Phases of Rape Trauma
By Linda Castoria
Rape Crisis Center, Brazos Valley
Written: June 3, 1986
PHASE ONE – ACUTE OR IMPACT STAGE
This stage is characterized by a rise in tension in response to stress. There is an increase in the level of tension and an increase in the feelings of being upset. At this point, the problem may be: (a) solved; (b) redefined in order to achieve needed satisfaction; or (c) avoided through needed resignation and relinquishment of goals.
If the rape crisis is not solved, major disorganization may ensue. The rape victim may have general feelings of helplessness, state of confusion and inability to think clearly about how to evaluate reality.
This first phase has been described as an acute reaction taking the form of shock, disbelief and dismay. This may begin when victims first realizes they must deal with the consequences of the rape, pressing charges, friends’ attitudes, etc.
In the first moments, hours and days immediately following the rape, the acute reaction may be in the form of shock, disbelief and dismay. A victim may be agitated, incoherent or in a highly volatile state. They may appear very stable and in control only to break down suddenly.
How soon and to whom a victim tells about the rape provides an early clue about their own feelings of what happened to them and their role in it. This is why talking to someone is so important — so they can help clarify feelings, help make decisions on reporting the rape and giving options for medical and legal assistance. There is usually a marked decrease in the victim’s anxiety after discussing the incident with someone.
If a victim seeks support, this phase usually resolves within a few weeks. They must be given informative support as well as support counseling to turn their non-specific anxiety into helping them concentrate on resolving problems created by the rape (i.e., whether or not to report, whether or not to press charges, whether or not to tell family or friends).
This is why a rape crisis center plays such an important role during Phase One. A victim can be helped to consider alternative courses of action and their possible outcomes. A rape crisis center can help them notify family and accompany them to the police and the hospital emergency room for medical consultation and an exam. A victim is encouraged to consider how they will feel in a few weeks or months. Similar reactions of other survivors are discussed with them, and they are encouraged to seek counseling. Their fears, anger and depression are discussed. Their feelings are validated as being a normal reaction for them.
PHASE TWO – REPRESSION OR OUTWARD ADJUSTMENT STAGE
In this stage a victim goes about a lot of activity in an attempt discharge the inner tension or anxiety they may be feeling without any additional work on working through their true feelings. They return to normal activity and subdue their anger and resentment and rationalize what has happened, while gaining little insight into their own, true feelings about the rape.
After the immediate issues have been temporarily dealt with, a victim usually returns to their ordinary routine of life. This seeming adjustment is reassuring to those who have been involved with them during the crisis. They will usually announce during this phase that all is well and will break off any counseling they might have been receiving.
It is during this stage that there is heavy denial and suppression. They deny the rape had a personal impact on them, and they concentrates on protecting the feelings of those close to them and their concern.
It is important that they address their feelings about the rapist during this stage, but they usually subdue their feelings and go about their daily routine of life. They are usually very passive about the rape and their role in the assault, looking at it from a third party viewpoint. They have little interest in continuing to gain insight through treatment of any kind.
PHASE THREE – POST-TRAUMATIC OR RESOLUTION STAGE
This phase begins when a victim develops an inner sense of depression and feels the need to talk about their feelings and the situation. Concerns, which have been dealt with superficially or denied successfully, reappear for more comprehensive review. The depression that sets in during this stage is psychologically normal in most cases.
In order to resolve feelings, a victim is encouraged to accept the rape and realize the impact it has had on their feelings and life.
The “If only I hadn’t” statements emerge. They must allow their anger at the rapist to emerge instead of shying away from their feelings of anger and disgust.
This phase may begin with a specific incident such as the case may going to trial soon, or if they realize they are unable to daily subdue fears and feelings as in Phase Two. They may find themselves thinking about the rape after seeing a person of the same race as the rapist, reading a magazine article or seeing a television show about rape or any unexplained situation.
During this phase, a victim usually re-contacts their rape crisis center counselor to help them identify their surfacing fears and feelings or help to prepare them for trial.
Phase one, the Acute or Impact Stage, is when a victim exhibits signs of acute distress. How soon they tell someone, the reaction and support they receive from that person and their decision to tell family will determine them dealing with this stage normally. They should receive thorough medical exam, medical and legal counseling should be given to them, and they should be told the likely cycle of future phases and their feelings.
In Phase Two, the Repression or Outward Adjustment Stage, denial, suppression and rationalization replace shock and dismay. It is during stage this that a victim be reminded that when they need to talk and deal with their fears and feelings, that they need to contact a rape crisis center counselor and that Phase Three will probably follow.
In Phase Three, the Post-Traumatic or Resolution Stage, moderate to severe depression and the need to openly talk will come about. There are often daily memories of the rape. A victim may experience insomnia, nightmares and various physical symptoms. It is important that they are encouraged to express their emotions openly and begin to put an end to the nightmare.