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PTSD and Sexual Harassment

By Elizabeth Battaglino, RN, CEO of HealthyWomen

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It's nothing new, but it may seem that way.

Unwelcome touching or groping. Sexually explicit and lewd comments or emails. All against a woman's will.

That's sexual assault or harassment, and the floodgates have opened with a seemingly continuous loop of accusations. In exposing themselves physically, these men, in turn, are exposing themselves to scrutiny. Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Bill O'Reilly, Charlie Rose. This list, unfortunately, is far from complete.

Learn More: What Is Considered Sexual Assault?

The viral #MeToo movement, begun by activist Tarana Burke and promoted by actress Alyssa Milano, swiftly gained momentum. Time magazine recently recognized the "Silence Breakers"—people who have spoken out against sexual harassment and sexual assault—as its 2017 Person of the Year. Time credits the celebrities and millions of other people who have come forward to share their stories as the "voices that launched a movement."

In hearing accounts from others, some women gained the necessary empowerment to un-silence their voices that had remained hidden for so long. Many times, the victim feels powerless because she is young or intimidated by a person of authority. Other times, she is physically overpowered and unable to fight back, or her livelihood or other relationships might be in jeopardy if she says no or reports the experience.

PTSD is not uncommon

One of the most troubling and lingering results of a sexual assault is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a pattern of symptoms people experience following a traumatic event.

"Post-traumatic stress disorder is a common diagnosis for sex abuse survivors," says psychotherapist Dr. Patti Feuereisen, author of Invisible Girls: The Truth About Sexual Abuse. Feuereisen, who has been counseling sexual abuse survivors for over 30 years.

For so many, the memories linger long after the event occurred. "After the trauma, the survivor may be haunted with recurrent and intrusive memories and nightmares and be fearful of it happening again," says Feuereisen.  Many victims also report feelings of depression, anxiety, anger or sadness. Shame, guilt, self-blame, fear, helplessness, flashbacks and panic attacks may also occur. And then, there are untold physical symptoms of the trauma like eating disorders, insomnia, substance abuse, fatigue, headaches and immune system responses.

A study of women who were raped found that 94 out of 100 experienced symptoms of PTSD during the two weeks following the event. But the feelings can linger long beyond that: Nine months later, almost one-third were still dealing with the pattern of symptoms that included nightmares, jumpiness, irritability, difficulty sleeping and concentrating and negative thoughts and feelings.

Let's hope women have reached their tipping point, where they will no longer tolerate this harassment and abuse. Let's hope that voices give strength to other voices so that they, too, can find the strength to come forward.

The "boys will be boys" mentality can no longer pervade our society. If you are suffering from PTSD, know that it is treatable with psychotherapy, medication or a combination of both. Don't hesitate to reach out to a qualified health care professional, who can tailor a program to your needs.