Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) not only affects soldiers who have gone to war, but also survivors of childhood sexual trauma. Increasingly, research is bridging gaps in the understanding about how the brain processes traumatic experiences in early childhood and erratically pieces them back together later in life. Scientists have explored the epigenetic changes that occur with child molestation that account for the development of PTSD in adulthood. What’s clear is that trauma has the power to literally shape one’s DNA. The good news is that therapeutic approaches can significantly improve function and quality of life, while the civil court system provides a path to greater empowerment and the financial resources necessary to pay for your recovery, especially if you have PTSD from being molested as a child.
Risk Factors for PTSD Exhibited in the Aftermath of Trauma
Research published in the American Journal of Psychiatry revealed several PTSD risk factors:
- Dissociation during and after the trauma: Children may daydream during inappropriate sexual encounters as a coping mechanism to escape the reality of the situation. After the event, feelings of depersonalization, reduced responsiveness to surroundings, and detachment from others is common. Poor integration of trauma memories can result in flashbacks that progress to PTSD.
- Anxiety or arousal responses when recalling the trauma: PTSD sufferers have a higher baseline sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activity than most people. SNS activation, otherwise known as the “fight or flight” response, occurs when a person is first attacked. The stress hormone cortisol floods the system, leading to increases in blood pressure, muscle tenseness, rapid breathing, and reduced perception of pain. The parasympathetic nervous system, or “learning” brain, shuts down almost entirely, along with any non-essential neural circuits. Feelings of anxiety, nervousness, and depression may surface along with stress. While we need our SNS to survive life-threatening situations, these pathways can become too deepened in the mind, causing the brain to have trouble distinguishing a true emergency from a partner’s embrace, a news story about rape, or a nightmare. Many sexual trauma survivors with PTSD experience sexual inhibition and the inability to become aroused with a sexual partner.
- Intrusive thoughts, followed by cognitive suppression: The trouble with dissociation and extreme anxiety is that these mental conditions interfere with the coding, storage, and retrieval of traumatic memories. Survivors may experience amnesia in the immediate aftermath, only for severely disturbing memories to resurface later on. A person with PTSD could experience a memory that is simultaneously vivid and vague. Fear structures in the brain linking sensory details of the abuse together can become triggered, causing intense unpleasant emotions to flood the system.
- Avoidant coping such as denial or minimizing: Once the abuse has occurred, many survivors deny that a problem, symptom, feeling, or need exists. They may blame themselves, seek rationalization for what happened, or assure themselves they’re fine. They may come to admit what happened, but deny the consequences and avoid seeking help. Sexual abuse survivors sometimes engage in behavioral strategies designed to reduce or avoid unpleasant thoughts and emotions associated with their traumatic experiences—excessive worrying, abuse of drugs or alcohol, self-harming, or engaging in promiscuous acts. Some survivors retreat in social isolation and depression to avoid any potential hurt.
Symptoms of PTSD Caused by Molestation
Generally, there are three main symptoms related to PTSD, of which survivors may experience one or all:
- Re-experiencing: Some survivors feel like they are reliving childhood trauma all over again through flashbacks, dreams, or intrusive thoughts. Certain people, places, life events, or news stories can serve as triggers, bringing unwanted memories or sensations back to their present thoughts.
- Avoidance: Other survivors intentionally avoid scenarios, events, or activities that may be associated with childhood trauma in some way. They may shrink away from social circles, retreat to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism, or lose interest in hobbies that were previously enjoyed.
- Hyperarousal: Childhood trauma survivors with PTSD may feel “on edge” at times. They may be easily startled, have difficulty sleeping, or may be prone to emotional outbursts. The physical “fight or flight” symptoms are also heightened.
Survivors frequently encounter waves of depression, anger, guilt, shame, and distrust. They may mourn the “death” of the innocent child who existed before the trauma occurred. Their opinions, perspectives, and personalities typically remain forever shaped by what happened to them. Family and friends may notice irritability, anger, or numbness. The ability to maintain steady employment and relationships can be seriously hindered in some cases.
Tips on Seeking Assistance for PTSD Recovery
Avoidance is the most significant factor in prolonging and intensifying trauma-related PTSD. This short-term strategy for resolving distress may seem to confirm that you are in control of your mind, but research shows that 70% of sexual assault survivors experience moderate to severe distress, which is a larger percentage than for any other violent crime. Repressed memories have a way of coming back—sometimes when you least expect it and feel you’ve truly put the past behind you—for instance, when you’re about to get married or have your first child. Major life events commonly serve as emotional triggers. It can be difficult for even the most supportive family members and friends to comprehend.
