Sexual assault comes in different forms, but any of them can be a significant source of trauma for the person who experiences them. To be clear, sexual assault refers to any unwanted sexual activity, including rape, molestation, or other non-consensual acts, that is perpetrated against a person without their consent.
Can Sexual Assault Lead to Addiction?
Does sexual assault cause addiction? While there isn’t a direct 1:1 correlative relationship, there is no question that people who have experienced sexual abuse are more likely to develop substance use disorders.
Whether it is a single isolated incident or a pattern, sexual assault experiences have lasting psychological effects that can remain with a person for a lifetime. The positive news is that treatment for sexual abuse-related trauma is more advanced than at any time in history. People do recover and go on to live happier, healthier lives. This blog from Reconnect explores the impact of sexual assault and potential connections between sexual assault and addiction.
People who experience sexual assault are:
- 3.4 times more likely to use marijuana.
- 5.3 times more likely to misuse prescription drugs
- 6.4 times more likely to use cocaine.
- 10 times more likely to use ‘hard drugs’ other than cocaine.
The Effects of Sexual Assault and Resulting Behaviors
Sexual assault can have profound and long-lasting effects on survivors, impacting their physical, emotional, and psychological well-being. These effects can vary greatly depending on the individual and the circumstances of the assault, but some common consequences include:
Sexual assault can result in immediate physical injuries, such as bruising, cuts, broken bones, or internal damage. Survivors may also experience chronic pain, headaches, and gastrointestinal problems as a result of the trauma.
Survivors of sexual assault often experience a range of intense emotions, including fear, anger, guilt, shame, and sadness. They may feel isolated, distrustful, and vulnerable, which can lead to difficulties in forming and maintaining relationships.
Sexual assault can have a significant impact on mental health. Survivors may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, or suicidal thoughts. They may also experience flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive thoughts related to the assault.
As a result of the trauma, survivors may exhibit changes in their behavior, such as withdrawing from social activities, engaging in self-harm, or developing substance abuse problems. They may also experience changes in their sexual behavior, including a decrease in sexual desire or an increase in risky sexual behaviors.
Sexual assault can have a ripple effect on survivors’ relationships with friends, family, and romantic partners. They may experience difficulties in trusting others, forming close connections, or maintaining healthy boundaries in their relationships.
Does Sexual Assault Cause Substance Abuse?
This is a complex question, but it is safe to say that while there isn’t a direct correlation between sexual assault and developing a substance use disorder, there is abundant evidence that experiencing sexual assault and developing a substance use disorder. Research suggests that sexual assault survivors may be as much as 10 times more likely to experience addiction than the population as a whole.
Substantial scientific evidence has shown a link between sexual assault and the development of addiction. Studies have found that individuals who have experienced sexual assault are more likely to engage in substance use and develop substance use disorders compared to those who have not experienced such trauma. Additionally, research has demonstrated that survivors of sexual assault may develop behavioral addictions as a coping mechanism to deal with the psychological distress caused by the traumatic event.
Why Does Sexual Assault Increase the Chance of Addiction?
The psychological mechanisms that can lead to addiction after experiencing sexual assault involve the brain’s stress response system and reward pathways. When someone experiences trauma, such as sexual assault, their body releases stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline.
These hormones activate the body’s “fight or flight” response, which can result in increased feelings of anxiety, fear, and hypervigilance. Over time, chronic activation of the stress response system can lead to dysregulation of the brain’s reward pathway, making the individual more susceptible to developing addiction.
Letting Go of Harmful Coping Mechanisms
Survivors of sexual assault may turn to substances or addictive behaviors as a way to cope with the emotional pain and psychological distress caused by the trauma. Substance use or engaging in addictive behaviors can provide temporary relief from negative emotions, but over time, it can lead to the development of addiction.
Repeated exposure to addictive substances or behaviors can cause changes in the brain’s reward system, making it more challenging for the individual to experience pleasure without engaging in the addictive behavior. This connection is a large part of why substance use disorder treatment is increasingly focused on trauma resolution. It is also why trauma care is at the core of our treatment philosophy here at Reconnect.
Reconnect Offers Hope for Sexual Assault and Addiction.
Strategies for treating post-sexual assault substance use disorders include early intervention and trauma-informed therapy that empowers the client. Access to appropriate mental health care, such as trauma-focused therapies, can help them resolve substance use disorders, or even avoid them in the first place.
At Reconnect, we offer specialized mental health programs for trauma and mental health treatment for a wide range of conditions, including sexual assault and substance use disorders.. Our therapists and experts are passionate about helping people live better lives through reconnection.
If you or someone you love could use help following sexual assault, addiction or any other mental health disorder, Reconnect wants to help. Give us a call at (310) 713-6739 today, to find out what we can do for you.
Kilpatrick, D. G., Acierno, R., Resnick, H. S., Saunders, B. E., & Best, C. L. (1997). A 2-year longitudinal analysis of the relationships between violent assault and substance use in women. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 65(5), 834-847.
Sinha, R. (2008). Chronic stress, drug use, and vulnerability to addiction. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1141(1), 105-130.