Whether you’re abused as a child, a teen, or an adult, physically or sexually, it can undoubtedly affect you for the rest of your life.
Sexual abuse, and in particular during childhood, is more common than many people can even comprehend.
For example, one in nine girls under the age of 18 are believed to experience sexual abuse or assault. Around 90% of these victims know their abusers. Abusers can include parents and other relatives, coaches, and teachers. In some case, the abuser is another minor.
When childhood sexual abuse is uncovered and treatment is sought, it can help improve long-term outcomes and also help a child or an adult learn how to cope better with what’s happened.
Without help and sometimes even with it, however, there are long-term effects of sexual abuse that may stay with a person for a lifetime.
If you or a loved one is the victim of abuse, understanding these long-term effects can help improve the situation.
For example, if you yourself were a victim, you may be more likely to seek help if you can see the ways it’s affecting you into adulthood. If you love someone who was a victim of sexual abuse, learning about the ongoing effects can help you be a better support system for that person.
The following are some of the long-term effects and outcomes of sexual abuse, particularly when it occurs in childhood or at an earlier age.
There are numerous mental health effects that are thought to be linked to sexual abuse, but depression is one of the most common.
There are different reasons for this, including the fact that survivors may internalize what happened to them, and somehow blame themselves, which can perpetuate a cycle of negative thinking. With continued negative thinking, it’s possible to start feeling worthless or to avoid relationships and interactions with others because you feel undeserving of them.
Some of the symptoms linked to depression in abuse survivors can include suicide ideation, problems with sleep, and disturbed eating patterns.
It’s unfortunately common for survivors to not just blame themselves but also to feel shame and guilt.
It can be especially hard for a survivor when the abuse is perpetrated by an adult they loved and trusted. They may find it hard to blame that person, and instead, they blame themselves.
Eating Disorders and Body Issues
When someone is sexually abused, particularly as a child, they may develop body issues later in life. This may be because they again, internalize what happened to them so they may feel like they’re unattractive or have a general dissatisfaction with their appearance.
Both obesity and eating disorders are linked to sexual abuse.
Anxiety is already one of the most common mental health conditions adults face, and when someone survives sexual abuse, they’re at an even greater risk of developing it.
When you’re sexually abused, you may feel afraid and stressed at the time, and that can continue throughout your life.
Effects include chronic anxiety, anxiety attacks, specific phobias, and general tension.
There have been studies that have found the anxiety-related effects of childhood sexual abuse are similar to the effects of war-related trauma.
There can be problems for adults who experienced sexual abuse as far as their sex lives. Some of these effects can include problems with desire and arousal, likely because of the association a victim may make between sexual activity and pain and fear.
Sexual abuse can have a significant impact on relationships and especially intimate relationships.
Some areas of a relationship that may be affected include:
- Trust is a big issue for people who have been victims of sexual abuse, particularly if they experience it as a child and if the abuser was someone in a position of authority or someone they loved as a child.
- Power dynamics can impact relationships into adulthood. When you’re sexually abused as a child, it makes you feel powerless, and that could lead you to feel powerless in your adult relationships. That might lead to overcompensation, such as attempts to control and micromanage every detail of the relationship and life.
- Intimacy issues frequently occur when someone is the victim of sexual abuse. Part of this can stem from an inability to share true thoughts and feelings and keeping things hidden. Sometimes in intimate relationships, abuse survivors may go overboard, putting the needs of their partners above their own or even in friendships and other more casual relationships.
Recovering From Sexual Abuse
It is possible to recover from sexual abuse, even if it occurred during childhood, but it does require support and work.
There are usually three general phases of recovery.
The first is the crisis stage, and this often occurs later in life when a victim starts to look at what happened to them. Sometimes, memories of these situations come back slowly over time, which is the brain’s way of dealing with trauma.
There may be a middle stage, and this is when someone who went through abuse will start to share details of what happened and how they felt about it.
It can lead to a range of emotions, including anger and grief.
The final of the general stages of recovery is resolution.
This means that while the thoughts about the abuse don’t go away, the person dealing with them may be able to better cope and focus on other areas of their life.
Someone who experienced sexual abuse at any point should work to understand how it’s affecting them through other areas of their life, and they should consider seeking professional help.
When you work with a professional to deal with sexual abuse, it can allow you to learn survival strategies to deal with memories and flashbacks, and you can also get help and treatment for other things you may experience like general depression and anxiety.
Taking care of yourself and learning coping mechanisms are so important for healing, and it’s also necessary to recognize how abuse affects you.
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