Sexual harassment is usually a surprise. Even when it’s not, it’s really common for people to react by feeling shocked and taken aback.

The first thing you need to know is that it’s not your fault. The person who sexually harassed you may have actually deliberately done things to make you believe you could trust them and were safe, even though it wasn’t true.

Some of the things you may be thinking:

  • I can’t believe this happened.
  • I’m probably misremembering what happened.
  • Nothing happened.
  • I don’t know why I’m upset.
  • What just happened?
  • Am I sure that just happened?
  • I can’t believe this happened again.
  • I’m fine, this didn’t really bother me.

Why do we feel this way? It’s not that you’re wrong about what actually happened. It’s shock, confusion, and disbelief, and it’s very, very common.

These reactions are often made worse by the reactions of other people, when you tell them what happened to you. Often, people hearing about sexual harassment question or challenge the person who is telling them about it.

Even people who care about you and want you to be safe may disbelieve you at first. This is not because you are to blame or because your story is not true.

So, why do other people and even we question, doubt, or deny the sexual harassment? Partly because it’s easier to not believe it. Given the choice between accepting that something awful has happened or thinking that someone is mistaken, exaggerating, or lying, much of the time our brains opt to deny that something awful has happened.

Let’s unpack what that struggle looks like.

When someone is sexually harassed, their first reaction is usually surprise. Surprise is quick: It only lasts a few seconds or a few moments. Then shock can set in. You’re left feeling overwhelmed, afraid, and unable to think clearly. It can have physical effects, too—trembling, a racing heart, crying, difficulty breathing, and sudden drops or spikes in your blood pressure.

It can be hard to recognize when you are experiencing shock. If there are people around you who you trust, it may be helpful to ask them if you seem like you’re in shock. If you’re not sure, it might be safest to assume you are.

The other thing that can make this a confusing experience is the timing. Some people experience shock during or immediately after the harassment, whereas for others it can be delayed by hours, days, or even weeks. It’s actually common for people to feel calm or indifferent during a scary or overwhelming situation like sexual harassment. Your brain may be waiting until it feels safe again before it can acknowledge the strong emotions. This can be a helpful survival strategy, but it can also be really confusing, because you may feel like you’re coping just fine, only to feel overcome later.

If you think of emotions like alarms that can go off, this delayed reaction is almost like hitting the “snooze” button when you’re in crisis. This can be really helpful at a time that’s overwhelming or unsafe. However, we can’t necessarily choose how long the emotion alarm is snoozed. It can come back hours, days, weeks, or even months later.

Please be patient with yourself over the weeks and months following sexual harassment. You may feel strong emotional reactions at a later time, especially if your initial reaction is numbness.

What can help

  • Initially, when you’re experiencing shock, it can be very helpful to focus on your basic physiological needs. This includes drinking water, eating healthy foods, resting your body, and regulating your temperature (you may feel cold and shiver, or you may feel overly hot and sweaty). If you know you’re experiencing shock, or if you’re not sure but you may be in shock, it is important to be careful—try to avoid driving or operating heavy machinery, because you may be distracted and/or your reaction time is likely reduced.

Medical shock can be life-threatening. It is important to call 911 or go immediately to the hospital if you pass out, or if your blood pressure suddenly drops. You should also seek medical help if the feelings of shock continue or if they interfere with your ability to function.

  • It’s probably a good idea to hold off on making any major decisions. This can be hard if you are thinking about something big like leaving your job. If you’re unsure about deciding while feeling some level of shock, consider talking to someone you trust to help you figure out what will be best for you. It can also be helpful to give yourself a bit of time before making a decision if it’s possible. Sometimes, even giving yourself the night to “sleep on it” can be very helpful.
  • Taking deep breaths can help a lot. If you are having a hard time doing this, rather than taking a deep breath in, begin by trying to breath out as much as you can. Imagine you are totally emptying your lungs. Your body will then instinctively breathe back in. Count to, say, three as you inhale, three as you hold your breath, and then three as you exhale. The exact number of seconds is not important, so long as you feel physically comfortable and are getting enough oxygen.
  • Think about writing out what you’ve experienced. Even if you don’t use this for legal or reporting purposes, recording some of the main facts about the sexual harassment can be helpful for your own sake to remember what happened and believe in yourself. Some people do this immediately after it’s happened, while others may need time before they feel able to do this.
  • Remember that surprise can amplify other emotions. At times, when something is unexpected, other feelings you may have at the time (like anger, sadness, hurt, fear) may be stronger. When possible, give yourself time to adjust before acting on these other emotions.
  • It’s really important to talk to people who validate your experiences. If you’re telling someone you trust and they make comments that suggest they don’t believe you, it’s okay to coach them. You can say things like “I need you to believe me” or “I need you to listen without asking questions.” If you don’t have people in your life who are able to validate your experiences, consider calling a helpline or talking to a professional who has experience supporting people who have experienced sexual harassment.
  • Remember to trust yourself. Even if you’re not responding how you’d expect, know that it can often take time before you’re able to recognize all of the feelings you have in response to the sexual harassment. Trust your perspective. Trust your memory. Trust your feelings.

Be patient with yourself. Give yourself time to wrap your mind around what happened. Consider journalling, drawing, or other ways to express yourself, your feelings, and your experiences.