The Hidden Health Effects of Sexual Assault

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One in five women and one in 71 men will be victims of sexual assault at some point in their lives, according to the CDC. In eight out of ten cases of rape, the victim knows the perpetrator. Justice can bring some relief, but locking the perpetrator behind bars for 30 years won’t erase the physical and emotional trauma the victim experiences.

Sexual Assault Affects Mental and Physical Health in Many Ways

A study presented at The North American Menopause Society showed that a history of sexual harassment was linked with an increased risk of high cholesterol, high blood pressure and poor sleep.

Survivors of sexual assault are often more reluctant to go to a doctor and dentist, which can also contribute to health complications.

The mental trauma of sexual assault can also manifest as physical symptoms because the body simply cannot process such intense emotions. These physical symptoms are wide-ranging and can include:

  • Headaches
  • Muscle aches
  • Chronic health problems

The health effects of sexual trauma can be long-lasting and lead to a wide range of health issues, including:

Disordered Eating

The chronic stress of the trauma can cause a loss of appetite or disordered eating. Loss of appetite can eventually lead to nutritional deficiencies, weight loss and other related health issues.

Hormonal Imbalance

Victims of sexual assault often find themselves trapped in a constant state of fight-or-flight. When this happens, cortisol levels soar, which can leave the victim feeling on edge, anxious and even defensive.

High cortisol levels can be protective over the short-term, but in cases of chronic stress, it can start to take a toll on your physical health. Inflammation levels rise throughout the body, which hurts the immune system and increases the risk of cancer and heart disease.

Heart Issues

A study from the University of Pittsburgh found that women who had three or more traumatic experiences in their lives had poorer blood vessel and heart functioning compared to those with fewer traumatic experiences.


Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is common among victims of sexual assault. The condition can include panic attacks, anxiety, flashbacks, crying spells, headaches, stomach problems and even teeth grinding.

Sleep Disorders

Victims of sexual assault often suffer from insomnia. They replay the traumatic experience over and over in their heads when they try to lie down at night. When they do manage to get to sleep, the trauma can cause nightmares.

Poor sleep quality can contribute to a wide range of other health issues.

Depression and Anxiety

Two of the most common effects of sexual assault are depression and anxiety. Victims often feel a lowered sense of self-worth, which can lead to depressive feelings. For some, the feelings are mild and short-lived, but for others, the depression can be intense and long-lasting.

Survivors of an attack may also live in a constant state of anxiety, fearing that the incident may happen again. They may avoid certain places, situations or people in fear of becoming a victim once again.

Victims of sexual assault are also more likely to have difficulty forming healthy attachments to others, which can impair their ability to have long-lasting, healthy relationships with others.

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