Being a sexual assault survivor is a challenging journey, but it is also an empowering one. The trauma from sexual assault acts as the catalyst for us to learn how to better engage in self-care practices and introduces us to endless possibilities for healing and recovery, enabling us to channel our pain and struggles into our transformation. Most importantly, relating to other survivors who have been through what we’ve been through or are going through is incredibly helpful. It is in these validating communities and relationships that we tend to find the most healing, even outside of the therapy space.
Below are some tips that can benefit your healing journey.
- Positive affirmations
Positive affirmations will help to reprogram your subconscious mind, which has undoubtedly been affected by the words and actions of the perpetrator in your trauma story. If you can learn to replace negative and destructive automatic thoughts that may arise at each passing moment with positive, affirming ones you train yourself to let go of your shame-based beliefs.
These thoughts stir self-sabotage in relationships and in your ability to take risks and seize opportunities, and would ultimately hold you back from embracing all the power and agency you have within you to rebuild your life.
One way to do this is to write down positive affirmations that are tailored to your particular wounds and insecurities. For example, if you have an insecurity about your appearance – maybe you have never seen yourself as beautiful regardless of how many times people have told you that you are, a positive affirmation can gently interrupt the pattern of ruminating over those thoughts that reinforce such negativity by replacing the toxic thought with a loving one. A self-sabotaging thought about your appearance suddenly becomes, “I am beautiful, inside and out” whenever the harmful thought or emotion associated with the feelings of being unattractive comes up. The point is to rewrite the narrative perpetrators have written for you with loving, affirming ones that empowers you.
- Heal the mind through the body
According to trauma expert Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, author of “The Body Keeps the Score,” trauma lives in our bodies as well as our minds. It’s important that we find at least one form of physical outlet for the intense emotions of grief, rage, and hurt we’re bound to feel in the aftermath of abuse, harassment or rape, in order to combat the paralysis that accompanies trauma, leaving us feeling numb and frozen.
Trauma victims cannot recover until we become familiar with and befriend the sensations in our bodies. Being frightened means that you live in a body that is always on guard. Angry people live in angry bodies. The bodies of child-abuse victims are tense and defensive until they find a way to relax and feel safe. And in order to change, victims need to become aware of their sensations and the way that their bodies interact with the world around them. Physical self-awareness is the first step in releasing the tyranny of the past.
For you, maybe physical activities like kickboxing, power-walks, and running while listening to empowering music or listening to positive affirmations would help a great deal. Identify the physical activities that you are passionate about and comfortable with. Don’t force your body into activities that you’re not comfortable with. Using physical exercise as an outlet is an act of self-care and self-love.
For abuse survivors who struggle with symptoms of PTSD or complex PTSD, mindful breathing exercises and meditation are especially helpful in managing fight, flight, freeze or fawn responses to flashbacks and ruminating thoughts.
Taking time to observe your breath, whether it’s for five minutes or an hour, can be immensely helpful to managing emotions and non-judgmentally addressing painful triggers. In addition, meditation is said to be helpful in literally rewiring the brain to mindfully approach any mal-adaptive responses that may keep you locked in the traumatic event. If you have never meditated before and would like to try it, I would highly recommend an app known as Stop, Breathe and Think or Abide, recommended for people of all ages.
- Channel your pain into creativity
Survivors are often incredibly aware and perceptive. What was born of necessity becomes a response that is gentle and understanding. You can recognize survivors by their creativity. In soulful, insightful, gentle, and nurturing creations, they often express the inner beauty they brought out of childhood storms. In the healing journey, art therapy is said to be especially helpful to survivors of PTSD because it enables survivors to find modes of expression that allow them to create and integrate rather than self-destruct.
Allowing yourself to express the trauma in a somatic way is important because trauma and the dissociation that comes with it can be difficult to process into words. When survivors dissociate from the trauma, the brain protects itself from the traumatic event by giving them an outsider perspective to the trauma, disconnecting them from their identity, thoughts, feelings, and memories related to the trauma.
According to research, the brain tends to “split” a traumatic event to make it easier to digest. Since trauma can disconnect survivors from both their minds and bodies through processes of depersonalization, derealization, and even amnesia, art can help reintegrate the trauma where you were previously disconnected from the experience. Expressive arts can be a way of “mastering the trauma.” Whether it’s writing, painting, drawing, making music, doing arts and crafts – it’s important to release the trauma in alternative ways that engage both the mind and body.
When you create something, you also have the option of sharing your art with the world – whether it’s a beautiful painting or a book, harnessing your pain into creativity can be a life-changing experience – both for yourself and for others.
- Asking for help
Contrary to popular opinion, asking for help does not make you helpless or powerless. It is in fact, a strong recognition of your own power to be able to seek help and be open to receiving it. Sharing your story with other survivors can be incredibly healing and cathartic. If you are struggling with the effects of trauma, I highly recommend finding a validating mental health professional who specializes in trauma and understands its symptoms in addition to finding a supportive community of fellow survivors.
Having the support of a mental health professional throughout the process can ensure that you are able to address your trauma triggers in a safe space. It is important to choose a validating, trauma-informed counselor who can meet your needs and gently guide you with the appropriate therapy that addresses the symptoms and triggers. Some survivors benefit from EMDR therapy, which is a therapy that enables them to process their trauma without being re-traumatized in the process. However, a therapy that works for one survivor may not work for another depending on their specific symptoms, the severity of the trauma and the length of time a person has been traumatized. Be sure to discuss with your mental health professional what the right type of therapy for you is.
As a supplement to therapy, you may consult the resources on this page, for support.
Throughout this journey of healing from sexual trauma, make sure that you are being compassionate towards yourself. A great deal of trauma survivors suffer from toxic shame and self-blame. It’s important that you are gentle towards yourself during this journey, that you acknowledge you are doing your very best, and that you ask yourself every day, “What would be the most loving thing I can do for myself in this moment?” in any circumstance. There is no time limit to learning and healing, there is only the power of transforming your adversity into victory, one small step at a time.