Finding Therapy Ten Years after Surviving a Rape

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Reader’s Question

I am a 25-year-old woman who was 8 years old when I was molested, and 13 years old when I was raped. The rape was never reported. Since then I have been through some counseling, but lately I’ve been having crazy ups and downs.

Some days I am fine, and then out of nowhere I am upset, angry, crying and depressed. Usually I can just go and be by myself and get over it, but lately it has been much worse. For about two weeks now I have been having dreams about the rape every night; I can’t sleep, and I seem to forget everything. One minute I am happy and the next I am extremely upset about something very simple, and I even scream and go off on people. I feel like I can’t control it, and the next day, or a few days later, I feel terrible about everything and wish that I could take back some of the things that were said.

I don’t know why I am acting like this or why I can’t seem to get it under control anymore. Do you have any idea what the problem could be? Should I make an appointment to talk to someone about this?

Psychologist’s Reply

Thank you for sharing these difficult and traumatic experiences — it takes courage to approach talking about them. The symptoms you describe are very normal responses to the highly abnormal and traumatic events that have happened in your life. I can understand how confusing it must feel to start experiencing these dreams, and acting like this, since the events occurred so many years ago. Our responses to trauma can disappear and reappear years later, sometimes triggered by other events, or may sometimes seem to appear ‘out of the blue.’ After experiencing the loss of control during a traumatic event, it can be even more frightening when our own thoughts, feelings, and relationships following the event also feel out of control.

Many survivors of sexual assault experience rapidly shifting emotions, difficulty sleeping, and difficulty “turning off” unwanted thoughts about the trauma. When emotions feel overwhelming and uncontrollable, relationships with others can be strained and difficult, as you have described. Finding a licensed mental health professional who has extensive training in working with survivors of sexual assault may be helpful and may provide a safety net for you. Since you mentioned having some counseling in the past, you may have an idea of where to start and with whom you might best connect. Finding a therapist you trust is important, given what you have experienced. Sometimes it is difficult to know where to start or where to find help. As a start, I recommend exploring two specific research-based therapies that may be helpful as you begin searching for support.

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First, current trauma therapy research has demonstrated success in reducing trauma symptoms (such as flashbacks and intrusive thoughts about the trauma) using a therapy called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). To find out more about the therapy, and to find a licensed clinician who is also trained by the EMDR Institute, see the EMDR website.

Second, another research-based therapy, called Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), can be helpful for individuals who find it difficult to control their emotions, have difficulty navigating successful relationships with others, and who may also be abuse or trauma survivors. DBT includes both group and individual therapy, and focuses on four core components:

  • Mindfulness
  • Interpersonal Effectiveness
  • Distress Tolerance
  • Emotional Regulation

More information about DBT can be found at PsychCentral. DBT groups and clinicians can often be found through your local behavioral health hospital, as outpatient programs.

I also recommend the adapted DBT worksheets in Scott Spradlin’s Don’t Let Your Emotions Run Your Life [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]. It has practical steps to help individuals increase the four DBT competencies using simple exercises and worksheets. Since you mention having difficulty sleeping, and experiencing dreams about the rape you survived, it may be helpful for you to seek the support of a licensed psychologist or therapist who can work with these symptoms as well as the interpersonal and emotional difficulties you are experiencing. Within the United States or Canada, you can always search APA to find a licensed psychologist in your area with expertise in helping trauma survivors.

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