The 3+ Ways Sexual Trauma Shows Up in The Daily Lives of Survivors

by Julie Meyers, EGCMethod Practitioner, Certified Gestalt Coach

Depression. Anxiety. Anger.

These are all ways that we expect sexual trauma to show up in our lives as survivors. They are obvious and commonly reported. The individual ways these manifest, however, are what might be surprising — even to those of us who have experienced — or are experiencing them.  I’d like to shed light on some very uncomfortable manifestations of childhood sexual trauma.  Uncomfortable for readers who can’t relate — who were not sexually traumatized as children or adolescents — who might think the following are uncommon.  And uncomfortable for those of us who live life as survivors of childhood and adolescent sexual trauma, who live these behaviors without thinking, like breathing, yet die inside to admit, look at, or fully stand in as our own truth.


Self-destructive Behavior

Substance addiction, unhealthy relationships with food, promiscuous sexuality, sexual avoidance, cutting, burning and other self-destructive and self mutilating behaviors are all ways trauma works itself out through our bodies, spirits and minds.

For me, compulsive overeating was one of the many ways childhood sexual trauma manifested in my life. Until I embraced recovery from my food addiction, food was my number one go-to solution when my emotions were too big and painful to deal with. The bullying after my rape drove me to uncontrollable binging — alone, on the couch with the TV in front of me every day after the school bus brought me home from 7th grade.

In my Gestalt practice, I have seen sexual trauma express itself via self-destructive behaviors like alcoholism, drug abuse, compulsive overeating, anorexia, bulimia, social/sexual avoidance, social/sexual promiscuity, agoraphobia, and cutting. The intensity of the self-defeating behavior may be mild to completely life altering.

The reality is, the trauma that occurred at a young age is like a pressure cooker. In order to keep from exploding out onto someone else or imploding back into ourselves, there must be a release. For most of us who are “going it on our own” or are in a therapy modality that only treats the symptoms versus the underlying cause, the release valve is often turning the pain inward on ourselves. The way we direct that pain is as individual as we are.

Confusion of Sex and Love

For a great deal of my life, I had no idea that I was confused about the difference between love and sex. I spent most of my life feeling “less than” other girls or women and “rejected” by men. Looking back, I realize that most of my relationships were based on sex, when I was desperately searching for love. In reality, I didn’t know where sex ended and love began. Since that time, I have come to understand that I am far from alone in this confusion.

I remember vividly a conversation with a female friend when we were both in our 20s. I had watched a TV show that reported most women who were raped or sexually abused as children ended up being sexually promiscuous. When I shared this with her, I told her I related to it so deeply that I felt a huge weight had been lifted from my soul. She, however, disagreed because, through her life experience, she had formed the opinion that if a woman had been raped, she would avoid men. That is the only thing that made sense to her.  I tried to explain to no avail that, for me, having had many different sexual partners felt incredibly shameful, something I wanted to hide from, and this piece of information was the first thing I could lash onto as somehow making sense for me. It gave me hope for myself. She was my best friend and I thought she would have compassion for me. The conversation disintegrated into an argument. Since I was only at the very beginning of this new awareness, which has since taken many years to solidify, I ended up feeling defeated and worthless.  What I know now, is that my sexual promiscuity was an attempt to find love.

The truth is, sexual trauma messes with our internal emotional compass, setting it off kilter and causing all types of love, sex and intimacy behaviors that don’t make sense to anyone — including the person in the middle of the behavior. That is until they are able to unravel the threads of their personal relationship to their own sexual trauma. Promiscuity is just one sexually manifested outward sign of an inwardly carried trauma. Sexual anorexia or avoidance can also be an expression of the same type of trauma. What’s more is there can be shades of gray across the spectrum for each individual as to what would be “normal” or “abnormal.” This further adds to the confusion.  

Parenting Conflicts

Outwardly, sexual assault survivors may not even be able to connect their parenting conflicts with their own past trauma. I did not make these connections until my son and daughter were in their teens, unfortunately. I was unconscious of the connection between what happened when I was 12 and the way I was behaving 25 years later. The year my daughter was 11 was one of the hardest years of my life. I was overbearing and controlling, verging on hysterical at times, trying to keep her close. After completely losing my cool one day, yelling at my mom and my daughter, I ended up a pile on the floor crying. It was in that moment that I realized why I was behaving like a lunatic. I was consumed by fear that the same thing would happen to her when she was 12, and I would not be able to protect her. It was irrational, yet somehow made sense. A saying I heard recently comes to mind:

“If we don’t heal our wounds, we will bleed on people who didn’t cut us.”

My relationship with my daughter became strained, and that time with her was wasted in anger, frustration and worry. It was a precious time of her life that I can never get back.

