The Long-Term Effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse: Understanding the Psychological, Physiological, and Emotional Impact
Childhood sexual abuse is a deeply sensitive topic and of course I approach it with the respect, empathy, and clarity it deserves. If there is anything in this article that you begin to feel overwhelmed or dysregulated by, set it down and reach out for support. If you feel overwhelmed or at immediate risk and need to talk confidentially please click on the link below for contacting
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Childhood sexual abuse/trauma (I will use the terms interchangeably) is a deeply traumatic experience that can have profound and lasting effects. My aim is to provide you with awareness and understanding of the long-term psychological, physiological, and emotional impact of what you or a loved one may have experienced. When you feel informed and heard, you are empowered in knowing what you’re feeling and experiencing is not your fault.
The experience of childhood sexual trauma can change the way you understand your world, the people in it and where you belong. Your understanding of yourself and the world can become distorted, and create mistrust, fear, and betrayal.
Depending on the relationship and duration of the sexual harm, subsequent relational trauma could affect your ability to connect with others and yourself. Your personality and behaviours might change markedly from what they were prior to the sexual trauma or you may not have a sense of self prior to the trauma.
In the coming paragraphs I’ll be sharing some of the most common long term effects of childhood sexual abuse and how they can be overcome with the help of therapy and other resources.
For clarification, this article focuses on the long term effects into adulthood, not the immediate effects for children.
Many adults may still be dealing with the lasting impact of childhood sexual abuse. In some cases, it can take years for people to even understand that they were sexually abused. Others may suppress or deny their experiences only to face their memories years later.
There is no judgement here.
Awareness, finding your voice, recovery and healing take time.
It is perfectly normal for an adult to still be recovering from abuse in childhood. There is no time or age limit for recovery or healing.
Childhood sexual abuse and trauma is not a life sentence. In the last 24 years of providing professional integrative trauma therapy support for survivors of all ages, I have witnessed first hand how people have gone on to live thriving and flourishing lives.
As one of my amazing young therapy clients said to me at the end of their therapy journey with me recently
Just because something bad has happened to me Helen, it doesn’t mean I have to hate myself for the rest of my life
Experiencing a range of emotions and psychological difficulties persisting long after the abuse has ended is not uncommon and is a typical response to the experience. In understanding these effects you can feel understood and empowered in seeking appropriate support and understand how you can look after yourself.
1. Many survivors of childhood sexual abuse develop PTSD 0r CPTSD ( What is CPTSD? ) characterised by confusing or intrusive memories, flashbacks, nightmares, and prolonged distress. These may trigger a heightened state of hyperarousal and hypervigilance, making it difficult for you to feel safe and secure.
2.Childhood sexual abuse is strongly associated with depression and anxiety symptoms relating to the overwhelming fear experienced during the abusive experience. You may be experiencing feelings of sadness, hopelessness, guilt, and worthlessness leading to excessive worry, fear, and panic attacks.
3. Childhood sexual abuse can lead to alterations in brain development, particularly in regions associated with rational thinking, fear, stress regulation, and emotional processing. These changes can contribute to you having difficulties with emotional regulation, memory problems, and heightened stress/survival responses.
4: In order to survive a deeply traumatic experience in which you feel powerless, your autonomic nervous system deploys dissociation, numbing out and/or submissive reactions as a ‘hypoarousal’ survival coping mechanism. This can lead to a fragmented sense of self and skewed perception of reality. This dissociation survival mechanism can lead to disruptions in memory, identity, and perception.
5. The early traumatic experience can profoundly impact your self-perception, leading to feelings of Shame self-blame, and a distorted self-image. You may find yourself struggling with low self-esteem, lack of self-worth, and difficulty forming healthy relationships.
The physiological effects of childhood sexual abuse can manifest in various ways. You can experience a range of physical symptoms and health issues as a result of the trauma you have endured. Alongside this your body stores the traumatic experience sensorially & emotionally at a deep cellular level. This is a complex area and one that requires more than a few paragraphs. To learn more about this I recommend reading The Body Keeps The Score and Healing Trauma
The physiological effects can vary depending on various factors such as the duration and severity of the abuse, individual resilience, and the presence of support systems.
