Resources for surviors
Healing for the Survivor
A guide for survivors on abuse and support
Taking good care of yourself may be a challenge when you have survived sexual abuse. It takes a lot for you to reach out for help, but it’s a very essential part of your recovery, and taking care of yourself involves a balance between taking care of your mind, body and spirit You have taken the first step on reaching out for help, healing is possible, it takes time. Do remember to give yourself the time you need!
Our minds and body’s may go into a state of shock after experiencing a traumatic event like sexual abuse. They affect our mood and concentration even after the event is over, you may feel different, and always on the edge. These signs indicate that that body is trying to process this trauma.
Number of changes take place in various parts of the brain after exposure to trauma, 3 main areas that are most studied are the brains ; Threat, Reward and Memory systems. Your brain has a collection of processes that is responsible for how certain situations make us feel.
Our brain learns from the experiences we face at every point in our life. When we go through such difficult traumatic experiences in our childhood, our brains respond to this threat. Signals are sent to a part of your brain called the amygdala. Then, your brain will start using natural safety mechanisms. The brain also shuts down all other functions such as higher order thinking. All the blood and energy is diverted towards the heart and muscles to either “fight” or “flee”. The Brain also chooses to freeze (unable to move) or dissociate (brain shuts down, feeling disconnected from the body).
Most times, a very common feeling most survivors battle with is “guilt” or “self-blame” for not being able to run away, or not being able to scream and stop the abuse. However, this is due to the innate way your brain reacts during a threat and it is impossible at times like that to think and make decisions. Repeated exposure can lead to long-term changes in the brain and how the brain responds to threats in the future. A sense of hypervigilance ( over sensitivity) towards threats can develop making you want to avoid potential threats and dangers more than usual.
These reactions also may be remembered by your brain, and be used long after even when the real threat has passed. Our bodies may “get stuck” in a loop of being scared and anxious for situations that have no real threat as well, or situations that may have a potential threat.
All positive factors in our lives and motivation is taught to us by the reward system in the brain. Our brains have the innate capacity to understand what a reward is. When we do experience abuse, or neglect from people we look up to, or trust, these rewards, and our perceptions about the world become less consistent. Slowly over time our brain starts to respond less to any type of reward. Even if a reward is given, our brain becomes less sensitive to it, and we fail to see it, which confirms our belief that rewards are infrequent. This also acts as a protective factor so that we don't get our hopes up and disappoint ourselves.
We store information of the past, learn new things and draw from past experiences to help us navigate future situations, all these are possible because of our memory systems. Repeated abuse and trauma has shown to impact our memory systems. It is seen that the part of the memory that we store important personal events is a bit different than that of individuals who have not experienced significant trauma. We find it difficult to remember positive autobiographical memories that we experience, and that most of the time, the negative experiences in our day to day become more prominent than the positive ones.
Therefore, fear, anxiety, running away, freezing, shutting down, not being able to think, failing to recall positive aspects in life, failing to see rewards are normal reactions that take place in the brain after a traumatic experience. You are not alone in this!
It’s not your fault you are feeling what you feel. What you feel is normal to a very difficult, atypical situation.
Here are some of the common thoughts and symptoms
o Self -blame
o Thoughts of anger
o Thoughts of fear
What can I do with these thoughts, emotions and behaviours?
Certain situations and experiences trigger thought processes, depending on the nature of these thoughts it affects how we feel, and how we behave. Simply tracking what our thoughts may be at a given time, how we feel when we have those thoughts, may help us to build awareness and gain control. Keep a notebook or journal, this can be used for reflection.
Engaging in activities that we used to love.
It feels hard sometimes, takes a lot of energy, but let's start by making a list of things that we used to love doing before. This list can also be a reminder of things that were once joyful to you, and you may not be able to do them all at once. But we can break each activity down and start small. For each achievement, let's track how it made us feel after and tell ourselves that we made it ! You can even create a routine which includes these simple tasks and start practicing it Remember, you are doing the best you can.
Coping skill list
List 10 things that you can do to help you cope in an overwhelming situation. This does not have to be big, it can even be as small as listening to music. Have 10 of these up your sleeve so you don't have to create and stress during the time of discomfort.
Some of these coping strategies may be helpful. Write down all of your coping strategies and then write if you feel they are helpful or unhelpful.
Less sleep? Let’s try a bedtime routine
Trying to get into a routine during a difficult time may be confusing and hard, but let's start small again. First, let's pick a time you would want to go to sleep and try going to bed everyday at the same time. Keeping electronics and phones away may also help.
