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December 5, 2023 Dec 05, 2023 10 min read

How to Cope with Feeling Unsafe After Sexual Assault


  • Feeling unsafe after sexual assault is extremely common, regardless of whether the survivor faces continued threat of harm
  • A persistent feeling of unsafety can be linked to post-traumatic stress and related symptoms, such as anxiety and hypervigilance
  • Before deciding how to cope with feelings of unsafety, survivors should ensure that they are no longer in immediate danger
  • Seeking out therapy or PTSD treatment should be a first line of defense for anyone experiencing persistent fear after sexual assault
  • Other coping mechanisms include practicing anxiety-reduction techniques, learning self defense, developing a personalized safety plan, rebuilding trust with one’s body, and reaching out to friends and loved ones for support
  • Anyone healing from sexual trauma should remember to have patience with themselves in their healing process, as recovering from PTSD-related symptoms can take anywhere from several weeks to several years

Sexual assault and rape are among the most traumatic and destabilizing experiences a person can have. As a result, many sexual assault victims experience ongoing stress, anxiety, and fear long after the immediate danger has passed.


According to PTSD UK, an estimated 94% of sexual assault survivors experience symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) following an assault, with approximately 50% of survivors suffering long-term symptoms.


In this article, we will look at several ways to cope with feeling unsafe after sexual assault.

Understanding Post-Traumatic Stress

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a formal psychiatric diagnosis that can only be identified by a psychiatrist, psychologist, or licensed counsellor. However, if you experience a persistent sense of unsafety after being sexually assaulted, this may indicate post-traumatic stress.

Classified as a stress disorder, PTSD manifests in a variety of ways. Sexual assault survivors with PTSD might experience anxiety, a general lack of trust, or the feeling of being consistently “on edge.” People with PTSD often find it extremely difficult to relax and may find that their feelings of fear, anxiety, or stress are triggered by specific stimuli that remind them of their traumatic experiences.

Hypervigilance is another common experience for those who have survived sexual assault and other forms of violence. Caused by an activated sympathetic nervous system (the body’s fear-response system), hypervigilance creates a persistent sense of fear and anxiety in the brain and body, plus a heightened awareness of potential dangers. People who experience hypervigilance might feel like they’re always looking over their shoulder, anticipating worst-case scenarios, assuming the worst in people and situations, or holding excessive physical tension.



If you struggle with a persistent sense of unsafety due to an experience of sexual assault, you may be dealing with hypervigilance or an activated nervous system. The methods listed below are relevant to anyone experiencing these symptoms, regardless of the presence of a formal diagnosis.

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8 Ways to Cope with Feeling Unsafe After Sexual Assault

1. Ensure you are actually safe

Before attempting to regulate your fear in other ways, confirm that you are no longer in imminent danger.


Is your home a safe place for you to be?

Is anyone in your life posing an immediate threat to you, your children, or your family?


If you are in real danger, you’ll likely struggle to regulate your nervous system or establish a sense of safety for yourself. Our bodies are designed to feel uncomfortable and on edge when faced with danger as a way of keeping us safe and motivating us to leave dangerous circumstances.


If you are in an unsafe situation and need immediate assistance, call 911, your local crisis centre, or someone in your life who can help. To locate crisis services near you, use the Go Thrive Go search tool and search for “Crisis Centres.”

2. Seek out therapy or PTSD treatment

The best way to cope with PTSD or any form of post-traumatic stress, anxiety, or fear is to work with a mental health professional trained to work with sexual assault victims. A specially trained therapist can help you understand your specific triggers and formulate a unique healing approach tailored to your circumstances and needs.


While healing from post-traumatic stress can be a long road, approaching this process with the help of a mental health professional can vastly improve long-term outcomes for survivors.

3. Practice techniques for soothing anxiety

Whether or not you seek out a therapist, establishing habits to alleviate stress and anxiety can be extremely helpful for anyone struggling with post-traumatic symptoms.



Some techniques to try include:

  • Grounding exercises
  • Yoga and gentle exercise
  • Mindfulness practices or meditation*
  • Breathing exercises for stress reduction*
  • Dance/movement therapy

*While some people find meditation and breath work helpful for cultivating a sense of calm and safety in the mind and body, others might find these practices triggering. Be sure not to force yourself to engage in any stress-reduction techniques that do not feel safe or helpful.