Here are some common physiological effects:
1. You may have a higher likelihood of developing a range of physical health issues. These can include chronic pain, fibromyalgia, gastrointestinal problems, headaches, and autoimmune disorders. The association between trauma and physical health can be attributed to the long-term impact of stress on the body’s immune and inflammatory systems.
2. You may experience sleep difficulties such as nightmares, insomnia, or disturbed sleep patterns. These disturbances can contribute to increased daytime fatigue & impaired concentration.
3. Having experienced childhood sexual trauma you may have challenges related to sexual health and intimate relationships. These can include difficulties with sexual functioning, avoidance of sexual activities, and alterations in the menstrual cycle for women.
4. Childhood sexual abuse has been closely linked to an increased risk of engaging in substance abuse and developing addictive behaviours. You may feel the need to rely on substances as a coping mechanism to numb emotional pain or manage distressing memories associated with the abuse.
Addressing the physiological impact through therapy, somatic exercises, self-care practices, and building a support network, you can take significant steps toward reclaiming your physical and emotional well-being.
Responding to the Physiological Impact:
1. Seek professional help: It is crucial to seek support from professionals who specialise in trauma. Therapy helps in processing the impact of your experiences, develop coping strategies, and addressing the physiological symptoms you may be experiencing. As an integrative trauma therapist I work with mind, body, emotion and spirituality to support recovery and healing at any age. Book a Call to Begin Your Journey
2. Somatic exercises can be beneficial in regulating the body’s response to stress and trauma. These practices focus on connecting the mind and body, promoting relaxation, and reducing physical tension. There are a range of exercises specific to sexual trauma recovery.
3. Prioritising self-care activities, such as getting enough sleep, maintaining a balanced diet, engaging in regular physical activity, and practicing relaxation techniques, can help manage physiological symptoms.
4. Surrounding yourself with a supportive network of friends, family, or support groups can be invaluable in the healing process. Connecting with others who have experienced similar trauma can provide a sense of validation, understanding, and encouragement. Healing happens in safe relationships.
It is important to understand and recognise these emotional effects in providing healing. There is an overlap in areas with the psychological effects described above and therefore the ‘respond to’ section covers both area.
Common emotional effects
1. Flashbacks, nightmares, hyperarousal, and intense psychological distress, significantly impacting the ability to function in daily life and maintain healthy relationships. This is also in relation to PTSD & CPTSD (as above).
2. You may experience chronic anxiety, panic attacks, or a deep sense of unease without any rational explanation. These can be triggered by reminders of the abuse or occur seemingly without reason, leading to feelings of vulnerability and distress. Anxiety developed as a result of trauma is different to generalised anxiety. Generalised anxiety is about what could happen, whereas anxiety in relation to trauma is about what has happened and the stored cellular and nervous system sensory memory of this.
3. Childhood sexual trauma often contributes to the development of depressive symptoms. Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, worthlessness, and a loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities are common. You may also experience difficulties with sleep, appetite, and concentration.
4. The impact of childhood sexual trauma often carries an overwhelming sense of shame and guilt, even though you are not at fault for the abuse. These feelings can lead to self-blame, low self-esteem, and a distorted self-image. Here’s the link again for understanding more about Trauma & Toxic Shame
5. You may struggle with trust and intimacy in your relationships, finding it challenging to form and maintain close bonds. The betrayal experienced through abuse can make it difficult to establish boundaries and engage in healthy emotional connections.
6. Your emotions may feel intense and fluctuate rapidly. You may experience difficulty in regulating your emotions, which can lead to emotional outbursts, ‘self-destructive’ behaviour, and difficulty in managing stress.
