We live in a culture where sexual violence is only addressed obscurely, through so many layers of euphemisms that one is hard pressed to convey any useful information at all. However, while we’re nursing our delicate sensibilities there are real people being abused across the country, silently suffering, without a platform to seek help, a means to understand what is happening to them, or any guidance as to how to heal.It is time to break the silence.
Today we will start by speaking out about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD, a common, often debilitating, anxiety disorder that many trauma survivors suffer from. Due to the stigma attached to both sexual assault and psychotherapy in Bangladesh, PTSD often goes undiagnosed and untreated. To make matters worse, survivors who suffer from PTSD often face the additional trauma of being mislabeled as “weak” or “hysteric”.
What is PTSD?
PTSD is an anxiety disorder many people develop after surviving a traumatic event, such as, rape, torture, war, or a natural disaster.
When faced with danger the body undergoes many biochemical changes to protect itself through a fight-or-flight response. Ideally, the body should revert back to a neutral state once the danger passes. However, this does not happen for trauma survivors with PTSD. They continue to be frightened, stressed, and hyper-aroused even when there is no longer any danger. Untreated, their condition may persist for years, decades, or even a lifetime.
What are the symptoms of PTSD?
– Re-experiencing: Survivors with PTSD often re-experience the traumatic event through flashbacks and nightmares. Flashbacks are usually triggered by reminders of the assault, such as, the smell of their rapist’ cologne, rape jokes, sexually violent scenes on TV etc.
– Panic attacks: Reminders of the trauma often trigger panic attacks in survivors. These are episodes of intense anxiety characterized by hyper-ventilation, trembling, nausea, sweating, dizziness, light headedness, or chest pain. Re-experiencing and panic attacks often occur together.
– Avoidance: Survivors often stay away from triggering places, objects, or people, feel emotionally numb, disassociate from their surroundings, distance themselves from friends, lose interest in activities they found enjoyable in the past, or have trouble remembering details of their trauma.
– Hyper-arousal: Survivors with PTSD usually exhibit symptoms of hyper-arousal, or being in a state of constant vigilance. This is characterized by being easily startled, always feeling stressed, havingregular headaches, suffering from insomnia, sudden weeping, or having angry outbursts. Being in a state of perpetual hyper-arousal can significantly change the survivor’s lifestyle, personality, and relationships with people in their lives.
How can you help someone with PTSD?
Given the patriarchal nature of Bangladeshi society, survivors with PTSD are not only denied treatment but are also faced with secondary traumas, such as, victim-blaming and slut-shaming, which exacerbate their condition. As a friend or relative of a sexual assault survivor you can buffer them from these harmful societal values and guide them towards recovery in the following ways,
– Encourage them to seek psychiatric help. Professional therapy coupled with medication can go a long way to assuage the effects of PTSD.
– Listen. Survivors with PTSD need sympathetic ears since they have to re-experience their trauma on a regular basis via flashbacks and nightmares. However, do not force them to talk. Offer yourself as a compassionate resource, remind them intermittently that you are available, but wait for them to come to you on their own terms.
– Do not judge. Most survivors of sexual assault suffer from a lot of guilt and shame, which hinder their recovery. It is important that you do not add to this in anyway. In fact, you should actively work to dissipate their guilt by assuring them that, irrespective of what society says, they are not to blame for the assault on them. The full responsibility of sexual assault is always on the perpetrator; even if it is someone they have been sexually involved in the past.
– During panic attacks, try to give them physical space (unless explicitly told otherwise), so as to not further trigger a reliving of the experience through touch. Offer them cold water, encourage them to take steady breaths and, most importantly, listen. Let them cry, let them talk, let them yell. Wait to give advice till after the attack passes.
– Help them regain control. Survivors of rape or sexual assault have had their personal space profoundly violated, which often leaves them feeling helpless, not entitled to their own bodies or their own lives. Offer advice, give suggestions, guide them towards healing in the way you think best, but always assure them that, ultimately, what they choose to do is up to them.
This post merely scratches the surface of what Post Traumatic Stress is and how it can be treated but I hope it helps someone somewhere help a loved one who has been hurt. There will be many more posts in the future regarding rape, its ramifications, how it is systematically perpetuated, and what we can do to help. The silence ends here!
Tamanna graduated from Lawrence University with a degree in Mathematics and Philosophy. She is the former president of the Lawrence University chapter of V-Day and is a lifetime member of Kappa Alpha Theta. Tamanna can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org