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Childhood Sexual Abuse: Signs, Symptoms and How You Can Heal

As a life and business coach, I help business owners deal with tough issues that might affect their mental health.

One important issue is how early sexual abuse might make people more likely to be sexually active later on. This is a pattern that has been studied for a long time and is still important to think about today.

Whether we look at stories from a long time ago or events that have happened recently, there is a connection between bad experiences and how people behave later on. In this article, we will discuss the linkage of past trauma and sexual activity, and how you can heal from sexual trauma.

How a horrific experienced impacts the mind

Consider a horrific scenario where marauders storm a village, perpetrating devastating acts by killing men, setting properties ablaze, and subjecting women to sexual assault. The surviving children bear witness to these horrors, setting the stage for profound and long-lasting effects on their psychological and emotional well-being. Trauma, especially of a sexual nature, induces profound alterations within a child’s body and mind. The intense stimulation experienced during such events can permanently alter the brain’s neurochemistry. Specifically, the neurotransmitter receptors for dopamine and norepinephrine become hardwired to seek the kind of stimulation associated with sexual activity due to the overwhelming nature of the initial traumatic experience.

Search for the same “high”

When someone has been sexually abused at a young age, they might become extra sensitive to sexual feelings. This could make them crave those feelings again, even if it’s not safe or good for them. This is why some people who’ve gone through sexual abuse might end up having multiple sexual partners or being careless during sexual experiences.

You don’t even have to be molested to be violated sexually

Dr. Patrick Carnes, the pioneer in sexual addiction, has observed through his research that a child can be sexually assaulted without physical violation. They can sense if a caregiver or an adult is lusting after their body. The impact is more pronounced if the adult engages in one or more of the following forms of indirect sexual assault.
The intensity depends on the severity and frequency of the behavior.
Below are some examples of indirect sexual abuse:
  • The adult touches themselves provocatively in front of the child.
  • Discusses sexually explicit material around them.
  • Allows or encourages them to witness sexual intercourse.
  • Comments on the size of their genitalia or breasts.
All these type of actions create an “assault” on their nervous system. And if this abuse not addressed as soon as possible, it can leave a permanent psychological scar on the child. Later on, we’ll talk about studies that prove this connection.

Studies connecting sexual abuse with promiscuous behavior

Scientists have been investigating the link between childhood sexual abuse and promiscuous sexual behavior. Two studies, one by Senn, Carey, and Vanable, called “Characteristics of Sexual Abuse in Childhood and Adolescence Influence Sexual Risk Behavior in Adulthood” and the other by Lalor and McElvaney, called “Child Sexual Abuse, Links to Later Sexual Exploitation/High-Risk Sexual Behavior, and Prevention/Treatment Programs,” focused on how childhood sexual trauma affects a person’s sexual behavior in adulthood. These studies discovered that people who experienced childhood sexual abuse are more likely to engage in risky sexual behavior later in life, such as having many partners and finding it hard to maintain close relationships. In addition, they show how early traumatic experiences can influence someone’s sexual behavior even into adulthood. By understanding these findings, therapists and healing professionals like myself can provide more personalized programs to help survivors of childhood sexual abuse in developing healthier sexual behaviors and relationships in adult life. In simpler words, there is no on-size-fits-all solution for survivors of sexual assault.

Just because you were sexually abused, doesn’t guarantee you will or are sexually promiscuous 

This all being said, correlation does not necessarily mean that one thing caused another. Not everyone who experienced sexual abuse when they were young will be sexually active. In some cases, some people become sexually anorexic, shunning all forms of sexual activities.

Each person deals with trauma in their own way, making it difficult to understand the connection between early sexual abuse and promiscuity. 

It is important to be understanding of each individual’s unique experiences. To support those affected by these experiences in their journey to healing and recovery, a deeper understanding of this correlation is needed. 

The next section includes some suggestions to heal from childhood sexual assault.

