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December 5, 2023 Dec 05, 2023 10 min read

How Sexual Trauma Impacts Mental Health


  • Traumatic experiences significantly alter the way the body’s stress-response system functions, resulting in increased fear, stress, anxiety, paranoia, and reactivity
  • Sexual trauma survivors may also experience a wide range of other symptoms related to sexual trauma, including sleep disturbances, sex and relationship issues, memory problems, physical symptoms, and more
  • Although not all survivors are interested in pursuing formal mental health diagnoses, many sexual trauma survivors who seek mental healthcare are diagnosed with conditions like PTSD, depression, and anxiety
  • Anyone struggling with mental health as a result of sexual trauma should consider working with a trauma-informed therapist or counsellor

The following article will familiarize you with the effects of sexual trauma on mental health. We discuss specific symptoms and diagnoses, but we will not endeavor to explain the neurobiology of trauma, as this is a complex and ever-developing topic.


For a holistic understanding of how trauma impacts the brain and body, The Body Keeps the Score by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk is a reliable and educational resource. Please note, however, that van der Kolk’s book includes detailed descriptions of patient case studies that may be triggering or distressing for some readers.


If you are in need of immediate mental health support due to self-harm or suicide urges, call 988 in the US, 1-833-456-4566 in Canada, or click here to find a suicide-prevention hotline in your area.

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How Trauma Affects the Brain and Body

Traumatizing experiences like rape, sexual assault, abuse, or violence of any kind trigger the fear response and survival mechanisms in our bodies. Chemicals like cortisol (“the stress hormone”), adrenaline, and norepinephrine (a fear-response hormone related to adrenaline) course through our bodies during frightening or traumatic events, leaving a lasting imprint.


According to research physician James Douglas Bremner, this type of stress “results in acute and chronic changes in neurochemical systems and specific brain regions… [leading to] long-term changes in brain ‘circuits’ involved in the stress response.” In other words, after a traumatic experience, our brains and bodies function differently, especially when it comes to stress.


Survivors of sexual trauma may struggle to feel safe in their relationships, environments, and even in their own bodies. While the neurobiological explanation for this goes beyond what we can tackle in one article, you’ll find a detailed discussion below of the practical impacts of sexual trauma on mental health. We will discuss specific symptoms commonly experienced by trauma survivors as well as formal diagnoses a trauma survivor may receive if and when working with a mental health professional.

Common Symptoms Associated with Sexual Trauma

Trauma creates a wide range of symptoms, and its effects look and feel different for each individual. In general terms, sexual trauma can affect the quality of our sleep, mood, relationships, careers, sex lives, overall well-being, and even our physical health.


Below, we’ve broken down some of the most common symptoms into five main categories.

Emotional and mental health symptoms

  • Persistent fear or paranoia

  • Feelings of shame or guilt

  • Denial, avoidance, or minimizing of the traumatic experience

  • Difficulty focusing

  • Flashbacks

  • Mood swings

  • Depression-related symptoms

  • Dissociation

  • Problems with memory

  • Panic attacks

  • Self harm and/or suicidal ideation

Sleep symptoms

  • Upsetting dreams and nightmares

  • Restlessness

  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep

  • Fear of sleeping or being in bed

Relationship symptoms

  • Difficulty trusting self and/or others

  • Difficulty setting and maintaining healthy boundaries

  • Difficulty forming or maintaining relationships (including friendships and work relationships)

  • Withdrawal from social activities, hobbies, etc.

Sex-related symptoms

  • Fear or anxiety regarding sex

  • Pelvic floor issues such as vaginismus

  • Extreme openness or lack of boundaries regarding sex

  • Difficulty setting or maintaining healthy sexual boundaries

  • Flashbacks during sex

  • Entering fight-flight-freeze mode during sex

Physical symptoms

  • Chronic physical tension, discomfort, or pain

  • Difficulty relaxing

  • Increased substance use

  • Changes in appetite or food cravings

Put simply, sexual trauma can impact almost any area of our lives. When our quality of life decreases for any reason, but especially due to a traumatic experience, our mental health can suffer significantly.


Mental Health Conditions Common Among Survivors

Although receiving a formal mental health diagnosis is not a requirement for seeking healing and support, many survivors of sexual trauma who pursue therapy or other forms of psychiatric care are diagnosed with one or more of the following conditions.



Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a complex mental health condition brought on by traumatic experiences. Categorized as a stress disorder, PTSD is characterized by a disproportionate stress response in the body connected to triggers associated with a past traumatic event. Because trauma impacts the way our bodies interpret and respond to stress, many trauma survivors experience chronic symptoms related to their body’s stress-response system.


