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FOCUS ON: Rape – Reactions to Rape

The following excerpt has been taken from “The Road to Recovery: You & Rape” – created and distributed by the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust. You can download the complete booklet in English, Afrikaans or isiXhosa, from their website: rapecrisis.org.za


Each person copes with trauma in a different way, depending on her or his circumstances. How long your journey to recovery takes will depend on many things, including your situation and how supportive the people around you are. If you are worried that negative feelings are lasting too long or becoming overwhelming, you might consider getting help. It’s important to remember that there are people who can help you, such as a rape counsellor, social worker, psychologist, clinic sister or even a family member or a friend you can trust.

Partners, parents or friends and family members may not know how to respond to you, and may even share some of your feelings about the rape. They can also choose to go for counselling so that they can learn to understand their own feelings and how to offer you more support.

On the other hand, people around you might need to distance themselves from what happened to you because, although it could happen to them too, they don’t want to believed that. Some people might not be supportive, because they themselves live with men who rape, or because It has happened to them and they don’t want you to remind them of their own painful experiences. The truth is that not everyone around you will be supportive, and you may feel alone in dealing with some things. However, you don’t have to be alone on your journey along the road to recovery – there are signposts that can help you on your way.

Phases of Recovery

The first signpost along the road to recovery is realising that there is a pattern to how most people progress or move through the trauma of rape. However these phases don’t follow on neatly from one to another; you may move backwards and forwards through the phases as you work through the trauma.

There is no single way to recover; your journey is unique. With good support, people can recover from rape, but many people choose not to get support and not to tell anyone about what happened. The following phases can also be seen in people who do not go for counselling:

Acute Phase

Immediately after the rape, most survivors feel shock, dismay, fear, panic and anger. Some survivors show this by being numb or dazed, others by being openly upset. You would probably react this way in the first few hours, days and weeks after the rape, but usually not longer than two weeks afterwards. This is the first phase of the crisis. It is called the acute phase because it is so intense. Many survivors are unable to talk about the rape. You might have nightmares and feel shocked, guilty, afraid, ashamed, powerless, angry, depressed and afraid of being touched. These feelings can be overwhelming.

Outward Adjustment Phase

In this phase, most survivors try to carry on with their lives as normal. To anyone looking at you from the outside, you may seem to be coping. You might even feel this way yourself. You need to go through this phase to reassure yourself that you can cope. During this phase, you test your ability to survive the experience. You may use all kinds of different ways of coping, such as pretending the rape didn’t happen or pushing thoughts and feelings away.

In this phase, rape survivors are usually not open to coming for counselling. You tend to feel a lot less troubled than during the acute phase, but you may not want to speak about the rape very much. This can be difficult for those close to you who wish to be helpful and think they can do that by getting you to talk. They may feel frustrated if you don’t want to talk or they may put pressure on you to behave differently. You might find that during this phase what you really need is for people to let you be.

Integration Phase

During the integration phase, the part of you that felt overwhelmed by intense emotions during the acute phase and the part of you that felt almost nothing during the outward adjustment phase come together. The intense feelings start to come back, but less overwhelming than before. You may begin to feel depressed or anxious and start thinking about the rape when you least expect to. This is the time when you might wish to talk a bit more about what happened. You might start having nightmares again and feel shocked, guilty, afraid, ashamed, powerless, angry, depressed and afraid of being touched or of being alone. You may well find that you cannot function the way you used to. You may also start to think about the rapist more.

Many survivors in this phase believe their feelings mean they have serious emotional problems or are going mad. This is a good time to go for counselling because it can give you support and comfort, with respect for what you are going through. You can also get information about what you are going through in the form of psycho-education. Psycho-education helps you and people close to you understand and deal with the feelings you have. Also, your counsellor will help you find your own strengths, resources and coping skills, so that you learn to be a part of your own recovery and contribute to your health and wellness on a long-term basis. The better the knowledge you have about what you’re going through, the better you can live with it and share it.

Renewal Phase

You begin to make sense of the trauma and to feel safer in the world. During this phase your symptoms will ease off or disappear. The memory of the rape will not have the same effect on you. You may start to feel good about life again. You may still feel emotional at times, but overall you will feel more in control and able to move forward.

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Common Feelings or Reactions to Rape

During the first two phases, many people report feeling or experiencing:

  • Shock
  • Guilt
  • Powerlessness and a loss of control
  • Fear
  • Shame
  • An inability to speak about the rape
  • Nightmares
  • A fear of touching
  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Grief about loss
  • The desire to use drugs and alcohol
  • The desire to hurt themselves, for example by cutting themselves
  • Suicidal thoughts or feelings

For information on common feelings and reactions to rape please visit the Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust website at: http://rapecrisis.org.za/ – alternatively download “The Road to Recovery: You & Rape” booklet from http://rapecrisis.org.za/rape-in-south-africa/you-rape-booklet/


Rape Crisis Cape Town Trust. (2011). Reactions to Rape. In The Road to Recovery: You and Rape (pp. 41 – 51). [Online available from: http://rapecrisis.org.za/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/you-and-rape-booklet-english.pdf [Accessed: 21 July 2015].

