Drinking to Cope with Sexual Assault

Drinking & Substance Abuse as Coping Mechanisms to Sexual Assault

After sexual assault, rape, or any unwanted sexual encounter, an individual can experience a myriad of emotions. They range from shock, denial, anxiety, anger, confusion, helplessness, guilt, shame, fear, sadness and many more.  After the initial shock and immediate feelings, individuals will still carry around the trauma of what has occurred. Therefore, it is important that the survivor address the ordeal and receive proper healing and support. Without proper help, and individual can spiral into unhealthy behaviors like drinking to manage their thinking and emotions. Alcohol and substance abuse are popular ways to deal with life-altering experiences but relying on alcohol or drugs to cope can be prevented.

Why a Survivor May Turn to Alcohol or Other Substances

After surviving a trauma there are still lingering emotions and involuntary physical responses. While the survivor had no control during the traumatic experience, they are able to maintain control over the aftermath of the situation. Many survivors associate illicit substances and alcohol with emotional management/regulation. “Human nature says we are supposed to have control over our bodies and minds. When we have been terrorized through sexual assault and can’t advocate for ourselves in the moment, that fight or flight energy has to go somewhere. If we freeze, our central nervous system is still hyper-aroused. It’s all wound up and buzzing. Victims dissociate so they detach from feeling their emotions. The emotions are still happening, though. That disconnect leads to trying to control and regulate feelings.” states Paula Tropiano, a psychotherapist.[1]

Another therapist also explains why there may be a higher prevalence of using drugs when accessible. “One reason that survivors may prefer drugs,” Parish said, “is so they can try to control the high. When you’re drinking alcohol, that first buzzed state is where you get the feeling of euphoria and relax. But if you keep drinking, you get drunk. It’s hard to keep the constant level of alcohol in your bloodstream required for attaining euphoria. Especially when you’re at work. Carrying a flask in your back pocket is not as cool as it used to be, and it’s much easier and more discreet to pop a pill.” [2]

Address the Trauma

As a survivor of assault, it is important to address, not ignore, trauma.  Through for some, there may be no desire to do so, it will help aid in healing and ensure that there are less residual effects. As a support to the survivor, take care not to force or guilt the individual into seeking help. Though help is imperative, being forced into another unwanted situation can result in deepening the traumatic feelings. Try to reason with the individual, and connect with them on an emotional level. To reach the survivor, try a statement such as, “I know you may be uninterested, but this will help you to reclaim your power, and I would be so happy to see you find peace. Can we give this a try?”

Post -Traumatic Stress Disorder

Those who do not address the trauma, and even those who do, may experience PTSD. However, once there are supports and coping mechanisms in place, those who experience PTSD may find it more manageable and are able to heal from it more quickly. They also will find that using their coping skills will prevent drugs and alcohol from becoming their method of management. Left untreated, PTSD can become a factor in alcohol or drug abuse following a traumatic sexual assault.  National Women’s Study reported that almost one of every three all rape victims develop PTSD sometime during their lives. Symptoms of PTSD include repeated thoughts of the assault; memories and nightmares; avoidance of thoughts, feelings, and situations related to the assault; negative changes in thought and feelings; and increased arousal (for example difficulty sleeping and concentrating, jumpiness, irritability). [3]

Instill Coping Mechanisms

There are excellent coping mechanisms aside from drinking or drug use. One mechanism is mindfulness. This focuses on helping a person to remain and focus on the present and in tune with their senses and present experience. Enrolling in a class or in a hobby that is of interest can provide a distraction and help to place the focus on oneself; a martial arts or self-defense class has the added bonus of helping to feel prepared and in control should an unwanted situation arise.  Make sure that there are various coping ideas/skills so that alcohol or substances are not seen as an option. Journaling, exercise, proper sleeping and eating are also great ways to take care of both physical and emotional health. 

Find Real Supports

Utilizing a therapist is an excellent support, as they can help with different techniques for processing a trauma. EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) is one such technique and does not exacerbate the trauma when it is addressed.  Join a survivors group for support from others who share a common experience.  A support group can help with coping through sharing ideas and being a source of information about how to best heal.  An accountability partner is another excellent idea.  When there is a temptation to drink or use a substance, the accountability partner can help think of other ideas and/ or provide company until the feeling subsides.

Learn the Facts About Alcohol

It is important to know what alcohol actually does to your body during binge, moderate, and heavy drinking.  Overall, alcohol adversely affects the brain — decision making, impulse control, and emotional regulation – as well as other major organs. While it seems to stimulate senses in the beginning, it is a depressant and slows down the body’s systems. This can actually increase the intensity of negative feelings and exacerbate the feelings of helplessness. Once the alcohol wears off, the trauma will still be present as well as any feelings surrounding the trauma. Alcohol will have solved nothing. Drugs can have long term effects as well, even after one use. They do not address the feelings surrounding the trauma and while managing some, they can exacerbate others. Additionally, they also damage many major organs.

Drinking & Substance Use After Trauma

After a traumatic experience, there may be a difference in social life and relationships with others. This is normal, as there may be issues with trusting others as well as engaging in certain activities, especially if they were a factor in the original trauma. Many people may deliberate over drinking recreationally after such an event. It is important to note that there is a difference between having a drink recreationally and drinking to numb the pain. It is important to evaluate whether drinking is a healthy decision to make after experiencing trauma.

There is no shame in disclosing an unwanted sexual experience, and seeking help is a great way to ensure that trauma management begins immediately.  If you or someone you know is seeking help after sexual assault or unwanted sexual contact, contact RAINN (the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) or contact your local authorities to report the crime.  Alcohol and substance abuse can be avoided as a coping mechanism when proper supports and skills are in place. Neither alcohol nor other substances can heal or help with the aftermath of a trauma. Drinking can only mask emotion and contribute to the detriment of an individual.





Olds, Dorri. “Rape, Trauma, and Substance Abuse.” The Fix. April 3, 2016. Accessed December 12, 2017. https://www.thefix.com/rape-trauma-substance-abuse-alcoholism-NWS.

“PTSD: National Center for PTSD.” Sexual Assault Against Females – PTSD: National Center for PTSD. January 01, 2007. Accessed December 12, 2017. https://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/PTSD-overview/women/sexual-assault-females.asp.

[1] Olds, Dorri. “Rape, Trauma, and Substance Abuse.” The Fix. April 3, 2016.

[2] Olds, Dorri. “Rape, Trauma, and Substance Abuse.” The Fix. April 3, 2016.

[3] “PTSD: National Center for PTSD.” Sexual Assault Against Females – PTSD: National Center for PTSD. January 01, 2007


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