Over the last few days, in the wake of the rape accusation(s) leveled against Pastor Biodun Fatoyinbo, there have been several conversations about sexual assault on and off social media. One thing remains clear: a lot of Nigerians still don’t understand what rape means and prefer to engage in victim blaming.
I understand how triggering all of this can be, especially for survivors of sexual abuse. This is why I’ve decided to share some helpful ways that survivors of sexual assault can take care of your mental health
Sexual assault is sexual behaviour that happens without the victim’s consent. This includes attempted rape, penetration of the victim’s body (rape), fondling/unwanted sexual touching, and forcing a victim to perform sexual acts such as oral sex. It’s important to note that “force” isn’t limited to physical force. It includes all forms of manipulation, coercion, inducement, threats and also covers situations where the victim cannot give valid consent.
According to WARIF, in Nigeria today, one in four girls would have experienced at least one form of sexual assault before clocking 18. In another survey, over 31.4 percent of girls said that their first sexual encounter was forced. Sadly, victims of sexual assault usually have no recourse and have to live with debilitating effects. Clearly, rape is a huge problem in Nigeria.
Sexual assault has a huge impact on a victim’s mental health. The trauma of being sexually assaulted can trigger panic attacks, flashbacks of the assault, intense feelings of guilt and shame, shock, confusion, and isolation. The world feels terribly unsafe and it’s difficult for you to trust yourself and others. You may also begin to question your self-worth and blame yourself for what happened. On top of all of these, you are also at a higher risk for developing depression, PTSD, eating disorders and anxiety.
If you’ve been sexually assaulted, here are a few ways you can take care of your mental health.
Have an emergency self-care plan
Sometimes memories of your assault will come unbidden and can be triggered by completely random events. Having a strategy in place for such situations helps you take the steps you need to feel calm again. Whether it’s listening to a soothing song, practising deep breathing techniques, or finding a quiet place to scream – knowing exactly what to do when those dark feelings creep up helps a lot.
Find a creative outlet
You don’t have to be a pro. Just do something creative that helps you work through your emotions. You can rant in the Notes app on your phone, get a pad where you just scribble, splotch paint all over a piece of paper, or even cook a meal. You don’t have to share your work with anybody.
Walk away from triggers
It may be impossible for you to avoid triggers. However, you can always walk away from them. This is really difficult to do because it’s tempting to educate people and correct their wrong notions about what rape/sexual assault is. But you must choose to protect your mental health. Online conversations can be especially triggering, so when they start, it’s best that you log out. Your voice is powerful, but you have the right to decide whether to contribute to the discourse or not. There’s absolutely no pressure to share your story. You don’t owe anybody anything, especially when the cost is your mental health and well-being. You can bookmark some happy things to scroll through when you’re avoiding social media. Read a book or watch a movie.
There’s something about exercise that makes you feel strong and empowered. Releasing endorphins is also a great way to de-stress. I recommend exercises that make you feel like you’re in control of your body, and help you to channel your emotions in a healthy manner. You can start kickboxing, karate or even dancing.
Take care of your body
This is really important because after experiencing sexual assault, it’s easy to neglect and even loathe your body. Be conscious about getting enough sleep, drinking water and eating well.
Find a support group or create one
Sharing your experience in a safe space among people who have had a similar experience can be very therapeutic. If you ask around, you’ll find one or two people who are survivors just like you. You can meet up every month and talk about your struggles and the different ways you deal with them. You can also create a group chat which allows you to help each other get through difficult days, even though you’re apart.
Writing down your thoughts and feelings helps you understand them clearly. It also helps you see how far you’ve come in your journey to healing. You don’t have to do anything elaborate. Writing down one or two sentences about how you feel every day is a great way to begin. Journalling is a great way to release pent-up negative emotions.
Sexual assault can really affect the way that you see yourself. Writing out positive affirmations such as “I am whole, worthy and beautiful” can help you work toward letting go of those feelings of shame and guilt. Place your affirmations in a conspicuous place and repeat them daily, until you internalise them and truly believe them.
Get professional help
If you’re experiencing intense disruptive symptoms as a result of the trauma you suffered, you should talk to a professional. A mental health professional can help you discover your triggers and provide you with unique ways to recover from your trauma. When seeking a therapist, you should find one who has experience working with sexual assault survivors. StandToEndRape can put you in touch with one.
It’s important to remember that what you’re experiencing is a normal reaction to trauma, and healing is a process. You’re not weak or “seeking attention.” Your feelings are completely valid, and no matter what anybody says, it was not your fault. It may seem really difficult right now, but with these tips, you can come to a place of acceptance, regain your sense of safety and trust, and truly heal.