How to Heal from Childhood Sexual Abuse

In order to heal from sexual assault or abuse, you need external and internal support. 

This has to be a tag-team effort of solo and group support because all that internalized shame, if left untreated, can cause you to engage in shame-based activities which can create more trauma. 

I will start with external support and then end with work that you should do alone.

External Work: Getting Support from Others

Similar to fungi and bacteria, trauma thrives in dark and secret places. We need to voice all those pain-filled memories in a safe environment. Here are some places that can support you in sharing your trauma.

Professional Therapy

Just like you visit a doctor to treat a physical illness, you may need support from a professional who understands how trauma can impact the mind. Consider speaking with a therapist, counselor, or psychologist who specializes in trauma and abuse. I highly recommend Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy and other trauma-focused therapies to help process and overcome past sexually traumatic experiences.

Support Group

Participating in support groups or connecting with others who have experienced similar trauma can offer a sense of community, understanding, and validation. 

Sharing experiences and coping strategies with individuals who can relate may aid in the healing process. You may consider a spiritual support group like Celebrate Recovery or Codependents Anonymous, which can help you learn how to live a joy-filled life after abuse.

Group/private therapy and coaching is not enough

Even with this work, you still need to do internal healing work. This is important because our shame often compels us to avoid addressing internal issues that perpetuate the pain caused by trauma

To be completely honest, in the beginning of my recovery journey, I relied on others to shoulder my emotional burdens and failed to do the inner work myself. It is essential to remember that the external work listed above should serve as a motivator to continue your own inner work. The following section will address the internal healing work that must be done.

A woman with her head held up in front of her face.

Internal Healing Work

An abuser doesn’t just harm us physically, they also take away our sense of rights and self-care. Learning to love yourself may seem foreign if you spent years, if not decades denying your right to feel safe and loved. Here are some ways to support yourself post-abuse/trauma.

Develop coping strategies

Learn healthy coping mechanisms to manage emotional distress. Breathing exercises, journaling, creative expression, or mindfulness techniques can help regulate emotions and reduce anxiety.

Understand and accept your feelings

Allow yourself to experience and process a wide range of emotions. It’s normal to feel anger, sadness, fear, or confusion. Acknowledging and accepting these feelings is an essential part of healing. 

Keep taking small steps forward to reach a better future. Believe in your abilities, focus on moving forward steadily, and never give up. You are capable of healing and becoming stronger than ever before.

Recognizing your triggers

Trauma completely dysregulates your nervous system. The reptilian part of your brain has stored all the ways your mind, body, and soul were violated and wants to keep you from harm. So it is natural that certain sights, sounds, and smells can trigger past traumatic experiences. You may not even understand consciously why you don’t want to be around certain places or people. This is normal.

Understand that trauma takes time to resolve itself, and your healing work will require you to become desensitized to certain things so that you can move out of a heightened, nervous state of energy.

Challenge self-blame

Many survivors of childhood sexual assault may grapple with feelings of self-blame or shame. It’s important to understand that the fault lies with the perpetrator, not the survivor.

Be patient with yourself

Healing from childhood sexual assault is a gradual process. It’s important to be patient and compassionate with yourself throughout the journey. Healing doesn’t follow a linear path, and progress may fluctuate.

Establish boundaries

Setting and maintaining boundaries in personal relationships is crucial. Communicate your boundaries clearly and assertively, especially in situations triggering discomfort or distress.

The image below are my favorite healing strategies. In the next section, I will share my final thoughts.

A woman sitting in front of a window with her hands clasped together.

Final thoughts

To heal from childhood sexual abuse and related sexual behaviors, we need understanding and kindness. Healing is different for everyone, and it’s important to seek help from experts. The goal isn’t to forget what happened, but rather to learn how to cope better and live a healthier life.

 If you’re already working on healing, I’m here to help. Don’t hesitate to contact me

If you want to know more about how trauma affects mental health, listen to this podcast episode with EMDR Therapist Lisha Song.