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FOCUS ON: Self-Harm – Getting Help (Part 1)

There are a lot of misconceptions and stigma around self-harming – only girls do it, it’s attention-seeking behaviour, the person is unstable or crazy. 


For this and other reasons self-harmers are known to be secretive and unlikely to ask for help or be willing to talk about their problem.

Why don’t you ask for help?

There are a variety of reasons why young people who self-harm don’t ask for help:

  • Self-harming is their only coping mechanism, the only thing that keeps them alive and the thought of having it taken away is terrifying.
  • Many believe that they have things under control and can sort things out on their own.
  • The fear of being labelled, ostracized or not taken seriously.
  • Not having anyone to talk to, who would understand and not judge them.
  • Female self-harmers are particularly fearful of being dismissed as attention seeking or “silly”.
  • Male self-harmers often feel that their injuries are not serious enough to warrant asking for help.


How to help yourself

1. Find someone to confide in

Finding someone to confide in is a big and, often, daunting step. It will however be a big relief to finally share with someone what you have been going through.

The decision of who to tell may be difficult. What is most important is that whoever you choose is trustworthy and you feel comfortable with them. The person you decide to confide in does not necessarily have to be someone close to you, such as a family member or friend. Sometimes it is easier to reveal your secret to someone who you know will accept and support you, but who is not from your “inner circle” and so can be objective about the situation, for example: a counsellor, a teacher, the family GP.

The following tips may help you with opening up about your self-harming behaviour:

Give the person you confide in a little time to process what you have told them

Revealing a secret such as self-harming to someone can result in a variety of reactions. You may need to give the person some time to think about what you have told (and possibly shown) them. It would also be helpful to explain to them why you have decided to confide in them – be it to relieve yourself of the burden of having to keep your self-harming a secret or because you would like their advice and help. The person’s initial reaction may not be a positive one, it is important to remember that reactions such as anger and shock have to do with their concern for you.

Focus on the feelings and situations that cause you to self-harm

In order to help the person you are confiding in better understand why you self-harm, focus on and explain the feelings and / or situations which act as triggers for you; rather than discussing the details of how you self-harm.

Communicate in a way that is comfortable for you

If the thought of having a face-to-face conversation is too intimidating, consider writing your chosen confidant a letter or e-mail as a way of getting things started – it is however important to eventually follow this up with an actual face-to-face meeting. Do not allow yourself to be pressured into discussing or sharing things you are not ready to talk about, this includes showing the person your injuries or answering questions you feel uncomfortable with.

2. Figure out why you self-harm

Identify your triggers

Self-harm is often a response to and a way of dealing with emotional pain – try to start identifying the feelings that make you want to hurt yourself. Consider keeping a diary for a few weeks and writing down the emotions you are experiencing when you get the urge to self-harm, these may include: anger, shame, guilt, loneliness, sadness, emptiness etc. By becoming more self-aware of your internal, emotional state and your triggers, you can learn to better deal with these negative feelings and develop healthier alternatives for expressing your emotions.

Become emotionally self-aware

Emotional self-awareness refers to knowing or being able to identify what you are feeling and why you are feeling it. It involves the ability to identify and express what you are feeling and understand the link between your feelings and actions.

The idea of consciously paying attention to your emotions, rather than hiding from them through self-harming, may be a frightening prospect. There is the fear that you may become overwhelmed by them or that they may never leave. It is during times like this you need to remind yourself that emotions do not last forever, like waves on a beach, they come and go but only if you allow them to. By making the conscious effort not to obsess and stew over things, emotions will fade and be replaced by new ones, rather than becoming intrusive and unpleasant.

By learning to identify what your emotional triggers are, you can start to investigate the role self-harming plays in your life and what healthier alternatives you can make use of to meet those needs and in turn reduce your urge to self-injure.

3. Develop alternative coping mechanisms

Self-harming is a coping mechanism for dealing with overwhelming emotions or situations. Thus, if you want to stop self-harming, you need to develop healthier, alternative coping mechanisms. Below are some alternatives to consider instead of self-harming:

If you self-harm to soothe and calm yourself

The following alternatives all include a calming, sensory aspect to them – they may sound overly simple but each has proven soothing qualities.