It is highly recommended that you seek treatment as soon as you can. Early intervention greatly reduces the likelihood of that trauma can impact your quality of life. Therapists may employ a number of different techniques in your treatment, including Cognitive Processing Therapy, Prolonged-Exposure Therapy, and Eye-Movement Desensitization Reprocessing. Through these sessions, you will likely learn how to calm yourself, relieve depression and anxiety, increase awareness of your inner strengths and competencies, process specific memories, reconnect with past hobbies, find meaning in what happened, challenge trauma-based thinking to restore a healthy mental framework, enhance relationships with others, achieve a more stable mood, and regain quality of life.
Recovering from PTSD from being molested as a child doesn’t mean you will forget the experience entirely or absolve all symptoms for good. Rather, a successful recovery can mean acquiring new skills, attitudes, or paths to forgiveness. It’s letting go of the blame, self-hatred, shame, and guilt that you may experience. Recovery can also come in the form of replacing negative thought patterns and actions with healthier ones for better overall functioning. Hopefully, by the end of your work with a trusted therapist, you will discover a better degree of support, a more positive self-concept, and an inner wellspring of personal strength.
Recovering Compensation in Civil Court for Child Molestation
One of the most effective ways to obtain compensation for the harm suffered as a result of child molestation is to file a civil lawsuit. Technically, sexual abuse is considered a type of personal injury, though it’s important to find a law firm specializing in these particular types of cases. In many ways, sexual abuse is not a straightforward personal injury claim. It takes a skilled, persistent team of attorneys who understand the subtle nuances of the law to win these cases.
The harm suffered as a result of sexual violence such as molestation is oftentimes more difficult to measure as compared to other personal injury cases. For example, in a car accident, it’s easy to calculate the total medical bills for physical injuries sustained. Emotional damages are then added based on a percentage of the physical harm experienced. While there can be serious physical injuries associated with sexual abuse, they often pale in comparison to the lifetime of emotional and psychological damage endured by the survivors. Unlike criminal court—which seeks to punish wrongdoers with jail time and other sanctions—civil court focuses on compensating survivors for the harm they have suffered, are currently suffering, and are likely to suffer in the future. Also, there need not be physical signs of trauma to win compensation in a civil lawsuit as most of the damage suffered as a result of sexual abuse is typically psychological.
In some cases, you can seek financial compensation from the perpetrator and any organization or institution that allowed the molestation to occur. If you were molested by a teacher, the school district can be held liable for failures in hiring, training, supervision, and reporting known or suspected abuse. If you were molested by a coach, the athletic organization can be held liable.
What if the Molestation Happened Years Ago?
The State of California does impose a time limit for pursuing sexual abuse claims through the courts. The time limit for pursuing civil litigation to obtain a recovery of damages suffered as a result of childhood sexual assault is 22 years from the date the plaintiff attains the age of majority or by age 40. There is a rule of delayed discovery that allows a claim to be filed within five years of the date the plaintiff discovers or reasonably should have discovered that the psychological injury or illness occurring after the age of majority was caused by sexual assault.
As of January 1, 2017, Senate Bill 813 went into effect in California, ending the 10-year statute of limitations on pursuing criminal charges for rape and child molestation cases. However, if your abuse occurred prior to that and is not associated with new DNA evidence, you have up to 10 years from the age of majority (age 28) to press criminal charges.
An experienced attorney will work with you to discuss the deadlines that may apply to your claim.
If You Have PTSD From Being Molested as a Child, Contact an Experienced Attorney
The law firm of Lewis & Llewellyn specializes in cases of delayed discovery and childhood sexual abuse trauma. We want you to know it’s never too late to seek help for the abuse you’ve suffered. Our team of skilled investigators, expert witnesses, and compassionate attorneys will work hard for you to help you find a measure of peace. A lack of financial resources should never be a reason why you don’t obtain the help you need. Many rape crisis centers, support groups, and non-profit programs offer free counseling services to help you through the aftermath.
Whether you are an adult victim or the parent of a victimized child, the aftermath of child molestation may take you through the full gamut of emotions—but you don’t have to go through it alone. An experienced legal representative can act as your advocate, providing counsel and empowering control over the course of the proceedings.
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