Sexual trauma can have a profound and lasting effect on every aspect of a survivor’s life. The physical and emotional injuries caused by sexual violence can be devastating and the road to recovery is often long and difficult.
According to a study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress, sexual trauma confronts the individual with emotions and meanings that are extremely difficult to manage.
Despite the challenges, it is possible to heal from the aftermath of sexual abuse and reclaim your life. Here are three tips for beginning your journey towards healing and hope.
#1. Process your trauma
Accepting that you have undergone sexual trauma is one of the greatest first steps to reclaiming your life.
A study published in the Journal of Traumatic Stress states that a survivor must “come to understand the emotional impact of the trauma so that they are no longer preoccupied or driven by negative feelings, and must grapple with the meaning of the trauma until an adaptive resolution is achieved.”
Sexual trauma carries a stigma that can make you feel powerless or impure. However, remaining silent will only ossify your victim status and make recovery more challenging.
Reframing your experience and opening up about it is a way to come to terms with reality and regain control. You can start by:
- Journaling your experience. Penning down experiences can help you understand the events that transpired, thereby aiding the process of coping and healing.
- Assigning responsibility to the perpetrator. Holding the abuser responsible will prevent you from internalizing guilt. It will help you to deal with your feelings of guilt and shame that may stem from the aftermath of the traumatic experience. Remind yourself, “You did not cause what occurred to you and you are not at fault.”
#2. Work through your triggers
Triggers are external or internal reminders of your trauma. Triggers can lead to extreme emotional reactions such as panic attacks or flashbacks or physical illnesses like vomiting or blackouts.
- Identify your triggers. There are several common triggers that can affect survivors of sexual trauma, such as people or places associated with the trauma. Additionally, certain sights, sounds, or smells can also be triggering. Once you’ve identified your triggers, you’ll be able to notice them and respond to them more calmly. You can start by asking yourself questions like, “What makes me scared, upset, or nervous?”
- Pay attention to your body. Your body gives signals that prepare you for ‘flight or fight’ mode. Danger signals like feelings of tension, shortness of breath, hot flashes, and nausea are common consequences of sexual trauma. If you notice any of these, do not ignore them. Instead, try slowing down your breathing. Place one hand on your stomach and one on your chest as you breathe in. Then, hold your breath for a count of seven and exhale on the count of eight. Push out as much as you can. Repeat the cycle until you feel relaxed and calm.
- Reconnect with your body. A negative relationship with your body as a result of sexual trauma, though unfortunate, is a natural occurrence. It can make appreciating or valuing your body challenging. Re-establishing a connection with your body might help you accept and take charge of it. Rhythmic movements such as dancing, walking, and yoga can help you relax your muscles and calm your nerves. In addition, mindfulness meditation can help you embrace your present experience and accept it without judgment.
#3. Lean on your support system
According to a study published in the Journal of Community Psychology, social support plays a crucial role in coping with sexual trauma.
Surveying a sample of over 400 sexual abuse survivors, the researchers found that approximately two-thirds of victims told someone about the assault. Some told a close friend or relative. Others consulted with police, mental health professionals, clergy, or rape crisis centers. Regardless of who they told, the researchers found that an overwhelming majority of the victims found it helpful to confide in someone else.
Given this, you may try the following:
- Join a support group. Having people who can relate to your experience can help you regain control. It not only validates your experience but also helps you accept the trauma and heal in a safe and supportive space.
- Lean on your close friends and families. Though challenging, it may be a good idea to choose a close circle of people who will be empathetic and understanding. Knowing that you have someone to talk to, always, will be a gentle reminder that you are not alone in your recovery.
- Seek professional help. Talking to a professional counselor or therapist will ensure that you have the tools and coping mechanisms you need to work through your trauma and triggers.
Sexual trauma is a life-changing event, but it doesn’t have to control your life. With time, patience, and the right support system, you can begin to heal the wounds of sexual trauma and reclaim your life.
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