The Recovery Room: How To Help Someone You Care About


It’s not easy to know what to say when someone shares something as personal and painful as a sexual assault. It can be tempting to push the person toward a specific action to “fix” the hurt, but that may reinforce feelings of powerlessness survivors often have. Instead, be a sympathetic listener. These phrases, offered by RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), can help support a survivor in the healing process:
I believe you./It took a lot of courage to tell me about this.
It can be extremely difficult for survivors to come forward and share their story. Leave any “why” questions to the experts—your job is to support this person.

It’s not your fault./You didn’t do anything to deserve this.
Survivors may blame themselves, especially if they know the perpetrator personally. Remind the survivor, maybe more than once, that they are not to blame.

You are not alone./ I care about you and am here to help in any way I can.
Let the survivor know that you are there for them. Also remind them that there are service providers who will be able to support them throughout their healing process.

I’m sorry this happened./This shouldn’t have happened to you.
Communicate empathy with phrases like, “This must be really tough for you,” and, “I’m so glad you’re sharing this with me.”

Self-Care for Friends and Family

It’s important to take care of yourself, too. Know that there is no “right” reaction to hearing that someone you care about has survived an act of sexual violence. Your emotions can be intense and difficult to deal with. Learning how to manage them can help you support the survivor and feel less overwhelmed. Understand that you may experience any of these emotions:

ANGER. The most important remedy for shame is to know that the abuse was not your fault. There was nothing that you, as a child, could do about it. Self-compassion does not mean being easy on yourself. It only means recognizing that you need understanding, support and a flexible approach to sustain a lifestyle change.

ANXIETY. See your behavior through a “trauma-informed” lens: Instead of asking, “What’s wrong with me?,” ask, “What happened to me?” In looking through this lens, we can see that our problematic behavior was often our best attempt to manage our stress—and distress—at the time.

CONFUSION. Find gentle forms of experiencing strength in your body, like stretching moves, yoga or tai chi. Some people benefit from martial arts self-defense classes, which can help them counter feelings of physical vulnerability.

DISBELIEF. Identify triggers for emotional eating and find other ways to soothe difficult feelings, like taking a warm bath, trying a new hobby, listening to music or playing with a pet.

GUILT. Knowing that you are not alone can reduce shame. Reach out to people who share your experience and make connections with them.

SADNESS. Seek professional help, if necessary. Here are some therapies to consider. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy uses awareness, acceptance and self-compassion to identify thoughts, sensations and feelings that trigger dysfunctional eating patterns. Somatic Experiencing is a body-based therapy that works with the human nervous system to gently release the aftereffects of trauma, such as the flight, fight or freeze reactions. Both of these therapies help build healthier neural networks in the brain to calm fears and anxieties so that you can make better choices and decisions. You can also consult a therapist who specializes in treating individuals with eating disorders and trauma.

To Practice Self-Care

  • Maintain your lifestyle. It can be difficult to stay emotionally strong if you are focusing on the sexual assault. It also may seem challenging to make time to do activities that you enjoy, but doing them can be very helpful for the long haul.

  • Make plans. Take time for activities, with friends or by yourself, that give you a break from talking about the assault.

  • Reach out and talk about it. It’s normal to have a difficult time processing the sexual assault of someone you care about, especially as time goes on. Consider talking with someone who is professionally trained to help you deal with your thoughts and feelings.

  • Take time to relax. Relaxation looks different for everyone. Build time into your day for meditation, journaling or other practices that can help you find peace.

  • Adapted with permission from RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network),