4. Learn self defense

Learning self defense may not be the right path for everyone, but it can help some survivors build a sense of empowerment and personal control. If you’re interested in learning self defense, find a class in your area that welcomes people with your gender identity. Most areas offer women-only self-defense classes, which may feel safer for some survivors. In some places, self-defense classes may even be available at your local police station.



On the topic of self defense, survivors might find it helpful to carry pepper spray or a loud whistle with them in case of emergency. Having a safety plan in place for how to navigate a dangerous situation can help survivors feel more confident as they move through the world.

5. Develop a safety plan

Regardless of how much practical danger you’re facing, developing a customized safety plan can help your mind and body feel more at ease. That said, safety planning is especially important for victims who are navigating ongoing abusive or unsafe situations.



Your safety plan might include:

  • Names, addresses, and contact information of people you can call or seek refuge with if something happens
  • Specific walking or driving routes that are well lit, populated, etc.
  • Keeping pepper spray or an emergency whistle in your bag
  • Carrying a flashlight
  • Mapping out “escape routes” from places that trigger your anxiety

Developing a safety plan does not mean that you will ever need it. However, feeling prepared for potential dangers can sometimes help soothe anxiety.



To learn more about practical safety planning for victims in ongoing or transitional situations, please reference this resource provided by RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network).

6. Rebuild trust with your body

For many survivors, a persistent feeling of unsafety shows up in our physical bodies. We may struggle with feelings of dissociation or numbness, or have “out-of-body” experiences. This is because the brain often relies on techniques of escape to cope with persistent fear and stress – but feeling disconnected from our bodies can quickly lead to feelings of unsafety and ungroundedness. The key to moving through dissociation is to rebuild trust in the body.



Some techniques for rebuilding trust with the body include:

The process of rebuilding trust with one’s body after sexual assault is complicated and will look different for each person. However you decide to approach this process, remember to move at the pace of trust. If you don’t feel comfortable pursuing an embodiment-specific approach, try speaking with a trauma-informed therapist about your goals to rebuild trust in your body.

7. Lean on friends and loved ones for support

While it’s important to cultivate a sense of safety within yourself, this won’t be possible in every moment (especially early on in your healing process), and feeling safe is often much easier when we’re surrounded by people we trust. If you’re able, try reaching out to a trusted friend or loved one for company or reassurance when you’re feeling unsafe or on edge.


Ensuring that your friends and loved ones are aware of what you’re going through can also help you feel supported and protected even when you aren’t explicitly reaching out for support. These trusted people in your life can help keep an eye out for potential dangers or triggers, warn you if an abuser is nearby, and accompany you as you navigate the various phases of your healing process.

8. Be patient

Overcoming post-traumatic stress, anxiety, and fear requires long-term commitment. While some post-traumatic symptoms may dissipate within a few weeks of a traumatic experience, many survivors experience symptoms over the course of several years. As hard as it is, try not to lose heart as you navigate your healing process. Being patient with yourself is a critical part of rebuilding trust and allowing your nervous system to regulate.


Experiencing a persistent sense of unsafety in the wake of sexual assault is entirely normal and understandable, albeit distressing and frustrating. As you gradually rebuild a sense of safety and groundedness in your life, your nervous system will eventually return to a more calm and regulated state. However, this process can take time.


For more support in this area, check out our other articles titled “How to Rebuild Self-Trust After Sexual Assault and Abuse,” “How to Rebuild Trust in Others After Sexual Assault or Abuse,” and “Your Step-By-Step Guide to Recovering from Sexual Trauma.”


Feeling unsafe after experiencing sexual assault is extremely common. Although these feelings are not a guaranteed indication of post-traumatic stress disorder, it’s highly likely that anyone experiencing a persistent sense of unsafety following a traumatic event is experiencing some form of post-traumatic stress. Before attempting any coping techniques, survivors should ensure that they are actually safe and that their feelings of unease are not linked to real dangers. Once any imminent threats have been addressed, survivors should seek support from a therapist. Other techniques for managing feelings of unsafety following an assault include practicing anxiety-reduction techniques, learning self defense, developing a safety plan, seeking support from friends and loved ones, and rebuilding trust with one’s body through therapy and embodiment practices. Above all, survivors should remember that recovering from traumatic stress-related symptoms can take time, from several weeks to several years.

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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