When you get sexually harassed, you might or might not end up traumatized. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Every sexual harassment experience has the potential to be traumatic.
  • It can be hard to tell at first how or if the trauma affects you.
  • Two people can have the same experience and one may end up traumatized while the other does not.
  • Experiencing something traumatic does not necessarily mean you will develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • If you’ve experienced a lot of trauma over time, it is possible to develop CPTSD, or complex post-traumatic stress disorder. 

When talking about trauma, there’s a very useful concept called the Window of Tolerance.

Window of Tolerance, Sophie C

The idea is that we each have a range (or window) of how much stress we can tolerate. Every day you will experience ups and downs in terms of your level of alertness. What falls within your window or outside of your window is unique to you and can change over time.

On a typical day, we experience different stressful events. Maybe you were late for work, or got in an argument with a family member, or someone nearly hit you with their car. Each stressful event can temporarily bring you to a higher point in your window. If these events happen in rapid succession and there isn’t enough time to calm down in between, you will likely be close to the edge of your window, or perhaps even outside it.

Some people are close to the edge of their window of tolerance nearly all of the time. That can happen if your life is very stressful. You may be stressed with money, health issues, family conflict, difficulty at work, or other challenges. It can also happen if you regularly experience discrimination, like if you are Indigenous or racialized or 2SLGBTQIA+.

When you get harassed, you may get pushed outside of your window. This is especially likely if the harassment was really bad or if you were already close to the limit of your window of tolerance. We exit our window of tolerance whenever there is a real or perceived danger. Sexual harassment is a threat to your well-being, so your mind and body jump into survival mode to try to protect you.

That usually results in one of four reactions. They’re called fight, flight, freeze, and fawn.

Fight, flight, freeze, and fawn

Here are some examples of how each of these reactions can look:

Someone sexually harasses you. You yell at them to stop or to leave you alone. You hit them or push them physically away from you. You go straight to your boss to complain. These responses can all fall into the category of fight.

Someone sexually harasses you. You immediately want to leave the room. You quickly get away or even leave your workplace. You may avoid going into work or you may quit your job on the spot. You find yourself running away or wanting desperately to get away from anything threatening. These responses can all be forms of flight.

Someone sexually harasses you. You freeze in place. You can’t move. You don’t say or do anything. The blood is pounding in your ears. If you were a car, it would be like your gas and brake pedals were being pushed at the same time, with your engine revving but not able to go anywhere. These are all versions of freeze.

Someone sexually harasses you. You smile or laugh. You try to smooth things over. You try not to do anything that might make the harasser mad at you. You try to charm them. If someone was watching, they might misunderstand and think you’re okay with what’s happening, or even enjoying it. That’s fawn.

Because each of these responses occurs when you are outside of your window of tolerance, none of them are completely in your control. They are automatic responses that are exclusively trying to keep you safe and alive. They may not always make sense. They are often confusing, as they are likely different from how you would act if you felt calm and had time to think things through.

Why you responded the way you did

Your response is likely based on a combination of what was available to you as an option at the time, what you quickly assessed to be the best response given the circumstances, and what has helped you in the past when you’ve felt threatened.

Maybe your response made perfect sense, and you feel like you handled things right.

But more often, that’s not how people feel. Most people who’ve been sexually harassed find themselves totally confused by how they reacted.

Maybe you see yourself as resilient, or determined, or clever, or brave. And yet, when you got harassed, you acted in some totally different way. Maybe now you are worrying that you’re not the person you thought you were.

If that’s true for you, please know that how you react to a threat in no way reflects your character, your values, or who you are as a person. It just doesn’t.

  • If you had a fight response, that doesn’t mean you’re hotheaded or reckless.
  • If you had a flight response, it doesn’t mean you’re a quitter.
  • If you had a freeze response, that doesn’t make you passive.
  • If you had a fawn response, that doesn’t make you complicit.

Sometimes people end up regretting how they reacted, because their reaction really messed up things for them. Like maybe you got fired for blowing up and yelling, or maybe you spontaneously walked away from a job that you really need. Or you wish you were able to fight back and feel confused about why you didn’t.

Sometimes people find themselves feeling like they overreacted. That’s very common because, again, this isn’t a conscious choice where you feel in total control of your actions.

When you exit your window of what you can tolerate, you are no longer able to think about your short- or long-term goals. You are only focused on your immediate goal to survive the dangerous situation you are in. At the time, your brain quickly assessed its options and decided on what it believed was the best way to react to protect you and minimize harm.

