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How can I support adult survivors of child sexual abuse when their trauma resurfaces?

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Healing from child sexual abuse (CSA) can be a lifelong journey. As national TA providers, we get lots of questions from adult survivors of CSA who are looking for referrals, resources and answers to some challenging questions.

We’ve come to understand that sexual violence is a form of trauma. That means that experiencing a traumatic event like child sexual abuse affects the way your brain and body work. Think of it as a normal reaction to an unexpected situation. In order to survive that situation in that moment, your brain and body have to process things a little differently. It’s a survival technique and a sign of how amazing, resilient, brave, and strong people who survive sexual violence are.

The brain’s pathways for processing trauma are different from how we process memories from our last vacation. Particular scents or visual cues can jog memories of the traumatic event (often called triggers or trauma echoes). However, because trauma is considered a threat to the body’s systems, the memories can be sharp, jarring, or recreate the feeling of being back in that situation again. A person’s body does this to try and warn them of possible danger. It’s the body’s way of trying to help, but it can feel overwhelming or intrusive to the survivor.

The stress of experiencing a sexual trauma in childhood can impact a person’s health across their lifespan. After the abuse, survivors often have to get creative in finding ways to deal with trauma that resurfaces. While these strategies can be incredibly effective at helping someone survive trauma, they can also take a toll on their physical health. Many survivors develop eating disorders or use drugs and alcohol to help them regain control over their trauma reactions. Survivors often have to do a balancing act between coping with their trauma and taking care of their bodies.

In other cases, regular life events can stir up traumatic memories of childhood sexual abuse. Some of our staff have found several books useful in learning how to work through these situations. As Staci Haines explains in her book The Survivor’s Guide to Sex, navigating sex, sexuality, and intimate relationships may involve some extra steps for a survivor. Experiencing pregnancy or giving birth may signal a need for extra support, and there’s much that survivors, healthcare providers, and support networks can do to assist. There are also considerations for adult survivors of CSA whose children are also victims of abuse.

In other cases, speaking out about the trauma of child sexual abuse and the healing process is the cornerstone of the journey for many people. The documentary Boys and Men Healing provides powerful narratives from survivors and tools for hosting viewings and discussion in your community.

Trauma echoes, or triggers, can be powerful and difficult to navigate. But increasing your awareness of your own unique triggers, and of what happens in your mind and body when particular things trigger you, can help. Tracking your trauma echoes – through journaling or otherwise – can help you identify patterns, their source, and techniques you used to decrease their impact on your well-being, leaving you better prepared to handle them when they resurface. Some survivors find the following strategies helpful in mitigating the impact of trauma echoes:

  • Breathe deeply, look around and remind yourself that you are in a safe place. Recite it out loud for as long as is needed until your breathing slows and you feel safer.
  • Use night lights throughout your living space to illuminate dark spaces such as the entryway, bedrooms, closets, hallways, etc.
  • Know that it’s ok to create a structure, routine, and boundaries that makes you feel safe and secure. Going into unknown situations can be scary and may inadvertently expose you to experiences/scenarios you want to avoid.
  • Build a good, positive relationship with a someone who can be a support for you to call, text, or message when you’re feeling unsafe or having anxiety. If that person is not available, develop a self-care plan of things you can do – such as reading positive affirmations, taking a warm bath, listening to music, taking a walk – until you’re able to get the physical or emotional support needed.
  • Move your body through exercise or stretching. Running, cycling, swimming, yoga, or stretching can be grounding for the body and mind.
  • Create art such as poetry, sculpture, or drawing to help express the feelings you are having.
  • Meditate, pray, or listen to guided imagery to help relax your muscles and refocus your energy on something positive and healing.

What it all circles back to is the reality that adult survivors of CSA often have to work through resurfacing trauma. While it can be frustrating, especially for someone who’s done a lot of work on their healing journey already, it’s a sign that their bodies are still working hard to survive and thrive. There are many resources out there to help them along the path to healing. Whether today feels like an uphill battle, a bump in the road, or a day for smooth sailing, there is a network of advocates and supporters who are there to help.

What strategies or resources have you found to help adult survivors cope with CSA?