Sexual trauma can impact a person’s life, mental health, relationships and physical health for years. It can also impact the next generation. There are several little-known symptoms of sexual abuse that although experienced daily by survivors they are rarely talked about.
I am going to discuss seven in this article and give suggestions on how to deal with each.
Lack of body awareness or heightened sense of one’s body
Sometimes people who experience sexual abuse closes off from their bodies, afraid of their reaction or responses to things that others might take for granted. Things like touch can be both wanted and terrifying at the same time.
The disconnection from their bodies is often not a conscious decision. However, this lack of cognitive awareness doesn’t mean the subconscious is not at work. Some people might dress a certain way to hide their bodies. Some use food to cope and the resulting weight gain also becomes a place to hide.
Some persons can go through extremes of trying to hide their bodies under baggy clothes or overeating to gain weight and appear less attractive and therefore less desirable.
Trauma is a big event that has a massive effect on the mind and body. Consider a shock wave hurtling its way through the body. It can almost be violent in its force and leave the person with both physical and mental damage.
When we are in states of arousal –being triggered and the parasympathic is disabled, the heart rate goes up and digestion slows down. Some are in this state almost constantly. At those times it might not matter what you eat; digestion might be impaired. Sometimes healing from sexual trauma will also include healing the digestive system.
Many health principles that could help here such as: a gentle walk 30 minutes after eating, drinking enough water to aid the body in digesting foods and eating foods that are easily digested. We are advice to drink 6-8 glasses of water daily. I recently spent two weeks at a health retreat and found that sometimes we might need more water depending on our height.
I have discovered that not eating when you are triggered or upset is also helpful.
Love-hate relationship with sex
Some people who have experienced sexual abuse have a love-hate relationship with sex. It is used in a variety of ways to either control a situation or protect from perceived harm.
Sex is used as a coping mechanism
For this group sex is used as a way to deal with emotions whether negative or positive. It is used to cope whenever you get upset or triggered. Then you fall into a cycle of grief that can exacerbate the symptoms because sex is then used to cope with those emotions.
Sex can be used to provide a kind of release that offers a temporary solution to what is happening. This can send people in a cycle of guilt and shame. However, coping mechanisms can change. You can learn different strategies to cope that are healthy and do not generate guilt, fear and shame.
I like to tell people that the coping mechanism work for a time, whether they were desirable or not. The past cannot change. Don’t allow it to hold you captive and take away the present that you could enjoy.
Forgive yourself; learn new ways of coping and move forward.
Can also hate sex
Sex can also be too much for some people. Any touch or sight, or smell can bring up painful memories and make this activity challenging.
This can create havoc in romantic relationships where your partner doesn’t understand and isn’t prepared to learn. You might feel obligated to have sex or be available whenever your partner wants. This added pressure can contribute to many feelings of dread around intimacy. It can also be problematic when your shame prevents you from telling the story of the abuse and work together to find ways that help you.
Therapy can help you heal from the impact of sexual trauma and give you strategies to cope that will last. Do not deny yourself the freedom that exists in therapy.
The mind-body connection is well established. Basil van der Kolk discusses this in his book, The Body Keeps the Score.
The pain of unprocessed trauma is not a cognitive problem and therefore one can’t think there way out of it. Pain trapped in the nervous system and other parts of the body as a result of trauma needs a safe non-judgmental place to process and heal.
Despite the wide and varied impact of sexual abuse, it is important to know that healing is possible. People who once experienced daily memories, move on to live full free lives that are rich and fulfilling.
If you are a survivor who has never sought healing, I encourage you to try and find a counselor and/or group to help you begin your journey of healing.
Books written by other survivors can also be helpful. It is important to note that sometimes these books and blogs can be triggering. So, reading without other external support and/or place to go and talk through the impact of what you are reading could be overwhelming.
Groups are great places to build community and camaraderie. It helps to know that you are not the only one and that there are people who also share similar experiences and are doing well. It can help to provide a blueprint of what do to in order to heal especially if you are just starting out.
Having a community of people who know how you feel and can understand and empathise can be empowering and healing.
However, groups that are not well organized and managed can also foster a negative, victim mentality.
Therefore when looking for a group, be sure to research the leader and organisation’s ethos before joining. It might be worth going a few times to test the atmosphere and see whether they are ‘your people’. If you try and one group didn’t work out, don’t give up, your healing is worth it. Be relentless in pursuing the freedom you desire.
One to one therapy
Whether you are attending groups or not it will be essential that you find a qualified and experienced therapist to help you make sense of your experience and move forward.
Therapy is a safe non judgmental space where you can safely talk through the abuse and its impact. Your therapist will help you put your experience in perspective, tackle negative beliefs and self-destroying thoughts and feelings.
The thought of therapy can be daunting but your therapist would have heard stories like yours for years and is experienced with helping you to navigate the difficult places as you heal.
Be sure to find a therapist that is as close as you can find to your values and ethics. For example, if you are a Christian, while your counselor doesn’t have to be a Christian to be able to help you heal, it might be important to you that they provide the space for you to express your faith. Most will be okay with this and are usually happy to put any such request in the contract at the beginning.
Healing from sexual abuse might seem like a long lonely road, but healing is possible and as you begin the journey gets shorter and shorter.