Add Fuel to Your Healing Journey: You and Your Body

Get in touch with your body quote by Bessel van der Kolk.

Have you ever felt like you try and try to fix something and nothing you do works? It gets discouraging, and it’s easy to want to give up. Sometimes this happens because we’re trying to fix the wrong thing. For example, say your car won’t run because it’s out of gas. If you don’t know that’s the problem, you might replace the battery. When that doesn’t work, you replace the starter. Your actions get more and more drastic, and you finally give up because it feels like no matter what you do, the car still sits there not running. But all it needs is some fuel.

The same thing can happen when it comes to healing from childhood sexual abuse. You’ve possibly tried all kinds of things to heal and nothing seems to work as well as you want it to. Understandably, you get frustrated and might feel like giving up. But maybe you just need to shift where you focus your healing efforts a little. One thing you can try is paying attention to your body and the messages it’s sending you. Survivors often take care of their minds but neglect their bodies, and their bodies are an important part of the healing process. Here are three reasons that paying attention to your body is important.

  • A strong connection to your body will help you stay in the present. Being in the present plays an important role in healing, especially with talk therapy. As Bessel van der Kolk teaches in The Body Keeps the Score, “people need to be grounded in the present before they can start to deal with things in the past,”[1] and you can use your body to help yourself stay grounded.
  • Having control of your body helps give you control of your life. Sexual abuse survivors are often scared to feel things. They spend time trying to numb emotions and physical sensations. The reality is that the more you understand and experience your body, the more power you have to make decisions: “Agency starts with . . . our awareness of our subtle sensory, body-based feelings: the greater that awareness, the greater our potential to control our lives.”[2]
  • What happens in the body impacts the brain. Our brains and our bodies are inseparably linked. When we heal from trauma, we typically focus on the brain. We also need to see “the body as the vehicle for change.”[3] In Body Kindness, Rebecca Scritchfield says, “You’ll receive a powerful emotional boost each time you connect to your body and make a choice that is more caring and helpful in the moment.”[4]

Spend some time thinking about how you can take care of your physical health. Like a car that needs its gas tank filled, maybe your body just needs some fuel to help you move to the next level of healing.

 

[1] Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score, p. 70.

[2] Same as above, p. 97.

[3] Peg Duros and Dee Crowley, “The Body Comes to Therapy Too,” Clinical Social Work Journal, Vol. 42 (2014), p. 237.

[4] Rebecca Scritchfield, Body Kindness, p. 25.

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Practice Every Day: How Playing the Cello is Like Healing From Abuse

Quote for blog on how practicing self-care is like taking time to practice the cello.

Think of the last time you learned something new. Were there moments when you felt overwhelmed? Did you ever want to give up? Someone who works here at The Younique Foundation shared this recently.

I’m 35 years old, and I started taking cello lessons about six months ago. This is totally new territory for me, and I was seriously intimidated at my first lesson. My teacher was demonstrating things for me, and she was so good at everything. The sad, squeaky noises the cello made when I played sounded terrible compared to the beautiful music she was making. I kept thinking, “I will never be able to do this!” There was a big part of me that wanted to give up on the spot, but I kept at it, and I practice for about 20 minutes most days. I’m definitely a beginner—I make lots of mistakes, I’m usually out of tune, I feel like my fingers can’t reach far enough. But I’m slowly making progress.

Sometimes we put too much pressure on ourselves and feel like we need to be perfect at things right away, but this isn’t a helpful way for us to think. Of course, it would be defeating to go to your first cello lesson and say to yourself, “Okay, I need to play like a concert cellist right now.” That’s a goal that simply isn’t possible, and you’ll only get discouraged if you think like that. The reality is that we make progress a little bit at a time by consistently doing small things. You don’t wake up one morning transformed into an amazing musician; you become an amazing musician by practicing a little bit every day.

The same is true when it comes to healing from sexual abuse. You won’t wake up one day completely healed. But there are small things you can do right now to put yourself on a path to healing. Don’t get overwhelmed thinking that you have to do everything at once. Just figure out little things you can do daily. Here are just three suggestions for things you can do right now:

1. Break big tasks into small steps.

Maybe there’s something big you’ve been meaning to do for a while, but it feels too hard. Figure out small steps that will help you get there. Say you’ve been meaning to find a therapist. Today, spend a few minutes googling therapists in your area. Tomorrow, ask friends if they have any recommendations. The next day, call one or two offices to ask about availability for appointments. The whole process of finding a therapist might feel like too much, but doing just one small step hopefully feels manageable. Figure out small steps that you can do each day.

2. Find a go-to grounding technique.

One of the most challenging aspects of healing from abuse can be dealing with triggers that arise in daily life. Figure out a grounding technique that works for you that you can use when you’re triggered. Maybe it’s a simple breathing exercise like inhaling for a few counts and exhaling for a few counts. You can find lots of grounding techniques on our blog like mindfulness, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation. You can even try a podcast like Live Awake or an app like Headspace. If you find a technique beforehand, when you’re triggered you won’t feel stuck trying to figure out what to do. You’ll have a plan.

3. Say positive declarations.

Sending yourself positive messages every day can be a simple but impactful part of healing. You can build positive declarations into your already-existing daily routine. Say a few when you’re getting ready in the morning or as you’re driving to work. Positive declarations can be as simple as saying something like, “I’m a worthwhile person, and I love myself.” Check out more information about creating positive declarations. (Or look at this little girl for an example of how it’s done.)

Don’t let unrealistic expectations for perfection frustrate you. Take things a day at a time, and give yourself credit for the amazing progress you’re making. Just as a beginning cellist is on the journey to make beautiful music, you are on a journey to heal. Every journey takes time, and you’ll inevitably experience some bumps and detours along the way, but have confidence that you’re moving in the right direction and making progress. What simple thing can you do today?

