Self-care has only recently become a part of a familiar therapy vernacular and is ideally something we practice regularly. Self-care can get misconstrued as selfish, but in reality, it is as simple as taking good care of ourselves, just like you would take good care of your child or a loved one. While we are hopefully practicing self-care in everyday life, it can be extremely important to practice for those who are dealing with or working through a difficult experience like sexual trauma. Imagine if a loved one told you they’d been assaulted or abused… you would want to make sure you are taking good care of them as they process and heal. If you are the one recovering from a traumatic sexual event, even if it has been months, years, or even decades, you need to take care of yourself just like you would your loved one. Here are just a few tips to consider as you begin, (or continue!), to practice self-care.
Start With the Essentials
What are the primary components of a healthy lifestyle? Diet, sleep, and exercise. Research shows that each of these factors contributes greatly to our physical, emotional, and mental wellness. Take a look at what you’re eating (we want healthy meals!), how much you’re sleeping (8 hours a night!), and how often you’re exercising (30 minutes a day). Check out Daniel’s post for some more info on how our mental health is strongly related to our physical health. If you feel like any of these areas are lacking, spend some time refining them. Cook (or buy) yourself good meals. Maybe go to bed earlier, or spend some time reading before bed to calm your system down. Try going for a bike ride or doing a bit of yoga. Physical health is an excellent first step in practicing self-care.
Take A Look At Your “Downtime”
For the isolated: When you have free time, do you tend to withdraw and spend time alone? Having some good, quiet, “alone” time can be great and healthy, but when we find ourselves consistently retreating into our rooms or canceling plans, it might be time to be curious about your end-goal there. Are you setting aside time to think or journal or do something life-giving, or does it feel more like you are avoiding something (people, places, intimacy, etc.)? After experiencing a trauma or during the processing of one, it’s often easy to isolate ourselves. But, during this time of processing and recovery, you need relationships and support more than ever. If you’ve experienced something like a sexual trauma, there are plenty of reasons you may not feel like being around people (we’ll look more at that later!). But if you know that spending time with certain friends have been life-giving in the past, challenge yourself to try it again.
For the super-social: On the other hand, if isolation is not a problem for you, you may not be out of the woods just yet! On the opposite side of the spectrum, do you find yourself constantly filling your time with meetings, social events, phone calls, hanging out with friends, etc? Of course, it’s good to use your time wisely and to spend time with people, but during the processing and healing, you may need to spend some time alone. Often we use meetings or dates or friends as distractions- if we are busy enough, we think that we won’t feel the weight of all we’re dealing with, that we can avoid the pain or the processing of it. Unfortunately, that’s not true. Distractions can be good and helpful, but when we use them so consistently that we aren’t truly looking at or dealing with our stuff, what they can do is stunt the growth process, keeping you stuck with certain feelings or ideas for a longer period of time because you haven’t been able to process through them.
Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum of isolation and distraction, take some time to evaluate how you spend your free time and consider making some healthy changes.
You are dealing with a lot of different emotions and feelings and thoughts when coping with or processing through a sexual trauma. It can be incredibly confusing and overwhelming, even maddening at times. That’s normal. That’s a normal reaction to a horrible thing that shouldn’t have happened to you. As all of the feelings and thoughts come up, it can be tempting to shove them back down and ignore, avoid, or distract yourself from them. Unfortunately, those tactics don’t work in the long run! Often we need to do the opposite: we need to pay attention to them, and, in many cases, express them. I would suggest finding an outlet that gives you the freedom to express them in a safe and healthy way. If you enjoy writing, maybe spend some time journaling or writing letters or stories or poetry. If you enjoy art, paint or color or sculpt or draw. If you enjoy music, play an instrument or find some songs that express what you’re feeling, or better yet, write some yourself! If you enjoy dancing, put on some music or dance without it. Do some gardening. Cook something awesome. Take some cool photos. Build something, even if it’s a craft or a sandcastle. We were made to create, and when we are feeling strong or confusing emotions, it can be so helpful to let them out, and there are so many different options. Try and find something you enjoy creating, and allow the art or the pictures or the food or the stories to express what you’re feeling or thinking.
*Notice I didn’t say, “if you are good at art, writing, or dancing”… I don’t care if you can recreate a Van Gogh or if you stick to finger paints and stick figures. If it is something that feels fulfilling or expressive to you (and of course is safe), do it! No one has to see it. You can even throw it out when you’re done if you’re worried about it. The act of creating is what is important.
Talk To Someone
Another way to express your emotions or thoughts? Talk to a trusted mentor, friend, or therapist. If you are ready to talk through what happened, that’s great. My suggestion there would be to make sure you are talking it through with someone you trust, and, eventually, to someone who is trained to help with these topics. If you don’t feel you’re ready to talk through what happened, that’s okay. You can still take steps in that direction, which I do think is incredibly important, brave, and scary. Sexual trauma of any kind is not easy to talk about, and not knowing how someone will respond only makes it more difficult. My hope for anyone who has experienced sexual trauma is that they find someone safe to tell and that that safe person responds with belief, support, grace, patience, genuine care, empathy. It is distressing that that does not always happen. Talking with someone about this private part of your life can be so freeing and so healing, and if you haven’t tried that yet, I would encourage you to consider it.
There are plenty of other ways to practice self-care, and again it can be helpful to think about it in terms of how you would care for a loved one. Take a bath, practice deep breathing, spend time in nature, read a good book, watch a candle burn, try a new hobby. Find something(s) safe, healthy, and life-giving and set aside time to do it.
Wherever you are in your process, know that there are trained counselors who would be honored to work with you through this. Don’t hesitate to reach out to me or to another therapist if you’re thinking about working through and really processing a traumatic event in your life in the pursuit of healing. It would be a privilege to be on your side and work with you on that journey.