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Community Health: Education, Prevention and Inspiration

Empowering people to make healthy, respectful and responsible choices.

Rape Trauma Syndrome

Posted by Tammi A. Tannura -

Each year in the United States, there are over 207,000 victims of sexual assault (1). Additionally, 1 out of every 6 American women and 1 in 33 American men has had an experience that qualified as a completed or attempted sexual assault in their lifetime. Lastly, take into consideration that 15% of sexual assault survivors are under age 12, and 29% are between 12-17 years of age. With the 12-34 year old age group being at the highest risk, it's important to be aware of the possible physical, social, and emotional aftermath of sexual assault.(2)

Rape trauma syndrome, the aftermath of a sexual assault, is a cluster of symptoms or behaviors experienced by survivors of sexual assault, though not all survivors will experience all stages (3).

Why is it important to know about rape trauma syndrome? Society in general tends to judge survivors by the reality that they see–how survivors act, express themselves or describe what happened to them. Rape trauma syndrome offers an explanation as to why survivors of sexual assault may behave as they do–during and after the assault.

Stage 1: Pre-Assault Discomfort

Pre-assault discomfort occurs before the attack and is described by the survivor as an intuitive feeling that something is wrong. Perhaps it's a subtle change in a date's behavior, or the sense that the victim is being followed. Often these feelings are suppressed at the time they occur, but are recognized in hindsight. Many people may be able to relate to an 'uh-oh' feeling, but we talk ourselves out of it and then feel relieved that our instinct was wrong. However, in the case of a sexual assault survivor, he/she may feel a sense of self-blame for ignoring their instincts.  Ignoring those feelings does not mean the survivor could have done something to prevent the assault.

Stage 2: The Assault

During the assault phase, victims enter survival mode and may disassociate, become paralyzed with fear or become hyperaware of their situation. The victim does what is needed to survive the attack--whether that's mentally checking out or not moving so as to not endure further physical harm.

Stage 3: Acute Crisis Reaction

Acute crisis reaction occurs immediately after the assault. During this stage, victims may have difficulty describing what happened . They may not be able to cope with everyday tasks as the assault has disrupted their life. Physical reactions include changes in eating and sleeping patterns, as well as physical pain from the attack. Victims may experience and express self-blame, particularly those who experienced pre-assault discomfort. Some victims may cry and scream, or laugh, tell jokes and talk non-stop after the assault. It is important to recognize that such behavior is a coping mechanism for bearing the trauma of the assault, and should not be misunderstood.

Stage 4: Outward Adjustment

During the outward adjustment phase, the victim wants to forget the assault ever happened. Lifestyle changes are made to regain control. The victim may move, end a relationship or change jobs. While this gives the impression to family and friends that their loved one's life is back to normal, outward adjustment is really a self-imposed time out from the intensity of the assault. Victims still have yet to recover and integrate the assault into their life.

Stage 5: Resolution and Integration

In this stage, the trauma of the rape is processed into the victim's sense of self and integrated into the survivor's life. Feelings are dealt with and true healing begins in this stage. The assault has less control over the victim's life and it is recognized as an experience that has changed the victim's life, but no longer controls it.

Final note: It is important to note that reactions and adjustments vary from person to person and may depend on the age, maturity, and life experience of the survivor. In addition, how the survivor was treated by family, friends, and the medical and legal systems also has an impact on recovery.

For more information about sexual assault and how to help a survivor, check out the following resources.

Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN)


National Sexual Violence Resource Center


YWCA of Chicago



1. How often does sexual assault occur? (2009). Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). Retrieved from
2. Who are the victims? (2009). Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). Retrieved from

3. Burgess A.W. & Holmstrom, L.L. (1974). Rape trauma syndrome. American Journal of Psychiatry, 131, 981-986.

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