Some common symptoms of PTSD include:


  • Flashbacks*

  • Panic attacks

  • Intense mood swings

  • Disproportionate responses to everyday stressors

  • Chronic fear, paranoia, or hypervigilance

  • Difficulty forming and maintaining relationships

  • Sleep disturbances

  • Distressing dreams

  • Difficulty trusting specific people, places, and situations

*It’s important to note that PTSD flashbacks are not always experienced the way they’re portrayed in movies and television. While some trauma survivors may experience vivid visual flashbacks, others experience emotional flashbacks, sensory flashbacks, or dream-based flashbacks. Anything that makes you feel as if you’re re-experiencing any aspect of a traumatic event could be considered a flashback. To learn more about flashbacks, check out our article “Trauma Flashbacks: What They Are and How to Cope.”



While C-PTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder) is often discussed in the context of sexual trauma, particularly trauma from childhood sexual abuse, C-PTSD is not a formal mental health diagnosis. That said, it’s important to recognize that survivors of child sexual abuse and others who have experienced ongoing abuse (as opposed to a singular traumatic event) may experience a different and sometimes more persistent set of PTSD symptoms. Bessel van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score is an excellent resource for understanding complex post-traumatic stress.

A Note on Triggers


Despite becoming a social media buzzword in recent years, trauma triggers are real and can create immense stress for trauma survivors when they arise.


A trauma trigger can be anything that reminds the survivor (consciously or unconsciously) of a traumatic event, triggering the body’s fear-response system. Triggers can bring about flashbacks, panic attacks, sleep disturbances, and more.


While the concept of triggers originated in discussions of PTSD, a person does not need a formal PTSD diagnosis to experience triggers and trauma responses. To learn more about trauma triggers, check out our article “Triggers and Trauma Responses: What They Are and How to Cope.”


Experienced by approximately 280 million people worldwide, depression is extremely common among sexual trauma survivors.


Some common symptoms of depression include:

  • Chronic low mood
  • Lack of motivation
  • Chronic tiredness or lethargy
  • Excessive sleep
  • Difficulty enjoying activities, hobbies, etc.
  • Tendency to self isolate
  • Changes in appetite or food cravings


Another extremely common mental health condition, anxiety is prevalent among survivors of sexual trauma, overlapping significantly with PTSD. Even if you don’t have or want to pursue a formal PTSD diagnosis, it’s fairly simple to determine whether or not you’re experiencing the symptoms of anxiety.


Common symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Chronic nervousness, restlessness, or tension

  • A chronic sense of impending danger or doom

  • Panic attacks

  • Recurring physical symptoms (increased heart rate, rapid breathing, sweating, shaking, etc.)

  • Chronic overthinking or “mental chatter”


A type of anxiety disorder, phobias produce extreme, persistent fear of a specific object, situation, type of place, type of person, etc. While phobias are often referred to as “irrational,” people usually develop phobias as a result of a past trauma or distressing experience.


Some survivors may develop specific phobias related to the abuse they experienced. For example, an individual who was assaulted in their bed may develop a fear of being in bed or going to sleep. Similarly, someone who was abused by a male partner may develop a fear of men (or men who share traits with the abuser).

Other Conditions

Although trauma has some standard hallmarks, trauma affects everyone differently. There is no definitive way to determine how an experience of sexual trauma will impact someone’s mental health without first assessing that person’s unique situation.


That said, other conditions that may arise for certain sexual trauma survivors include obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, and insomnia.


Sexual trauma impacts our mental health in a variety of ways, making it difficult to rebuild trust, stability, and well-being. However, recovering from sexual trauma is possible with the right resources, support, and time. If you struggle with any of the mental health symptoms or conditions discussed in this article, consider seeking help from a mental health professional, such as a trauma-informed therapist or counsellor. For help navigating the process of finding a therapist, check out our article “How to Find a Trauma Therapist.”


For more support dealing with mental health struggles after sexual assault or abuse, check out the following articles available through Go Thrive Go:


Summary :

Sexual trauma impacts mental health in a variety of ways. Trauma survivors may experience symptoms relating to sleep, mood, physical health, relationships, sex, and more. Mental health is negatively impacted by sexual trauma due to the way trauma impacts the body’s stress response system. While not all sexual trauma survivors seek formal mental health diagnoses, there is a distinct correlation between sexual trauma and certain mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, sleep disorders, and phobias. Survivors who struggle with their mental health in the wake of trauma should seek support from a mental health professional trained to assist survivors of sexual trauma.

About the Author

Dana Anastasia (they/them) is an independent writer, editor, podcaster, and artist. With a degree in interdisciplinary sociology and a background in domestic violence and sexual assault advocacy, Dana brings a keen awareness of victim and survivor needs and experiences to their work. Learn more at


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