The Hidden Health Effects Of Sexual Harassment

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Sexual harassment in the workplace is nothing new, but the issue is seeing a wave of recognition and attention as celebrities and former employees step up to accuse Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct. Now is as good a time as any to educate ourselves on how sexual harassment can wreak havoc on its victims, potentially causing not only mental health issues, but physical effects as well.

Dr. Colleen Cullen, a licensed clinical psychologist, notes that for victims of sexual harassment, the most common diagnoses are depression, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“An experience [with sexual harassment] can either trigger symptoms of depression and anxiety that are new to the person; or it can exacerbate a previous condition that may have been controlled or resolved. Patients may also see a worsening of symptoms,” says Dr. Cullen. “Some research has found that sexual harassment early in one’s career in particular can [cause] long-term depressive symptoms.”

Someone going through or dealing with the aftermath of sexual harassment may also exhibit symptoms of PTSD, especially if the harassment leads to violence and/or assault.

“Among women who experience a sexual assault, 90 percent who experience sexual violence in the immediate aftermath exhibit symptoms of acute stress,” says Dr. Helen Wilson, a licensed clinical psychologist with expertise on the effects of trauma. “For many people, these symptoms dissipate over time through social support and coping strategies, and many people totally recover and move on; others will be so distressed that it really interferes with their work and life. It takes a certain number of symptoms to diagnose, but that’s when it can become PTSD.”

Now, there are some who may counter, “Well, I can see how sexual assault can lead to such disturbances, but how can harassment be so harmful? Sounds a bit dramatic!” This thinking is deeply problematic not only because it dismisses medical science and undermines the stories of survivors, but also because it feeds the crippling doubt that so many victims face. These doubts can foster denial, which can lead to its own set of complications, particularly around physical health.

“Sometimes sexual harassment registers as a trauma, and it’s difficult for the [patient] to deal with it, so what literally happens is the body starts to become overwhelmed,” says Dr. Nekeshia Hammond, a licensed psychologist. “We call it somatizing: the mental health becomes so overwhelming one can’t process it to the point of saying ‘I have been traumatized’ or ‘I am depressed.’ Essentially, it’s a kind of denial that when experienced for a long state can turn into physical symptoms.”

These physical symptoms can run the gamut, manifesting as muscle aches, headaches, or even chronic physical health problems such as high blood pressure and problems with blood sugar.

“In the long term, it could lead to heart issues,” says Hammond.

One needn’t be in shock or denial to experience these physical effects. Hammond adds that even patients who have confronted issues with full awareness and recognize that they are anxious or depressed can experience these problems. This is because the brain and body are inextricably linked, as Dr. Wilson explains.

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