The routine can look like brushing your teeth, washing your face, going to the toilet, setting your alarm, reading, turning your light off.Get up if you are worrying, or having been lying awake for more than 20 minutes, and do something relaxing until you feel tired enough to go back to bed again.
While you try to sleep let's avoid
Looking at the time
Worrying about the time and if you are doing it right
Grounding techniques to bring you to the here and now
Grounding yourself in the present moment is a helpful way of coping with flashbacks and nightmares. It brings us to the ‘here and now’ by using the five senses.
Create a safe place
This can be in the form of a picture, a recording, or writing. This safe place is only known to you. You love going there, you love the people in it, you feel safe, you feel at ease. Pick a place you have already visited, or would love to visit that brings you some clarity. This can be your secret! Every Time you do feel overwhelmed, let's try letting our minds wander there.
Create safety box
Now this box would be used to fill in with the things you love, a favorite toy, a picture of someone you love, candy you love to eat, toys or objects that you have collected. You can even add writings about yourself , your goals, your dreams, your favorite place to be at.
Everytime you feel overwhelmed and it gets hard to visualize a safe place, you can open this box and feel and see the things that are closest to your heart.
Sensory grounding exercise
• Describe 3 things you can see in the room.
• Name 3 things you can feel (“my feet on the floor” or “the air in my nose”).
• Name 3 things you hear right now (“traffic outside”).
• Name 3 things you can smell right now (or 2 smells you like).
• Name 2 good things about yourself.
You should feel calmer and more at ease by the end of the exercise. Repeat the 5 steps more than once if needed. Try out the technique in different situations.
Physical grounding technique
• Place both feet flat on the floor.
• Lean back into your chair, and make note of the feeling of the chair under you and against your back.
• Cross your arms over your chest.
• Gently tap your shoulders, alternating one side at a time.
Walk, or stomp if it helps!
If you can, go outside and walk barefoot, or with shoes on, taking in each step to feel your feet make contact with the ground. If it is difficult to make connection, stomp around and really push your feet down
Stand against a wall. Physically push against it. Feel your feet against the ground and your hands against the wall. Then feel your muscles. What does it feel like when they tense, what is the sensation of relaxing your muscles.
Use the breath
Put a hand over your heart and a hand over your belly and breathe deeply, following the breath into your belly, focusing on the connections of your hands with your body and the gentle rise and fall of the movement as the breath comes in and out.
Combines regulating breath with a visual focus. Using an actual square shaped object (e.g. picture frame, table, window, book [it doesn’t need to be an exact square]) or an imaginary square shape, breathe in from one corner to another horizontally for a count of 4; hold breath from this point to the bottom corner for a count of 4;breathe out from this point moving horizontally for a count of 4; and hold breath moving up to the start point for a count of 4; and repeat.
Safety reminders for flashbacks
As our brain and body is used to getting stuck on high alert modes even when we are not in real danger, it gets difficult for us to function and think. Creating safety reminders and having them at your reach may help to remind yourself immediately. These can be affirmations of where you are, who you are with, such as “ I am feeling these emotions because of what i have gone through, but i am here in my room right now, and i am safe”
You can have these written or printed so that you can access them fast when needed.
Here is a format
Right now I am feeling (emotionally) __________________
I am sensing (in my body)__________________________
This is because I am remembering ____________________
At the same time, I am looking around where I am now on (say/write the day, date and year) here in (name the place)
And I can see (describe some of the things you can see right now, in this place)
So I know (name the trauma again) is not happening now or anymore
Suicidal Thoughts and Feelings
Feeling suicidal is the result of experiencing extreme pain, and not having the resources to cope. We therefore need to reduce pain and increase coping resources. These feelings will pass. The questions below can be answered and kept to use in times of distress.
Keep the plan where you can easily find it when you need it.
What I need to do to reduce the risk of me acting on the suicidal thoughts
What warning signs or triggers are there that make me feel more out of control?
What have I done in the past that helped?
What ways of coping do I have? What I will do to help calm and soothe myself:
What I will tell myself (as alternatives to the dark thoughts)
What would I say to a close friend who was feeling this way?
What could others do that would help?
Who can I call: Friend or relative: Another? Health professional: Other?
Telephone helpline: Other?
A safe place I can go to:
If I still feel suicidal and out of control: CALL hospital