  • listen to calming music
  • wrap yourself up in a warm, soft blanket
  • take a warm bath or shower
  • pet, cuddle or play with a dog or cat
  • massage your hands, feet and neck

If you self-harm to express emotional pain or intense emotions

  • write down what you are feeling in a journal – journaling can be very cathartic
  • paint or draw your emotions – you could even just scribble or doodle on a piece of paper
  • compose a song or poem about what you are feeling – like journaling, this too can be very therapeutic
  • listen to music that expresses your emotions – we all have those songs that capture exactly how we are feeling

If you self-harm to vent or release anger and tension

  • exercise – vigorous running, dancing, boxing helps to release pent up energy and tension
  • get yourself a stress ball or some play dough to squish and squeeze
  • rip something up – paper, a magazine (preferably something that you won’t regret destroying)
  • make some noise – scream into a pillow, drum on a desk, play an instrument

If you self-harm out of feeling disconnected or numb

  • take a cold shower
  • hold an ice cube in the crook of your arm or leg
  • phone a friend – you don’t need to talk about what is going on



Richardson, C. (2012). The Truth About Self-Harm: For Young People and Their Friends and Families [Booklet]. United Kingdom: Mental Health Foundation.

Segal, J. & Smith, M. (2015). Cutting and Self-Harm: Self-Injury Help, Support, and Treatment. Retrieved from: http://www.helpguide.org/articles/anxiety/cutting-and-self-harm.htm.  [Accessed on: 19 May 2015].



FOCUS ON: Self-Harm – Understanding Self-Harm (Part 1)

Self-harm is a common problem and secret many people struggle with on a daily basis. It is often treated as a “taboo” subject and as a result is largely misunderstood and misrepresented. 


The purpose of this Focus On series is to help you better understand what self-harming is, why it happens, how to cope with it, and how to break its destructive cycle.

What is self-harm?

It may sound contradictory and is often difficult for non-self-harmers to understand, but in most cases self-harm is used as a way to deal with intense emotional pain and distress. The use of physical pain helps the person distract themselves from the emotional pain they are experiencing. People who self-harm often speak of the sense of release it brings them, that it makes them feel alive during times when they are so emotionally numb, nothing else can get through to them.

Self-harmers are often accused of being attention seeking and manipulative. However in the majority of cases those who self-harm tend to do so secretively, doing all they can to hide their scars and bruises. This in turn creates an additional emotional burden in that it slowly starts affecting all aspects of their lives: what they can wear, what kind of activities and sports they can partake in, relationships with both friends and family. The “solution” which is meant to bring relief soon creates new problems and stress and so an addictive behaviour pattern can develop.

The term “self-harm” is just one name for the habitual and deliberate infliction of pain as a form of emotional and psychological release; it is also referred to as: self-inflicted violence, self-mutilation and self-abuse. Regardless of the label used the most common forms of harm or injury used include:

  • cutting
  • severe scratching of skin
  • burning
  • scalding
  • banging or hitting your body
  • hair pulling
  • intentionally picking at wounds and preventing them from healing
  • sticking objects into or through the skin
  • swallowing poisonous substances or objects

Self-harm also includes less deliberate or conscious forms of hurt or danger such as: reckless driving, binge drinking, drug abuse, and unsafe sexual practices.


Who self-harms?

Self-harming is a common problem among 11 – 25 year olds, with the average age of onset being 12. There is no “typical self-harmer”, girls are 4 times more likely than boys to self-harm – meaning that boys and young men are not immune to it, but are more likely to hit or bruise themselves so people often dismiss the signs as being the result of an accident or fight.

Certain groups have been identified as being more vulnerable to self-harm:

  • children & young people with learning disabilities
  • children & young people living in residential settings i.e. prison, shelters, hostels and boarding school
  • lesbian, gay, bisexual & transgender young people


Why do people self-harm?

Self-harm is used as a coping mechanism by young people who are unable to express their feelings, guilt, sadness, anger, emptiness or rage in more healthy ways. For these young people self-harm helps them to:

  • express their feelings, which they often cannot put into words
  • give them a sense of control over their lives
  • release pent up pain and tension
  • relieve guilt and punish themselves
  • feel alive, feel something, rather than feeling emotionally numb and disconnected
  • distract them from difficult life circumstances or overwhelming emotions

Precipitating issues which are often linked to self-harming include:

  • poor family and / or parental relationships
  • bullying
  • stress and worry – often school related
  • feeling isolated
  • problems related to sexuality
  • divorce
  • self-harm or suicide of a close friend or relative
  • problems related to race, culture or religion
  • low self-esteem
  • abuse: physical, sexual or emotional (both past and / or current)
  • unwanted pregnancy
  • bereavement
  • feeling of being rejected socially or within the family



Richardson, C. (2012). The Truth About Self-Harm: For Young People and Their Friends and Families [Booklet]. United Kingdom: Mental Health Foundation.

Segal, J. & Smith, M. (2015). Cutting and Self-Harm: Self-Injury Help, Support, and Treatment. Retrieved from: http://www.helpguide.org/articles/anxiety/cutting-and-self-harm.htm. [Accessed on: 05 May 2015].