To honor Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I’m writing this post to demystify trauma/PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and provide clear paths to healing.
I hope that if nothing more, you get that you can absolutely, positively recover from even the most intense experiences of trauma. AND, it wasn’t your fault. No matter what. It wasn’t. Read on to see how I know this for sure…
So, here are two unfortunate truths:
- Sexual assault is rampant. In my 10 years of being a therapist, I am more surprised when someone hasn’t experienced some form of sexual trauma (either sexual assault or sexual abuse or molestation) in their history than if they have.
- Sexual trauma takes a huge toll on your mind, your body, your heart and your life. It’s never ok and it’s never warranted.
If you have experienced sexual assault or sexual abuse, chances are, that at some point along the way…
…you probably blamed yourself, even though on some level you know you didn’t do anything wrong (or maybe you don’t know this yet).
…you probably couldn’t stop thinking about it.
…you probably couldn’t stop feeling about it.
…you may have had trouble falling asleep or staying asleep and difficulty concentrating.
…you may have felt like (or still feel like) something bad is going to happen at any minute, living in constant fear.
…you probably felt so many different and profoundly intense feelings all at once about what happened that you numbed yourself, dissociated from your body, tried to forget that it happened or you denied that it was effecting you.
…you may have had nightmares or flashbacks that felt like the event was happening again.
…after isolating from others, you may have decided to tell someone and hopefully they listened and helped you to take whatever action you needed to take – both emotionally and logistically.
…you may have told someone who didn’t believe you or didn’t support you in the ways you needed and their ignorance and disregard induced more shame, anger, sadness, frustration, and hopelessness.
…you probably realized (or you probably will realize) that getting help might be just what you need(ed) to heal and move on, but the prospect of getting help may have been or is utterly frightening.
You aren’t alone if any or all of the above statements describe you. However, if they don’t resonate, it’s important to note that although there are some generally common responses to sexual assault, everyone responds to trauma in their own way.
In order to better understand the trauma response, it’s important to understand that when you are in the midst of a traumatic situation, the newer more “civilized” part of your brain shuts down, the “lizard” or animal part of your brain kicks in and your body takes over.
First and foremost, your body attempts to shield you from danger, even though it doesn’t always get it “right” and harm still happens. Your body responds with either: fight, flight, freeze or play dead (also called “possum”).
How you respond to trauma, when it’s happening, is not a conscious choice.
You do what your body dictates in that moment. In those pivotal moments of shock and terror, your body and brain are in full-fledged survival mode. Your response happens without thought or logic, because your brain isn’t working on the logic track when trauma is occurring. It can’t.
Your body is in shut-down-protect-itself mode, which overtakes all other body and brain functions.
Neuroscience has also proven that the language center of your brain (Broca’s area) shuts off when you are in a traumatic situation. You are, in essence, responding from your body – and the memory of the experience is imprinted in pictures in your brain and sensations in your body.
Trauma is a whole body experience.
Why am I telling you all of this? It’s important, because it proves that you couldn’t have done anything other than what you did (or didn’t do) while the trauma was occurring. You couldn’t have analyzed the situation and made a better choice (you aren’t able to make conscious choices during trauma, since your body and your “lizard” brain have taken over at the helm).
So, in summary:
- it’s not your fault.
- your body responded in the way that it did in an attempt to protect you.
- memories of the trauma begin from mental pictures and body sensations, no words.
- because the language center of your brain shuts down during trauma, you have attached words to describe your experience, post-occurrence.
- trauma is a whole body experience.
For years, trauma was misdiagnosed and mistreated because we didn’t have the tools we have today to study the brain and the brain-body / body-brain relationship. We didn’t realize how many brain functions shut down, how much of the response to trauma is automatic — driven from your central nervous system. We didn’t know that trauma gets silently stuck in nooks and crannies of your body.
Your body doesn’t “forget” what happened, even if your mind does.
What does this all mean in terms of healing? Healing begins with accessing the body.
You can’t think your way out of something that wasn’t logical and had minimal brain involvement.
