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Why Do Sexual Trauma Survivors Blame Themselves?


Sexual trauma is highly traumatic, and the survivors often struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Many survivors of sexual trauma often struggle with the aftermath of the assault, and in trying to make sense of it, some may blame themselves, leading to a sense of shame and guilt. 


Research has found that self-blame is one of the barriers to recovery. The reason the survivors of sexual trauma often carry guilt and self-blame is associated with the way the brain processes and responds to trauma. Understanding these mechanisms, along with the role of therapy, can help us to understand the reason behind the self-blame.


There are several reasons behind the frequent self-blaming among sexual trauma survivors. One of them is the brain's reaction to trauma. When a person experiences a traumatic event, their brain undergoes significant changes. The amygdala, responsible for processing emotions like fear, becomes hyperactive. Concurrently, the prefrontal cortex, which manages logical thinking and decision-making, is less active. This imbalance results in heightened emotional responses and impaired judgment during and after the trauma.


In making sense of the traumatic event, sexual trauma survivors often replay the traumatic event repeatedly, scrutinising their actions and questioning what they could have done differently. This ruminative process, fuelled by the overactive amygdala and underactive prefrontal cortex, worsens a sense of self-blame.


Another reason for self-blame is the societal attitudes and misconceptions about sexual trauma. The implicit or explicit victim-blaming may also worsen the self-blaming, leading to self-critical thoughts. Society's or loved one's misconceptions and lack of support often prolong the sexual trauma survivors' ordeal.


Sometimes, sexual trauma survivors blame themselves in an attempt to regain control over the crisis. As sexual trauma often stimulates feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability, the survivors self-blame to give themselves a sense of control.


The psychological impact of self-blame is significant. Studies found that self-blame contributes to the maintenance of PTSD and various mental health issues, including depression and anxiety. Self-blame also leads to highly critical self and self-sabotaging. 


In supporting sexual trauma survivors, family members and friends must attend to the survivors's safety and emotional needs and stop questioning or blaming the survivors. It is important to note that sexual assault is never the victim's fault. 


Therapy plays a critical role in helping sexual trauma survivors to reduce self-blame. Therapy provides a safe space for survivors to process their traumatic experience and its association without judgment. Well-known psychotherapy models for trauma include Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR), Internal Family System (IFS), and Somatic Experiencing (SE).


EMDR is an effective research-validated therapy designed to help trauma survivors heal from PTSD. EMDR facilitates the processing of traumatic memories, reducing or eliminating the impact of the trauma with its associated emotions, thoughts and sensations, thus opening pathways towards a compassionate and integrated self.


Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a therapeutic model that identifies and addresses multiple sub-personalities within the individual's mental system. These sub-personalities consist of wounded parts, such as shame and fear, and parts that protect and manage the individuals from the pain of the wounded parts. IFS therapy focuses on finding and strengthening the self, healing and harmonising the parts as a team with the self in charge.


Somatic Experiencing (SE™) is a body-oriented therapy that aims to resolve symptoms of stress, shock, and trauma that accumulate in the body and nervous systems. The somatic experiencing therapist uses various mind and body movement techniques to release the stress and tension stored in the body. 


Therapy support can be crucial in countering the isolation and shame often associated with self-blame. By fostering a therapeutic relationship built on trust and understanding, therapy is beneficial in helping trauma survivors rebuild their sense of self-worth and agency.


Restoring Peace is a private mental health centre that provides counselling and psychotherapy services for children, youths, adult individuals, couples, and groups with anxiety, depression, trauma, grief, and various mental health and relationship challenges. For more information, please visit www.restoringpeace.com.sg or WhatsApp at +65 8889 1848. For periodic updates, we invite you to join our Telegram group: https://t.me/restoringpeace.


Keywords:

Blame, sexual trauma, survivors, brain, victim, therapy, counselling


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