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Date rape victim:How can I stop worrying about my daughter?

Asked by Worried Sick, Austin, Texas

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I am a 38-year-old woman who was a victim of date rape when I was 16. I have battled different forms of stress disorder/generalized depressive disorder off and on since. I've been doing well for some time, but now that my teenage daughter has started dating, I'm really falling apart. I'm always obsessively worrying about everything when it comes to my daughter, not just dating issues.

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Mental Health Expert Dr. Charles Raison Psychiatrist,
Emory University Medical School

Expert answer

Dear Worried Sick,

Even though your question is brief, you've done a great job of sketching out your very painful struggle. As always, it is important that both you and our readers understand that because I haven't done a complete evaluation, I can't make any recommendations that should be taken as clinically specific for your situation. Nonetheless, there is much to be said in general about your dilemma.

Before going on in a little more detail, let me cut to the chase in terms of what I would recommend. My first recommendation is that you get the best possible treatment you can for your symptoms, both for your sake and the sake of your daughter. My second recommendation is that you do all you can to allow your daughter to have a normal dating life, so that she doesn't catch your symptoms. As we'll talk about in a moment, this is especially important because trauma is a lot like secondhand smoke in that it can damage people through indirect exposure.

In terms of your symptoms, the first thing you should do is not beat yourself up because you are having problems. It is not at all surprising that your daughter's emergence into the dating scene has worsened your symptoms. One of the most typical characteristics of post-traumatic stress disorder is that being re-exposed to the traumatic situation makes symptoms worse. In fact, one of the core symptoms of PTSD is working hard to avoid any situations that remind one of the original trauma, and an important part of psychotherapeutic treatment is often helping people return to those situations and master their fear. In terms of specific treatments, a number of antidepressants have been shown to improve PTSD symptoms. Psychotherapy can often also be extremely helpful.

Let me say a word about trauma being like secondhand smoke. What I mean by this is that trauma in one person can often damage other people not directly exposed to the trauma. This has been shown elegantly in the children of Holocaust survivors, who -- despite not having experienced trauma themselves -- have higher-than-expected rates of depression and anxiety. More amazing, as adults, children of Holocaust survivors tend to show the same abnormalities in their stress hormones as do the Holocaust survivors themselves. Even more recently, studies in animals suggest that trauma (and especially trauma early in life) may change how one's genes are expressed and that these changes can be physically passed down from mothers to children (and even to grandchildren). So in a very real sense, it is beginning to look like trauma experienced by parents can be passed to their children.

This is why I'm so concerned that -- despite the everyday dangers involved -- your daughter be allowed to have a normal dating life that proceeds with no more than a prudent warning about the risks involved and some wise counsel on how to avoid these dangerous potentialities. This important task will be made much easier to the degree that you can get relief from the haunted torture of your own symptoms, so I again encourage you to do all you can to get treatment.

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