When 30-year-old Liysa M. was in her late teens and early 20s, sexual harassment became a constant in her life. Like many women, aggressive attention on the street or in a bar made her wish she could just disappear.
“I would physically feel the constant unwanted attention in the very pit of my stomach,” Liysa, who withheld her last name for privacy reasons, told HuffPost. “It made me nauseous, and want to fold myself inward, making myself as invisible as possible.”
Liysa had been sexually assaulted in the past, and each new incident of harassment struck a very vulnerable cord. She started drinking to cope with the discomfort. At times, she’d stop eating, not so much to make herself skinnier, but because she literally wanted to take up less space in a room. Sometimes she’d make herself throw up to try and rid herself of those feelings, but that only lead to ulcers, chronic acid reflux and occasional fainting spells.
“So many of us get this attention, and carry it low in our stomachs like a disease,” Liysa said. “I know the criticism would be that someone who doesn’t lay a hand on you can’t affect your health, but it’s not always that simple.”
Harassment And Your Mental And Physical Health
Liysa says being regularly catcalled, propositioned and harassed has negatively affected her health. She’s far from alone. After dozens of women came forward to accuse movie producer Harvey Weinstein of sexually harassing and assaulting them, women everywhere shared their own experiences through the viral #MeToo campaign.
Speaking out may be cathartic, but in many cases, a great deal of physical and emotional damage has already been done.
Tristan Coopersmith, a psychotherapist and founder of Life Lab, a women’s sanctuary in Los Angeles, says the psychological and physical toll of these cases can range from minor to severe.
“Safety, security and self-worth all take a major hit when a woman is sexually harassed,” Coopersmith told HuffPost, describing consequences like depression, ruminating thoughts and “pervasive and loud shame tapes and lowered self-worth that ultimately can lead to depressive symptoms if not treated.”
Coopersmith also shared her personal experience with harassment, saying that when she was in her late 20s, her boss sexually harassed her in the workplace. He’d send her sexual messages, ask her to come into his office after hours, and even put his hand on her leg when his wife was sitting across the table, she said.
“I felt so uncomfortable and started questioning the reason why I got the job in the first place,” Coopersmith recalled. “I felt like an object ... I was so diminished, and I felt so small, and my voice got quieter and quieter.”
The fear of being harassed again can also have a detrimental effect on the body. According to the American Psychological Association, over time, extreme stress can compromise the immune, vascular and digestive systems. Higher cholesterol and blood pressure and generalized anxiety and weight gain can also be long-term results, according to Miami psychologist Erika Martinez. Anyone who’s experienced harassment, no matter their gender or sexual orientation, can be affected this way.
As in Liysa’s case, sexual harassment can also trigger symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in people who’ve already experienced trauma. When this happens, the mind and body can perceive harassment like a physical threat and go into survival mode.
“Physical symptoms may include numbness, hyperventilation, confusion, physical pain such as stomachaches, headaches and dizziness,” said Debra Castaldo, a therapist at The Center for Couples and Family Solutions. “The victim feels helpless and trapped, and cannot think clearly enough to find a solution in the moment.”
This is often what leads to feelings of shame and guilt that keep victims from speaking out, Castaldo added.
Shannon Webber, a Boston-based writer who says she experiences harassment on a regular basis, says it makes her feel physically threatened.
“It’s exhausting and pathetic,” Webber explained. “I’m constantly aware of how men sexualize my body ... It feels dehumanizing, gut-wrenching and unsafe.”
What You Can Do To Recover
While harassment can absolutely have a negative effect on your body and mind, experts stress that it’s possible to recover from these experiences.
If and when you feel ready, reaching out to a loved one is a great first step, according to Yale University’s Sexual Harassment and Assault Response & Education program. Additionally, you can find support groups through networks like RAINN (Rape Abuse and Incest National Network) and Only With Consent. Seeking professional help from a counselor or therapist can also help individuals recover from harassment and sex-related trauma.
If you’re experiencing sexual harassment or abuse, the most vital thing to remember is that you’re not alone. A recent ABC News-Washington Post poll estimates that 54 percent of women in America have experienced some form of sexual harassment in their lives. (That estimate only includes women who spoke up about it, so the actual number is likely higher.) There’s support out there if you need it.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.