Responding to the Emotional Effects:
Supporting yourself and having support in your healing journey involves creating a safe and empathetic environment. Here are some ways to respond to the emotional impact of childhood sexual trauma:
1. Validate your experiences and express your emotions with the compassion you would provide to others. At the very least know that your emotions are valid and that healing is possible. Brining compassion to yourself and your experiences is at the cornerstone of healing and recovery and you can begin this with my free audio meditation download Activate Your Self Healing ™
2. Seek professional therapy from trauma-focused and trauma-attuned professionals who specialise in guiding the recovery and healing of childhood sexual abuse. Trauma therapy is an empowering process of transformation.
3. Build a support network of understanding and empathetic people around you who can provide you with emotional support and validation. Search for free online community groups in your area or you can join my monthly membership therapy group here Women Rising
4. Engage in self-care activities that promote your mental and emotional well-being. Include mindfulness practices, relaxation techniques, exercise, creative outlets, and healthy coping mechanisms that resonate for you.
5. Somatic exercises involve connecting with and releasing tension from the body as a way to support emotional healing. These exercises, such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, or dance, can help you develop a greater awareness of your bodies and release stored trauma.
Healing from Childhood Sexual Abuse In Adulthood:
I’ve covered some areas in each section for you but here’s some additional dedicated guidance in how to begin recovering and healing from childhood sexual abuse.
Whilst challenging and indeed scary, sharing and telling someone what you experienced is a way of you owning your experience rather than it owning you. You don’t have to tell the details, but giving your voice to your experience, after it has been silenced for such a long time, is empowering.
Recovery from childhood sexual abuse begins when you acknowledge that you are not defined by it and the catalyst for that is finding your voice, being believed and having your voice validated.
This can look different for everyone, but choosing things that make you feel powerful and in control are incredibly empowering.
Choose empowering behaviours that bring you a sense of achievement and joy. They can be playful such as dance, creative such as learning a musical instrument, loud such as singing, silent daily affirmations, meditation …..anything that helps you feel in control and is just about YOU.
At the very least, this daily affirmation repeated as often as you want
What happened to me is not my fault. I am not defined by what has happened to me
is a good place to start.
Seek A Strong Support Network:
Notice the people in your life who support you and you can trust for whenever you feel scared, ashamed, angry or afraid. Seek them out when you need to feel supported. They will be there for you and show up for you in ways you would never imagine.
Seek safety and comfort from a support group for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. This kind of group promotes a common humanity of people with a shared experience which is validating and empowering.
Body-Focused Trauma Work:
Trauma lives in the body, it is a sensory experience rather than a cognitive one. In order to heal from trauma we have to go into the body to release and integrate.
Having worked with a significant number of childhood sexual abuse survivors over the years, it’s my experience that release and integration can happened regardless of how long ago the sexual trauma happened.
What are the approaches to look for when choosing a therapist?
Somatic Experiencing Therapy, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation & Reprocessing), Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), Polyvagal Therapy and Internal Family Systems Therapy , Somatic Psychotherapy
Other body focused daily exercise you can choose:
Yoga, Qigong, gentle exercise, walking, dance
ASK FOR HELP
A trauma focused and trauma attuned therapist has the skill and expertise to guide you through the recovery and healing process and can be come the most profound transformational relationship you will ever experience.
As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, it is important to remember that you are not alone in your journey. Understanding the long-term effects is a vital step towards healing and self-compassion. It is normal to feel overwhelmed by the psychological, physiological, and emotional impact, but please know that there is hope.
Remember, with time, understanding, and compassion for yourself, it is possible to reclaim your power, find healing, and build a fulfilling life beyond the shadows of the past. With time, love, support, and kindness to yourself along the way, it’s possible to heal from sexual trauma.
As a specialist integrative trauma therapist for the last 24 years I provide a bespoke ‘mind, body, emotion & soul’ recovery & healing experience for Childhood trauma, CPTSD and Sexual Trauma.
Working with people across the age ranges from 6 year olds to 66 year olds, I have had the honour of guiding the most amazing and courageous people from all over the world on their healing journey.
Accompanied by my 2 canine co-therapists Leo and Lyla, I am passionate about supporting you to have the safest and most loving relationship you can have with you.