Coping with the emotional pain of childhood sexual abuse is not easy by any means. Some of the effects of abuse can stay with survivors for a lifetime, but learning to cope with the pain is certainly possible. The effects of abuse vary from person to person, depending on factors such as age of the survivor, whether or not he or she remembers the abuse, how long the abuse occurred, relationship with the offender, etc. Traumatic experiences affect everyone a little bit differently, but some of the common symptoms are depression, anxiety, nightmares or flashbacks and low self-esteem, among other issues (see signs of sexually abused children).
Many survivors don’t really know where to turn when they’re in need of healing, and I was in that same boat for several years. It was a struggle just to get out of bed for a long time, my relationships suffered, and I contemplated suicide several times. Over time, I began to recognize the things that made me feel better. So, I started to do more and more of those things, and eventually I realized that a lot of my trauma symptoms were either gone, or were happening much less frequently.
Again, because everyone experiences the trauma of sexual abuse a little bit differently, everyone’s healing journey will also be unique. Healing is all about finding your own coping methods, being patient (healing is not a fast process!) and most of all, being kind to yourself. These are some of the methods that were monumental in getting me to where I am now, and I want to share them here in hopes that others will benefit, too.
When experiencing any kind of grief, trauma or emotional difficulty, a common first reaction is to isolate ourselves from society. Isolation, though, is often one of the most damaging things we can do while suffering.
Sexual abuse isn’t a topic that is easy to talk about, but if you can find a friend, family member or counselor to share with, that can be very helpful. Whether or not you choose to tell the people around you what you’re going through, you still need community. Get together with friends regularly, join a group of like-minded people if you have a hobby, or volunteer with your church or a community group. Any activities that promote a sense of love, connection and community can be very healing.
Exercise naturally releases endorphins, the “feel good” hormones. How can you exercise when it’s a struggle just to get out of bed? Baby steps. Step outside and take a short walk around the block, or find an exercise video and move along for five minutes. Over time, increase the distance or the amount of time you’re moving little by little until movement becomes a regular part of your routine. You’ll feel so much better mentally and physically.
- Change in mental state.
When I’m depressed, I am really hard on myself. I get stuck in a loop thinking of all the mistakes I’ve made, regrets, and the things I don’t like about myself until I feel like a complete failure. This is not healthy, and it’s only going to prolong the healing process. Negativity attracts more negativity, and the cycle continues until you learn to consciously break it.
Try some positive thinking activities like guided meditation, yoga, listening to your favorite music, or practicing gratitude. Meditation helps us to accept the present moment without judgment, release negative thoughts, and practice self-love.
To practice gratitude, write down all of the things you’re grateful for. Read the list every day, and add to it when you can. You can also do this in the form of a prayer. Sometimes when I’m in a negative mood, I start going over a list in my head, “I have a big, loving family. I have a husband who loves me. We live in a comfortable apartment. I always have food to eat. I have a car to drive,” and continue listing things until I’ve changed my pattern of thought.
The more you practice these activities, the more control you’ll have over your subconscious mind. And that means instead of being stuck with negative thoughts and emotions, you’ll learn how to acknowledge them, let them go, and be at peace with yourself.
In fact, yoga and meditation were so helpful for me during my healing process that in 2014 I decided to enroll in a yoga teacher training and become a certified instructor. I now have the privilege of teaching people the same techniques that helped me get to where I am today.
Taking time to get some fresh air and take in the sights, sounds, feelings and scents of nature is very powerful. When stuck inside, our attention is focused on so many different things throughout the day that it causes us serious stress and bad feelings. When we get outside, there is no longer pressure to focus on those stressors, but rather we notice the beauty of our surroundings. We begin to feel relaxation, peace and mental clarity, because in nature, we no longer have any distractions, but we can take time admire the splendor of how everything in natural world works together.
When a person experiences trauma, a common response is a change in their eating habits. Sexual abuse survivors often develop eating disorders. These changes in eating habits also lead to shame and low self esteem. Shame for eating the wrong things or not eating enough of the right things. Negative perceptions about how our bodies are changing. And the downward spiral continues. In addition to physical health, proper nutrition is also vital for our mental health. When you eat better, you start to feel better.
Our minds cause an overload of resistance when responding to a bad situation. Your subconscious mind tells you that you should stay at home in bed, isolate yourself, stop exercising, fail to provide your body the nutrition it needs, and feel lots of shame and self-hate. You absolutely have to change these thoughts to regain control in your life. The above methods are a HUGE help in beginning to do so and can help you start to make progress on your healing journey. These methods, of course, will not heal all symptoms of trauma, but they are small steps that make a big difference.
If you’re a survivor of sexual abuse or a family member of a survivor, please connect with other survivors on our support forum. This area of our website is for members only, so be sure to create a user login if you would like to join the forum.