New study helps victims of sexual assault suffering Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

Langley, B.C.—Most people—nearly 90% of the population—will at some point experience at least one psychologically traumatic event, and as a result, 18% of women and 10% of men will suffer the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Trinity Western University has developed a new study comparing the effectiveness of PTSD treatments for victims of sexual assault, but the results will benefit all suffers.

“What’s disturbing—but not surprising—is the frequency with which PTSD develops in victims of sexual assault,” says PTSD expert, R.A. Bradshaw, PhD., professor of the graduate program in counselling psychology who developed the university study. “Almost half of women who have been sexually assaulted develop the disorder. This is staggering when compared with the fact that only 2.3% of women who experience serious car accidents ever develop PTSD.”

Statistics show that one in four Canadian women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime—a crime long known to be seriously under-numerated. The Vancouver Rape Relief and Shelter Hotline confirms this finding as they received 1,400 new calls reporting new rape attacks in 2003, a number consistent with previous years. “If affected women experience PTSD symptoms beyond one year and don’t receive good treatment,” says Bradshaw, “then half of these women will experience PTSD for many years to come.”

PTSD in sexual assault cases includes three clusters of symptoms:

(1) Intrusion: Flashbacks, nightmares, “triggered” states like panic attacks
(2) Avoidance: Dissociation—“numbing or blanking out,” fear and avoidance of
anything to do with the trauma: places, people, activities, times of night, seasons
(3) Hyperarousal: Startle reflex, irritability, sleep difficulties, hypervigilance.

Graduate student Heather Bowdens is on the research team for more than just a grade. “I’m passionate about PTSD research because I know how desperately people need trauma therapy,” says Bowden who has had treatment for PTSD herself. “I’ve lived with ongoing violence and trauma and I know that it takes specialized therapy to bring about recovery. I hope that by being open about my experience, other women will feel encouraged to get help also.”

In the last 10 years, several therapies have been found to be useful in the reduction and even elimination of PTSD symptoms. Three such treatments include Cognitive Processing Therapy, Grounding and Relaxation Techniques, and One Eye Integration (OEI)—a relatively new treatment, very similar to a more well-known therapy (EMDR).

Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), which involves addressing and restructuring shattered beliefs, has been found effective for both PTSD and depression following traumatic events and has shown good results for rape survivors. Grounding and Relaxation Techniques focus on the individual’s physiological state using autogenics, visualization and activation of the parasympathetic nervous system to overcome PTSD symptoms. Trauma therapists have used this approach extensively, specifically with survivors of the September 11th terrorist attacks of 2001.

Two Lower Mainland therapists, specialists in trauma treatment, developed One Eye Integration (OEI), a set of techniques using light and eye movement. Co-designer, Dr. Bradshaw—a clinical psychologist with more than 30 years experience—describes OEI as “highly effective from my clinical experience in treating trauma.”

All three therapies have proven effective when compared against no-treatment control participants, but to date, no study compared their effectiveness against each other. Trinity Western University researchers—including Bowdens and Bradshaw—are attempting to fill in the gaps by conducting a comparative study testing the therapeutic effectiveness of all three interventions.

For victims of sexual assault suffering from PTSD, TWU is offering the chance to both receive treatment and help others through participation in the study. Participants will receive at least three one-hour sessions, and two group sessions (two hours each) with experienced masters-level female counsellors. “My heart and soul is invested in this research,” says Bowden. “I’ve been through this process and now I want to be there for others. Many who participate in this study do so because they want to see greater development in trauma therapy.”

Ideally, participants should not have experienced more than two sexual assaults, with one year passed since the assault. Women interested should call Heather Bowden in the Department of Counselling Psychology at TWU: (604) 513-2164 or visit the website

Last Updated: 2015-07-20
Author: Keela Keeping