The Hidden Health Effects Of Sexual Harassment

Victims of sexual harassment often experience emotional and physical symptoms for years to come.

by Nicole Spector /
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Sexual harassment in the workplace is nothing new, but the issue is seeing a tidal wave of recognition and attention as celebrities, co-workers and others step up to accuse Hollywood heavy weights like Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Louis C.K. of sexual misconduct. Through their stories, we've learned that sexual harassment can wreak havoc on its victims, and can cause 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.”

It’s Not All In Your Head; The Body Reacts, Too

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.

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.

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.

"The part of our brain that processes emotions, including stress, are among the earliest to develop, and is right next to the brain stem, which deals with involuntary functions such as heart rate and breathing,” says Wilson. “When we're stressed resources go there, which can impact cardiovascular functioning, autoimmune diseases, metabolic function, [and so on],” says Wilson. “Sometimes people think stress is in our head, but our brains are an organ like any other. It's all very connected. Neurotransmitters found in our brains are also found in our gut. It's a real thing: this is why we tend to get sick when we get stressed, and over time, if we’re in constant stress or if it’s too much to handle, then there are physiological consequences.”

Sexual Harassment In The Workplace: 'A Slithering Snake'

While sexual harassment under any circumstances can wreak havoc on a victim's health, workplace harassment is a special kind of ugly. Nannina Angioni, a labor and law employment attorney who has worked on hundreds of sexual harassment cases describes it as "slithering snake that ripples its way through a work environment causing disastrous results."

"Employees talk of having a pit in their stomach commuting to work, having anxiety, panic attacks, inexplicable fits of crying and physical manifestations of stress: hair falling out, hives, weight gain or loss, sleeplessness and lethargy," says Angioni.

Dr. Cullen adds that the feelings of shame or guilt that a person may feel when sexually harassed at work can devastate their self-esteem and sense of self-worth as a professional.

“They may feel that they did something to make this happen or egg it on in some way,” says Cullen. “Embarrassment can be experienced, a fear over other people finding out. Also, particularly early in their career, a person may doubt their ability, and wonder if they weren’t only hired because of their sexual value. They may question their achievements, and if they’re young or new to a field, they may ask, ‘Is this just what it’s like in this field?’ If they have nothing to compare it to, they may not have an idea of what is normal or what the appropriate recourse is.”

Here’s where the research Cullen mentioned earlier, which shows that sexual harassment early in one’s career can have long-term mental health effects comes into play. Wendy L. Patrick, a prosecutor and educator, has personally seen depression “last up to a decade” for women who experienced sexual abuse in the workplace, and notes that it can affect their performance in subsequent jobs.

Surely the (often silent) suffering of the victim mustn’t be underestimated, but it’s important to note that when one employee is being abused, their colleagues may also be afflicted. After all, it’s stressful to keep a secret, especially one that is so clearly damaging.

“When employees are questioned about the effect of harassment [on a colleague], you always hear about some physical manifestation of stress. They can’t sleep. They have to keep getting up to go to the bathroom,” says Angioni. “It’s really hard: You’re watching someone on your team suffer, or even wither away as they just try to get through the days.”

When To Help A Hurting Colleague — And How To Get Treatment

A victim of sexual harassment may ultimately want to speak out against their abuser, but it’s important for others to speak up, too, even ahead of the victim. If you know something, say something; but don’t gossip —that only escalates the problem and further endangers the victim.

“When people suspect something is going on and don’t speak out, the harassment evolves,” says Angioni. “I counsel companies and employees to go about it tactfully. If you think something is happening, don't talk about it at the water cooler, or in front of the victim. Don’t send snarky emails or texts. Talk to someone in management. Help without creating a further problem. If there is not an HR person, find a trusted supervisor. If you really can’t find someone you trust, you contact the Department of Fair Employment and Housing.”

If you know something, say something; but don’t gossip — that only escalates the problem and further endangers the victim.

If you know something, say something; but don’t gossip — that only escalates the problem and further endangers the victim.

For the victim, speaking out may be challenging, and in some cases they may just really not be willing or able to do so. It’s important that both victims and their supporters understand that while silence isn’t ideal, it may be what works for the coping or healing process at the moment. But only if you’re talking to a mental health professional about what is going on. This cannot be emphasized enough: If you are being sexually harassed you mustn’t keep this a secret; it is literally toxic to your health.

“Some victims will never report abuse and they have that right,” says Dr. Hammond. “It’s a case by case thing and sometimes there’s a reason for staying silent — if you feel your safety is threatened, or if you’re literally on the verge of having an emotional breakdown and will be unable to function. But you need to reach out to someone.”

If you’re worried about the cost of visiting a professional, or if you’re wary to begin therapy, Dr. Hammond recommends calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673). Services are free and include confidential support from a trained staff member, help finding a local resources if needed, counseling, referrals, information on your local laws regarding harassment and information about medical concerns.

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