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Rape Trauma Syndrome

Rape Trauma Syndrome

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Rape trauma syndrome (RTS) is the psychological trauma experienced by a rape victim that includes disruptions to normal physical, emotional, cognitive, and interpersonal behaviour. This theory was first described by Miss. Ann Wolbert Burgess (nurse) and sociologist Lynda Lytle Holmstrom in 1974.

The syndrome is classified as a cluster of psychological and physical signs, symptoms and reactions common to most rape victims immediately following a rape, but which can also occur for months or years afterwards. Rape trauma syndrome creates the platform for further consideration of a complex form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; the symptoms seen in both tends to overlap, as might be expected, a person who has been raped will generally experience high levels of distress immediately afterward.

While these feelings of distress may subside over time for some people; on an individual standpoint, each syndrome can have long devastating effects on rape victims and some victims will continue to experience some form of psychological distress for months or years. It has also been found that rape survivors are at high risk for developing substance use disorders, major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and eating disorders.

Stages of Rape Trauma Syndrome

Stage 1: Acute Stage

This first stage occurs in the first set of days or weeks after a rape. Each individual case is different in terms of the amount of time the victim may remain in the acute stage. The immediate symptoms may last a few days to a few weeks and may overlap with the outward adjustment stage.

Research has shown that there is no “typical” response amongst rape victims, but in most cases, a rape victim’s acute stage can be classified as one of three responses: expressed (“He or she may appear agitated or hysterical, [and] may suffer from crying spells or anxiety attacks”); controlled (“the survivor appears to be without emotion and acts as if ‘nothing happened’ and ‘everything is fine’”); or shock/disbelief (“the survivor reacts with a strong sense of disorientation. They may have difficulty concentrating, making decisions, or doing everyday tasks. They may also have poor recall of the assault”). Not all rape survivors show their emotions outwardly. Some may appear calm and unaffected by the assault.

Some of the typical behaviors seen in the acute stage includes:

  • Diminished alertness.
  • Numbness.
  • Dulled sensory, affective and memory functions.
  • Disorganized thought content.
  • Vomiting.
  • Nausea.
  • Paralyzing anxiety.
  • Pronounced internal tremor.
  •  Obsession to wash or clean themselves.
  • Hysteria, confusion and crying.
  • Bewilderment.
  • Acute sensitivity to the reaction of other people.

Stage 2: The outward adjustment stage

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