It is well-documented that sexual abuse, especially during childhood, is one of the traumatic life experiences that make a person far more likely to suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder later down the line. Psychotherapists and counselors regularly work with people who have spent their whole lives responding, both psychologically and emotionally, to the abuse they suffered years and decades earlier. In addition to treating abuse survivors for their current conditions, therapists and mental health professionals can also learn from abuse survivors to discern what makes victims more or less likely to experience PTSD later in life.
That’s exactly what researchers from the University of Granada have done. Reaching out to 1,500 university students with an anonymous survey, they gathered data that firstly linked childhood abuse with present-day PTSD. From that group, respondent’s answers gave researchers insight into which factors played a role in victims’ later development (or not) of PTSD. What they found is that children and teenagers who blame themselves or their families for the sexual abuse they experience are more likely to cope through avoidance. Avoidance coping includes things like not thinking about the problem, sleeping as much as possible, and turning to drugs and alcohol. Avoidance coping, in turn, can lead to higher incidences of PTSD symptoms later on.
What does this mean for therapists, counselors, and other social and mental health professionals? For one thing, abuse survivors who suffer PTSD may also be dealing with years of trying to avoid, rather than confront and work through, the abuse they suffered and feelings that themselves or their families are to blame. But it also has implications for helping more recent victims of abuse. Well-meaning family and friends may encourage survivors to “move on” and “not think about it” – but avoidance, if paired with a sense of guilt or blame, can have harmful long-term consequences. Helping abuse survivors address and confront the abuse in a patient and supportive way can help them take control of their experience and lay a more resilient groundwork for the rest of their lives.
© Copyright 2010 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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