Childhood sexual abuse is defined as any exposure to imposed sexual acts through manipulation, coercion or power tactics upon a child who is not developmentally capable of understanding or consenting to such acts. Sexual abuse may or may not include intercourse or physical force, yet most assuredly has a lasting impact on the child's well-being, and emotional and cognitive development. The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress indicate a prevalence of childhood sexual abuse occurring at a range from 12 to 40 percent in any given year. Children exposed to this form of traumatic event have a high risk of developing the anxiety disorder referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Fear, Avoidance and Control
Sexually abused children are often instilled with fear that bad things might happen if they tell about the abuse. The South Eastern Centre Against Sexual Assault (SECASA) explains that the child is afraid because of possible punishment or abandonment. Avoidance of all subjects of a sexual nature also may result from abuse, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry says. Children experiencing anxiety from sexual abuse may try to control elements of impending abuse by looking for signs to avoid future trauma.
Re-experiencing the sexual trauma through frequent nightmares or intrusive thoughts commonly occurs as a symptom of anxiety. The intrusive thoughts might include recalling events in the wrong order, excessive worry about a future occurrence and believing that the genital area is damaged and dirty. The Department of Veterans Affairs notes that the excessive worry and reliving of events sparks increased stress in the child. This leads to feelings of low self-worth, self-blame for the abuse and believing that the world is not safe.
Anxiety from trauma can induce strange or inappropriate behaviors in children. This is likely because the child is uncertain of how to express her feelings associated with the abuse. Inappropriate behaviors in the form of increased aggression toward playmates or seductive behavior can present. Self-destructive acts such as substance abuse or self-harm such as cutting may also appear as a result of sexual abuse. The SECASA explains that dissociative escape is also a possible result of managing the anxiety from abuse. Dissociation is a form of mental escape. In a sense, this is a protection mechanism for the child to numb the pain from the abuse while having to endure it.
Adults who survived childhood sexual abuse experience the anxiety symptoms on a magnified level, if they go untreated. Adults may present with numerous physical health problems such as chronic pelvic pain, gastrointestinal distress and sexual dysfunction. Emotionally, adults experience anxiety in the form of self-injury, depression or suicidal thoughts. Surviving adults may also fall into addictions with drugs and alcohol and have a strong intolerance for sexual intimacy. The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress further notes that the anxiety experienced from childhood sexual trauma impacts social and interpersonal functioning through various manifestations.