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Memories of sexual abuse can feel like a screen that separates you from all those around you.

Overcoming Sexual Abuse: Take These Steps

They are leading normal, safe, intact lives and you are forever damaged by what was done to you. You live in a lonely land populated just by yourself.

Isolated as you may feel, you are far from alone. The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) estimates that almost 238,000 Americans 12 and older are sexually assaulted every year, 4.2 million in the last 20 years. That means there are a lot of predators out there, many of them replaying the abuse they have suffered themselves, a discouraging cycle of pain and repeated pain.

That pain doesn’t have to hobble you for life. There are workable steps you can take to ease or defeat the effects of sexual abuse:

Report the assault. We might as well start with the hardest step. Sixty percent of victims don’t report the assault. That not only leaves them bearing the burden of the assault on their own, but also allows the perpetrator to continue preying on others. Reporting a sexual assault can be difficult for an adult and terrifying for a child, particularly because about 2/3 of sexual assaults are committed not by strangers but by a relative, friend, or acquaintance.

There’s no way to make this easy; you’ve been violated and if you report it immediately (the most useful time to report) there will be a physical exam involved. You will have to recount what happened in detail. It’s likely a trained volunteer will be called in to support you and answer any questions throughout the process. Even if you report the assault to the police, you aren’t legally required to support prosecution and it’s unlikely that prosecution would proceed without your help. The choice is yours. Even if you choose not to report the assault, you should have medical care to make sure you are not injured or exposed to a sexually transmitted disease.

Care for yourself physically. You need all your strength as you recover from the assault. Nourish your body with healthy food and regular meals. Get enough sleep (at least seven hours a night); if sleep is elusive try melatonin supplements or a bedtime snack that includes protein and carbs. Exercise will help you feel physically strong and reduce your stress and depression. Physical symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares, fatigue, tense muscles, a tight chest, and feelings of panic.

Care for yourself emotionally. You’re likely to be highly emotional after the assault. Writing about what happened and how you’re feeling may offer relief. Yoga or deep-breathing exercises can ease your mind and raise your mood. Surround yourself with people who make you feel better, not worse. If you have a friend or family member who seems to be blaming you for what happened, it’s OK to take a break from that person. A support group can remind you that you are not going through this experience on your own

If that level of sharing feels too uncomfortable, you can talk anonymously with a trained rape crisis counselor. If you continue to be traumatized, an experienced therapist can help you work through the hardest parts of your recovery. Emotional symptoms may include anxiety, denial or numbed emotions, guilt, fear, shame, anger, depression, and indecision.

Find pleasure in life. It may take a while, but you can recover joyful days. At first, it may be difficult to imagine anything pleasurable. Try some of your old favorite activities, or explore something totally new. Learning a new skill can distract you from painful thoughts. Every moment you spend smiling is a victory over your attacker.

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