Lea began experiencing severe physical problems shortly after she was raped. Years later, she suffers from intense and untreatable nerve pain that has worsened throughout her adult life and from regular migraines thought to be related to PTSD.
“I have survived sexual assault and harassment and experienced them together,” Lea said. “I suffer from idiopathic dysautonomia, neurological damage that causes my neurons to misfire or misreceive information. This means I interpret many sensations as pain… Everything from itches to simply having a body puts strains on my neurological pathways.”
Awareness of sexual assault and harassment has been steadily increasing since the #MeToo campaign entered the public eye in late 2017. But despite a greater awareness of assault, there is still a huge stigma surrounding those who experience it. Survivors say they often feel accused of lying or blamed for causing attacks by being drunk or wearing revealing clothing. This kind of shaming harms not only reputations but also the health of survivors.
Survivors such as Christine Blasey Ford have been sent death threats for “ruining the lives” of those they have accused. Ford has had to move homes four times due to death threats and continued harassment, while her alleged attacker, Brett Kavanaugh, is back teaching youth basketball and settling into his new job as associate justice at the Supreme Court.
According to RAINN, the national sexual assault nonprofit, there are an estimated 321,500 survivors of sexual assault each year in the United States, and 50 to 90 percent of them go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“Sometimes sexual harassment registers as a trauma, and it’s difficult for the patient to deal with it, so what literally happens is the body starts to become overwhelmed.”
On top of the trauma from harassment and assault itself, researchers have found that survivors are at greater risk of developing serious health issues, including depression, PTSD, high blood pressure, anxiety, kidney disease, aneurysms, diabetes, and many other serious illnesses. The connection was little understood until a study published in the October 2018 Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Of 304 women surveyed, 19 percent had experienced workplace sexual harassment, and 22 percent had a history of sexual assault.
Compared to participants who did not have a history of sexual harassment, those with a history of harassment had higher systolic and diastolic blood pressure and a higher likelihood of Stage 1 or 2 hypertension. Some 60 percent of survivors reported problems sleeping, compared to 20 percent among women who had not been attacked, and 95 percent showed symptoms of depression and clinical anxiety.
The results highlighting high blood pressure are particularly troubling, because the condition is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease — suggesting that sexual harassment and assault could actually be contributing to the leading cause of death for women in the United States.
“What is clear is that this association is strong, that sexual abuse is also associated with these other cardiovascular risk factors,” Donna Arnett, PhD, an epidemiologist of the University of Alabama, told MedPageToday. “We need to do a better job of screening and identifying childhood sexual abuse at an early age.”
On top of blood pressure issues, the researchers in the JAMA study found some surprising differences in age and class. They discovered that women who were more highly educated yet under more financial pressure were more likely to be sexually assaulted. Younger women were more likely to be harassed. This may be due to the fact that women with higher financial demands (who often also happen to be millennials) are more likely to stay in abusive work situations for financial security. Similarly, highly educated women may become employed in more male-dominated fields — often white-collar jobs such as medicine and law.
Knowing what causes certain illnesses and symptoms is imperative to treating them. Painkillers and antihistamines can’t change deep-seated emotional trauma, which can continue to put physical stress on the body if not addressed.
“Sometimes sexual harassment registers as a trauma, and it’s difficult for the patient to deal with it, so what literally happens is the body starts to become overwhelmed,” Nekeshia Hammond, a psychologist and founder of Hammond Psychology & Associates, told NBC News. The body reacts to trauma in a physical way as a form of denial. “We call it somatizing: The mental health becomes so overwhelming, one can’t process it to the point of saying ‘I have been traumatized’ or ‘I am depressed.’”
On top of self injury and mental illness, the trauma can also cause symptoms like migraines, insomnia, and disordered eating. “I have personally suffered from severe insomnia and found myself incapable of working, impacting my life in just about every way. I also suffer from migraines, which could be related to PTSD,” Lea says. “I began experiencing these symptoms shortly after my first rape, and they have continued and worsened through my adult life.”
Acknowledging how sexual assault and harassment affects the body in physical ways is imperative to saving lives. But decreasing the ignorance and stigma around the issue is also vital to helping many survivors get the help they need.