Most sexual assault survivors develop PTSD just one week after attack

SEATTLE, Wash. — An unsettling new study by a team at the University of Washington finds more than four in five sexual assault survivors (81%) experience significant PTSD-related symptoms just one week after the attack. By the time a month has passed, that figure dips only slightly, to 75 percent. However, researchers note that one month after a trauma is the earliest doctors can formally diagnose a case of post-traumatic stress disorder.

After three months, 53 percent of assault survivors reported PTSD symptoms and, after a full year, 41 percent met the criteria for PTSD diagnosis. On a more positive note, study authors also discovered that many start feeling better within three months.

“One of the main takeaways is that the majority of recovery from post-traumatic stress happens in first three months,” says lead study author Emily Dworkin, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at UW’s School of Medicine, in a university release. “We hope this will give survivors and clinicians a sense of what to expect and convey some hope.”

What do PTSD patients deal with?

This research is the first ever analysis of PTSD symptoms among sexual assault survivors within one year of an attack. However, this isn’t the first research project to find that PTSD is both common and severe following a sexual assault incident.

Researchers analyzed a total of 22 prior studies for this initiative, all of which had assessed PTSD in sexual assault survivors over time. In all, those studies included 2,106 sexual assault survivors.

In most cases, PTSD symptoms include nightmares focusing on the traumatic event, intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, self-blame, an increase in negative emotions, a decrease in positive emotions, and a feeling of constantly being “on edge.”

Thankfully, a number of treatments, such as Prolonged Exposure Therapy or Cognitive Processing Therapy, have proven effective at helping patients recover from sexual assault incidents and other traumas. In conclusion, study authors stress the importance of seeking out help and support if someone is feeling any PSTD-related symptoms in the weeks, months, or even years following a traumatic event or attack.

The study is published in Trauma.

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