This trickle down effect means a parent’s sexual trauma can impact their children in a very complicated and profound way. We live the patterns that we learn during childhood, whether we mean to or not, and then we “teach” them to our children, and on down the line. I was teaching my daughter to fear me and to want to be distant from me. There is a part of me that would do anything to go back and do my personal work of cleaning up my unfinished business surrounding my rape and any other negative patterns I gained in childhood while my kids were much younger. I would do anything for a second chance at parenting my young children, so that I could parent them from a place of love and wholeness versus fear.

But both Gestalt and the horses have taught me to be in the present moment, accepting what is. I truly believe that it’s never too late to make a change for the better, and any point is a good place to start. Today my children and I love each other “to the moon and back,” and they admire and respect me today, which I attribute to the personal work I have done.


Anxiety for me shows up in the form of feeling like a prey animal — heart racing, breath shallow, and eyes darting and wide as I try to take in ALL of my surroundings, assuming the worst is coming for me. Always on the ready to fight or flee, I have spent much of my life on high alert. It’s exhausting and draining. It has taken me years to learn how to handle it — partly because I didn’t get help until I was in my 40s.

For some, the anxiety can be completely debilitating, even manifesting in life altering agoraphobia, extreme social avoidance, or separation anxiety so intense they cannot be alone even for a few moments. Often, this anxiety is also apparent in behaviors I’ve already mentioned such as self-destructive actions, addiction, promiscuity, or isolation. The root cause, however, is deeply embedded in the need to reconcile the original transgression.

Unconditional support for those who experience anxiety comes on four legs with a huge heart and a muzzle to nuzzle. For a very long time now, the effects animals have on people with anxiety has been studied, and shown clinically, to offer truly positive benefits. Horses, for me, are one of the key ways I learned to reconcile my anxiety. As a species, horses are keenly aware of their surroundings, yet they hold a great capacity for love, acceptance, and an innate ability to be at peace. Their most natural state is the opposite of anxiety; serenity. It is one of the reasons I partner with horses in my coaching business. With a horse by their side, my clients can feel calm and are autonomically less prone to anxiety — and I, as a coach, also benefit from their presence and wisdom in keeping my own energy centered, focused and beneficial to my client.

Physical Pain

Women in adulthood often experience medical issues that can’t always be medically relieved. Fibromyalgia, pelvic pain, pelvic numbness, endometriosis, vaginismus, gastrointestinal disorders, painful intercourse and more can be expressions from the body of sexual trauma it experienced even decades ago. The cells of the body hold onto trauma in a way we are just now beginning to understand.

Often times, these very physical issues can only be resolved via trauma release. I know of women who have suffered immense pelvic pain for decades, and after years of unsuccessful medical intervention, finally got relief only after Equine Gestalt Coaching sessions. I know a woman who suffers with Fibromyalgia, and after doing Equine Gestalt Coaching around the incest that was perpetrated against her as a little girl, it has abated a great deal, flaring up less frequently and with less intensity. This may seem surprising to some, but to me, I believe that with sexual trauma, pain is inflicted on the soul as well as the body. I suffered a wound to my soul when I was raped. The pain that I endured from the rape itself was only part of it — there was being demeaned horrendously, not believed and not supported that deepened the wound. My soul was flayed open, just as my physical body was during the act, and while the physical pain resolved relatively quickly, the emotional pain was held down and trapped inside of me with no way out.

Research shows that the more support a woman who has been raped receives from family and society, the more quickly she can recover from the emotional pain of the event. Women who receive no support, or worse, are demeaned, blamed and not believed, struggle immensely with recovering from the emotional scars that such added trauma brings. Especially if the perpetrator is a trusted adult or family member, which was not part of my experience. You can’t fix spiritual and emotional wounds with medication — you can only cover up the resulting symptoms in order to numb out, shoving the feelings down and covering them up. Healing these types of wounds is another business altogether and the only remedy I found was release through the power of Gestalt. The night after my first ever Gestalt anger release toward my perpetrator, I shook for hours as the trauma I’d been holding for 33 years was set free from the cells of my body. I will never forget it. And the result is that I am set free from that man, whose name I could not say for decades. He no longer “owns” my emotions, thoughts or actions.

A Path to Wholeness

As a Gestaltist for the past four years — and even prior to that while doing my personal work — I have come to understand that the things which bother us today, the unhealthy patterns we’ve been stuck in, come from something that has been lodged in us since childhood. Like the branches of a tangled bramble, for me, what the world saw was only a few outward thorns and pretty roses. Gestalt allowed me the opportunity to follow the branches deep into their undergrowth. Here, huge releases in Gestalt sessions relieved the immense amount of anger I held in my body all those years. It took several sessions to fully prune back all the overgrowth and clear the path to peace.

Whether it was words that were spoken, behaviors acted upon you, or even generational influences passed down through the people in your life, old wounds fester and ooze until they are cleared and healed. Today, it is my passion to support women like myself — women who have had their sexual boundaries crossed against their will, especially in childhood or adolescence, to heal, grow and evolve on their own journey from trauma to freedom.