe environment. 
  • In vivo exposure: After working with some imaginal exposure, your therapist will assist you in identifying some triggers, such as specific places, that you avoid due to your trauma. Then, you devise a plan together to expose yourself in vivo (in real life) to these triggers between your sessions. You will start small and build up confidence in yourself along the way.
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Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT)

Closely related to CBT is trauma-focused CBT, which was designed specifically for kids or teens who are healing from trauma and their caretakers. Not only does TF-CBT help sexual assault survivors cope with their trauma, it allows their caregivers to understand better trauma in general and how to help effectively. 

TF-CBT is based on three phases, which are as follows:

  • Stabilization: The first phase helps the sexual assault victim and their caretakers learn more about trauma, various symptoms, and lasting effects. If you are a survivor, your therapist will teach you multiple tools for emotional regulation, expressing your feelings, and relaxation techniques. This will aid you as you cope with your trauma and related symptoms. Tying back to the main principles of CBT, cognitive processing skills will also be taught here to help you and your caretakers address any cognitive distortions and unhelpful ways of thinking.
  • Trauma narration and processing: With emotional regulation and relaxation techniques under your belt, you will face your trauma head-on in the second phase of TF-CBT. With the guidance of your therapist, you can revisit and process the details of the sexual assault in a safe space. You will learn how to explore your memories and view them in a way that doesn’t feel dangerous. During this phase, caretakers will be able to understand your trauma better, too.
  • Integration and consolidation: During the third and final phase, exposure therapy may come into play. Your therapist will work with you to decide if exposure can benefit you in recovery. You will also have sessions with caretakers to have open and honest conversations. Lastly, you can create future safety plans and discuss how to integrate what you’ve learned in treatment into your everyday life.

Note: If your parent or parents are perpetrators of your sexual assault, they will not be part of the TF-CBT process. In this case, other caretakers may get involved in treatment. 

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR)

EMDR is a unique type of therapy first developed to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It uses back-and-forth eye movements or a different kind of bilateral (left/right) stimulation to help process triggering memories related to trauma. In cases where eye movements aren’t the right fit for an individual, bilateral stimulation can occur through touch or sound.

This trauma therapy is based on the theory that the brain stores traumatic memories differently than non-traumatic memories. Trauma may be stored in a way that isn’t conducive to healing. The distressing memories are linked to emotions, beliefs, and even physical sensations that occurred during the traumatic event. That’s why thinking about the trauma can feel as intense as it is happening now. This is where EMDR comes in. During EMDR treatment, you will tap into these old memories and adequately process them, changing how they are eventually stored in your brain going forward. 

Aside from the fact that this therapy uses eye movements or other bilateral stimulation, another unique aspect of EMDR is that there isn’t as much talking as in other forms of psychotherapy or talk therapy. At the beginning of treatment, you will recount memories you want to work on with your therapist and discuss your trauma. However, when bilateral stimulation occurs, you do not need to talk during the actual session. 

Ultimately, as time goes on with EMDR, you will become more and more desensitized to the traumatic memories surrounding your sexual assault. This means the memories might become less vivid, and any emotions or physical sensations linked to the memories are reduced. 

Self-care for sexual assault victims

On top of putting the work in during sessions with your therapist, taking good care of yourself can improve your mental and physical health. Here are some self-care ideas:

  • Live healthily: Try to stay active and get at least 15 minutes of physical activity every day. This can boost your mood and lower your stress levels. Additionally, eating balanced healthy meals can help. 
  • Sleep well: Sleep deprivation can worsen various symptoms of mental health conditions. Make sure you’re getting adequate good, quality sleep every night. 
  • Avoid substances: Alcohol and illicit drugs can harm mental health. Abstaining from drugs and alcohol will benefit your health overall and prevent the worsening of symptoms.  
  • Get creative: It can feel good to express your emotions creatively, such as through music or art
  • Surround yourself with loved ones: Maintain good social support and let your loved ones know if you need help. Avoiding isolation can help you keep your morale boosted. You may also look into support groups with other survivors of sexual abuse/sexual assault to help you feel less alone.

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Why is therapy for sexual trauma victims so important?

If you are a survivor of sexual trauma, seeking treatment is crucial for your overall mental health and well-being. You do not have to continue to suffer from flashbacks, distressing emotions, nightmares, shame, guilt, or any other symptoms you might feel. 

If your sexual assault happened more recently, addressing trauma early might help prevent you from developing PTSD. If you already do have PTSD, treatment is still critical to reduce your symptoms and improve both your functioning and quality of life.

PTSD can lead to various mental health complications, including:

Therapy is an opportunity to work through your trauma and address other co-occurring mental health conditions or symptoms.

How Charlie Health can help

If you are a teen or young adult who is a sexual assault survivor, Charlie Health may be able to help you.

Our virtual Intensive Outpatient Program provides personalized services for teens, young adults, and families dealing with various mental health conditions, including trauma and any co-occurring disorders. 

Coping with sexual assault can feel extremely difficult at times –– but there is absolutely hope for you to process your trauma, heal from it, and ultimately, come out stronger than ever.

If you think virtual IOP is right for you, fill out our form or call the number below to connect with our Admissions Team and get started.

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