Women who are sexually assaulted experience more vivid memories than women coping with the aftermath of other traumatic, life-altering events not associated with sexual violence, a new Rutgers-New Brunswick study has found.
Compared with other traumatic life-altering events, the memories of sexual assault remain intense and vivid for years, even when not linked to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the study authors said.
The study, published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, has found that women who had suffered from sexual violence, even those who were not diagnosed with PTSD, had more intense memories — even decades after the violence occurred — that are difficult, if not impossible to forget.
For the study, the researchers studied almost 200 women, aged 18 to 39, including 64 women who were victims of sexual violence. Fewer than 10 percent were taking anti-anxiety or antidepressant drugs.
“To some extent, it is not surprising that these memories relate to more feelings of depression and anxiety, because these women remember what happened and think about it a lot,” said co-author Tracey Shors, a psychology professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ.
“But these feelings and thoughts are usually associated with PTSD. And most women in our study who experienced these vivid memories did not suffer from PTSD, which is generally associated with more intense mental and physical reactions,” Shors said in a university news release.
The women who suffered sexual violence had clear, strong memories, including details of the event. Moreover, they had a hard time forgetting the incident and viewed it as a defining part of their life, the researchers found.
“Each time you reflect on an old memory, you make a new one in your brain because it is retrieved in the present space and time,” Shors said. “What this study shows is that this process can make it even more difficult to forget what happened.”
Other research has found that sexual aggression and violence are likely causes of PTSD in women. PTSD can be physically and mentally debilitating and difficult to overcome, the researchers noted.
According to Emma Millon, who is a graduate student and co-author of the report, “Women in our study who ruminated more frequently also reported more trauma-related symptoms. One could imagine how rumination could exacerbate trauma symptoms and make recovery from the trauma more difficult.”
The World Health Organization reports that 30 percent of women around the world experience physical or sexual assault in their lifetime, with teens most likely to be victims of rape, attempted rape or assault.
Studies have also found that as many as one in five college students experiences sexual violence during their school years.
Sexual assault, harassment linked to worse physical and mental health among women
Experiences of sexual harassment and sexual assault could have a significant impact on the physical and mental health of midlife women, a new study by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine has suggested.
Sexual harassment and sexual assault are highly prevalent experiences among women, according to the study published in JAMA Internal Medicine,also will be presented at the North American Menopause Society meeting on Friday, Oct 5 2018 in San Diego, CA.
“When it comes to sexual harassment or sexual assault, our study shows that lived experiences may have a serious impact on women’s health, both mental and physical,” said Rebecca Thurston, PhD, professor of psychiatry, Pitt School of Medicine and the study’s first and senior author.
In the study, Thurston and her colleagues analysed the association between a history of sexual assault or workplace verbal or physical sexual harassment and physical and mental health parameters such as blood pressure, sleep, mood and anxiety.
“This is an issue that needs to be tackled with urgency not just in terms of treatment but in terms of prevention,” she added.
The analysis was conducted among a group of 304 midlife women between the ages of 40 and 60 who were originally recruited as part of a larger study on association between menopause and cardiovascular health.
In the study group, approximately one in five women reported being either sexually harassed or sexually assaulted. Women who were younger or more financially stressed were more likely to be harassed.
Importantly, the study found that assaulted women were almost three times more likely to have symptoms consistent with major depression and were more than two times more likely to have elevated anxiety. Sexual harassment was associated with higher prevalence of hypertension.
Both sexual harassment and sexual assault were associated with a two-fold higher likelihood of poor sleep consistent with clinical insomnia.