The threat of sexual violence, in and of itself, is a traumatizing event. If it provoked an emergency-level response, that makes sense.

How trauma may affect you

Here are some common signs of trauma that you may experience after sexual harassment. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it can be a helpful place to start in understanding what you are going through. 

Negative thoughts or moods: Feeling bad about yourself, feeling depressed, angry, isolated, ashamed, or scared.

Hypervigilance: Feeling skittish or easily startled. You may feel a need to always be on the lookout for danger. You may notice having tense muscles, a racing heart, or other signs in your body that you’re ready to jump into action at any moment.

Other physical symptoms: Like body pain and aches, higher blood pressure, headaches, nausea, or trouble breathing.

Flashbacks or nightmares: When memories of the event replay in your mind or you feel as though you are reliving it.

Rumination: When you can’t stop thinking about what happened or you keep questioning why you didn’t react differently.

Avoidance: Avoiding thoughts about the traumatic event, or avoiding certain places, people, or situations. It can also be avoidance of touch or any physical or sexual intimacy.

Fatigue or trouble sleeping: Difficulty falling or staying asleep, or feeling the need to sleep a lot more than usual.

Each of these symptoms makes sense when we think about what your body is experiencing and how it is trying to help you to stay safe. Even if your mind knows that you are no longer in an emergency situation, your body may take a lot longer to realize that. Many of these symptoms are necessary if you need to be ready to “leap into action.”

What helps

Try to understand that your initial reaction doesn’t say anything about you as a person. If you regret what you did or are judging yourself, try to remember that our automatic responses of fight, flight, freeze, and fawn are not conscious choices. Instead of being upset with yourself for how you “should have responded,” try to practise self-forgiveness.

Prioritize your own safety. If we spend a lot of time outside of our window of tolerance, the window can start to shrink. With a smaller window, experiences that you could previously tolerate may now be outside of your window of tolerance. If you are finding yourself easily startled or triggered, that may be because your window has temporarily shrunk. Your window can expand over time, provided you are able to stay within it. This is not always within your control, but it can be helpful to consider ways to make yourself be, and feel, more safe.

If the threatening event is over and you feel you can now think more easily, it might help to consider how you’d want to handle it if you get harassed again. Think about how you might want to respond to different harassment scenarios. Consider practising with a friend.

Practise calm breathing. There can be many ways to do this, including slowing down your breath, or a technique called box breathing. With box breathing, you picture a square. You can decide what colour, size, or texture the box is. Imagine it in front of you and allow your eyes to slowly move along the top, down the side, along the bottom, and back up the other side. For each side, count to four as you slowly inhale, pause, exhale, and pause.

Box breathing relaxation technique: how to calm feelings of stress or anxiety, Sunnybrook Hospital

Learn grounding strategies that work for you. There are many different grounding strategies that can help. Often they fall into three categories: mental grounding, physical grounding, and soothing grounding.

Practise progressive muscle relaxation. This is a very helpful technique that you can practise on a regular basis. It is a way to intentionally relax different parts of your body. Specifically, if you are tense physically, this allows you to purposely tighten each section of your body, hold it, and then relax those sections. Many people find this helpful to do at either the start or end of the day.

Mindful Breathing: Progressive Muscle Relaxation, American Lung Association

Learn more about healthy boundary setting. Sexual harassment is a violation of your boundaries. Often, people find these experiences make it harder to have clear boundaries in different areas of their life.

Take your time. It is important when talking about the trauma to move slowly and keep checking in with yourself about how you are feeling. Even while reading this article or other material on this website, give yourself time to notice certain emotions or physical sensations, and take breaks as much as needed.

Practise self-compassion. There is a great website by Dr. Kristin Neff that has a lot of different self-guided resources on self-compassion. Often these can be hard to initially access, so try a few exercises before deciding if they’re the right fit for you.

You may find you’re having trouble recovering from the trauma you’ve experienced. That can happen if the harassment was really bad, or if the trauma related to it is stacked on top of lots of previous unresolved trauma, like if you had a difficult childhood or have experienced a lot of adversity as an adult. Consider reading books about trauma, like The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel van de Kolk.

If you’re concerned about the level of trauma you’ve experienced and are feeling overwhelmed, consider trying to access a support group or individual therapy. We know it can be hard to find professional help. Consider calling a hotline where you can talk with a trained counsellor. Or call 211, which may be able to help you access professional support. Or check out our Resource Roulette, where you can find links to books, quizzes, podcasts, and other forms of media that may help you.