Rape Trauma Syndrome

Response to rape often follows a sequence referred to as the “rape trauma syndrome”. The “syndrome” is not a type of mental disorder. Rather, it is a series of stages many (but not all) rape victims experience.

Phase One—Acute Distress
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:

•  Solved
•  Redefined in order to achieve needed satisfaction; or
•  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, be in a state of confusion and have the 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 is when the victim first realizes that she must deal with the consequences of the rape, pressing charges, friends’ attitudes, etc. The victim may be agitated, incoherent or in a highly volatile state. She may appear stable and in control only to break down suddenly.

How soon and to whom the victim tells about the rape provides an early clue about her own feelings of what happened to her and her 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, including medical and legal assistance. There is usually a marked decrease in the victim’s anxiety after discussing the incident with someone.

If the survivor seeks support, this phase usually resolves within a few weeks. She must be given information as well as support counseling to turn her non-specific anxiety into helping her concentrate on resolving problems created by the rape (e.g., whether or not to report, whether or not to press charges, whether or not to tell family or friends).

Phase Two – Repression or Outward Adjustment
This stage is characterized by a rationalization of the rape. The victim appears to have “forgotten” it and appears to have resolved the issue. After the immediate issues have been temporarily dealt with, the victim usually returns to her ordinary routine of life. This seeming adjustment is reassuring to those who have been involved with her during the crisis. She will usually announce during this phase that all is well and will break off any counseling she might have been receiving.

It is during this stage that there is heavy denial and suppression. She denies the rape had a personal impact on her, and she concentrates on protecting the feelings of those close to her. It is important that she addresses her feelings about the rapist during this stage, but she usually subdues her feelings and goes about her daily routine. She is usually very passive about the rape and her role in the assault, looking at it from a third party viewpoint. This stage represents another step toward true resolution of the rape.

Phase Three – Reorganization or Integration
This phase begins when the victim develops an inner sense of depression and feels the need to talk about her 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 her feelings, the victim is encouraged to accept the rape and realize the impact it has had on her feelings and life. During this phase, the victim experiences the reemergence of previous troubling responses, and she may have suicidal thoughts. The victim may appear to be “getting worse instead of better”. Her relationships may be under great stress as she begins to grapple with deep-seated feelings about the rape.

This phase may begin with a specific incident such as the case going to trial, or if she realizes she is unable to subdue her fears and feelings as in Phase Two. She may find herself 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.

In this stage, the victim may experience insomnia, nightmares, and various physical symptoms. It is important that she is encouraged to explore her emotions openly and begin to put an end to the nightmare.