Your body responded however it did and because of how scared it got – think of it like body shock. Then, it locked the memory there, so as to protect you from it ever happening again.
Except, the problem is, the events are no longer happening and your body still responds as if they are. The memories are difficult to access and your body holds on tightly in the spirit of protection. Your body struggles to let go, even though you might be ready to.
You may feel like your body betrayed or failed you, especially if you froze or played dead during the trauma. You may have anger toward your body (toward yourself) for not “doing” more or doing something differently. You may feel like you’re to blame.
If your symptoms last more than 1 month, your trauma response is now considered very serious. It is at this stage that more in-depth treatment is necessary.
8 Paths to Healing:
Getting (good) treatment is essential at this stage!
1. Talk Therapy – Make sure you choose a therapist that is specialized in treating sexual trauma. Ask him/her how they integrate the body in the treatment. If they are purely theoretical without the integration of your body, you may want to seek out a different therapist. Also, it’s important that they don’t suggest you continue to tell the details and
story of your trauma repetitively. This used to be considered a healing approach to trauma (to “get it out of your system”) when in fact the verbal repetition of the story has been shown on brain scans to enhance symptoms of the trauma.
2. MindBodyWise Therapy (movement therapy or yoga therapy) – This approach starts with accessing and exploring the sensations of your body in order to connect with the deeper layers of your mind-body connection. It includes movement, verbal communication, breath and guided meditation. It’s powerful in healing the trauma because it goes to the source of where the trauma is trapped: your body.
3. Support Groups – It can be incredibly healing to join with others and a skilled facilitator to process your what you’re going through as well as connecting with others who have had similar experiences. Although this private, virtual Facebook group is not specifically for trauma survivors, people here are sharing and supporting each other with personal growth and mind-body healing (including sexual trauma).
4. Creative Arts Therapies – Sometimes it takes a creative approach to heal something that’s stored so deeply within you. Art Therapy and/or Drama Therapy can support with healing sexual trauma in meaningful ways, without starting from a place of language about an events that had no language.
5. EEG Biofeedback – There is a lot of promising evidence that this complementary therapy (often used in conjunction with psychotherapy) is very helpful in decreasing the symptoms associated with PTSD. You are hooked up to a machine where you listen to feedback from your brain, which helps to create a deep calming experience. You can often observe or think about your stuck memories in this safe dream-like state, without it feeling as intense.
6. Homeopathy – this is a holistic form of treatment that stimulates the body to heal itself, taking into account the innate mind/body connection. Because the homeopath takes into consideration not only physical as well as mental emotional symptoms, homeopathy can be effective for those who have experienced sexual assault or abuse.
7. EMDR – (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) This is a controversial approach to healing trauma because it has minimal data to prove it works, but some people swear by it. The methodology uses talking combined following the therapists’ fingers moving back and forth with your eyes while recalling your trauma and connecting with the emotions and body sensations that arise.
8. Medication – Psychotropic medication can sometimes get a bad reputation, when actually it can be wonderfully effective as an adjunct to other therapies. If you are overly anxious or depressed, medication can help to ease these symptoms and make life more tolerable. Additionally, when the symptoms of PTSD are intense, oftentimes psychotherapy or other therapies are not effective until your central nervous system is in a state of receptivity.
If you are a survivor of sexual trauma (or any kind of trauma), please know that good treatment exists and you can go on to live a joyful life.
Rachel Shanken is the founder of MindBodyWise and creator of MindBodyWise therapy. She is also a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Yoga Teacher. Rachel specializes in mind-body approaches to healing trauma, depression, anxiety, eating disorders and grief/loss. Her philosophy is simple: what you seek is already within you. Rachel uses a whole-body, client-centered approach and is passionate about supporting people with learning to listen to their own internal wisdom, assisting them with connecting to what they really want and helping to empower them in taking steps toward achieving their goals.
P.S. We are talking about all kinds of healing and personal growth in the MindBodyWise Living Room, a free and private group on Facebook of like-spirited people. Please join us!