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Your Sexual Health Bill of Rights

The World Health Organization defines sexual health as “a state of physical, emotional, mental, and social well-being in relation to sexuality. . .. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination, and violence.” Healthy sexuality involves more than just physical safety. Emotional safety and positive attitudes about sex are also key components.

Sexual abuse survivors usually had their first sexual experience by force, before they could consent or fully understand what was going on. Their sexual rights were violated. These confusing and traumatizing experiences from your past can have a negative impact on your sexual experiences in the present. Knowing your sexual rights will help you have safe, healthy, and fulfilling relationships.

Remember that no one ever has the right to force or coerce you into doing something that you don’t want to. You are in control of your body and your experiences.

Sexual Bill of Rights from The Younique Foundation

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Music’s Power to Heal

Music can be a great tool to help survivors of childhood sexual abuse find healing.

There’s evidence to suggest that music can be a powerful tool to help the brain heal when someone has experienced trauma. Award-winning psychiatrist and clinical researcher Norman Doidge observes that music can change the brain and its rhythms: “Brain scans show that when the brain is stimulated by music, its neurons begin to fire in perfect synchrony with it.”[1] If you haven’t used music as a healing tool, here are some ideas you can try.

Music as an expressive tool.

Music can be one way to express things that you might struggle to communicate in other ways. One sexual abuse survivor shared, “Music has always been a big part of my life . . .. Being able to sing and write songs was a gentle route through my history and back into myself.”[2] Maybe you already play a musical instrument or have always wanted to learn one. Maybe you write poetry that you could set to music. See if music can be a productive expressive tool for you.

Music as a relaxation tool.

Trauma can cause a lot of stress as triggers arise in daily life, and research has shown that listening to music can help with relaxation. For example, one study of university students showed that listening to music reduced the presence of stress hormones in their bodies. Try putting together a playlist of your favorite relaxing songs that you can listen to when your stress level is elevated.

Music as a therapeutic tool.

So far, we’ve talked about ways you can use music informally in your daily life to help with trauma, but you also might want to pursue working with a music therapist. A music therapist is a trained professional who uses music as a tool to help you heal. According to the American Music Therapy Association, the benefits of music therapy include everything from “positive changes in mood and emotional states” to “enhanced feelings of control, confidence, and empowerment.”

When it comes to your healing, variety can be one key to help you keep progressing on your journey. Music might be a tool you’ve never used, and it offers some great benefits. Experiment to see how it might be able to help you, and if you need a few more ideas, you can check out “Music as a Way of Healing” in the Reclaim Hope Workbook.

[1] Norman Doidge, The Brain’s Way of Healing, 345.

[2] Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, 164.

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5 Strategies to Reclaim Hope After Childhood Sexual Abuse

Learn the tools, 5 Strategies to Reclaim Hope, that you need to overcome childhood sexual abuse

One thing that makes The Younique Foundation’s approach to healing from childhood sexual abuse distinctive is our use of the 5 Strategies to Reclaim Hope. We created these tools specifically for survivors to help them on their healing journey. Below is an in-depth look at each strategy and an example of how it can be used.

You should know that the strategies are not in order of importance or sequence. You don’t have to master one before moving onto the next. They can be used individually or together in any combination or order that you like. You can spend time focusing on one, or you can spend time every day trying to tap into each. One of the benefits of the 5 Strategies to Reclaim Hope is that you can make them work for YOU.

1. Awareness

The first strategy is Awareness. We define it as “becoming more fully grounded in the reality that the only time something can actually happen is now, in the present moment.” But what does that mean? Be present. Too often we get caught up in memories of the past or in anxiety about the future. Awareness reminds us that we get to make conscious choices, to choose how we react to the situations we’re in.

One way to effectively use Awareness is by utilizing grounding techniques. These are used to get your limbic system and prefrontal cortex talking to each other. They can be used anytime but are especially useful if you experience a trigger, anxiety attack, or other unpleasant situation.

2. Acknowledgement

The second strategy, Acknowledgement, is defined at The Younique Foundation, is “accepting where you are. You recognize your truth and what you need to do to improve.” Think of Acknowledgement as a three-part process – you recognize your truth, whatever it may be, then you accept where you are right now, and from there you can see what you need to do to improve.

For example, if you are in the beginning stages of your healing journey, you need to recognize that you are a survivor of sexual abuse. That is your truth right now. Once you accept that, you can move onto the next step. In this case, it may be applying to The Haven Retreat, finding a local support group, or simply writing your truth down. Then, to paraphrase Maya Angelou, when you know better, you do better. You repeatedly use Acknowledgement in your life to recognize the truth of where you are on your healing journey, accept the progress you’ve made or the setbacks that have come your way, and then make a plan for your next steps.

3. Power Through Surrender

The third strategy is Power Through Surrender. We define this as “knowing what to fight and, more importantly, what NOT to fight.” You might consider power and surrender opposites, but they aren’t. You gain power by consciously deciding when you will let it be. There are thoughts and feelings that you’re going to have that won’t serve you, but fighting them, yelling at them, or berating yourself for having them will be neither helpful nor productive.

To fully benefit from Power Through Surrender, you have to be willing to recognize when something you’re thinking is coming from your limbic system. For example, when that voice in your head tells you that you’re not enough, you can argue with it or you can say, “That isn’t me thinking; that’s just my limbic system,” and move on with your day. This isn’t always easy, but with practice, you’ll be able to know which thoughts you need to deal with head on and which ones you merely recognize and let be.

4. Mindfulness

The fourth strategy is Mindfulness. Although you’ve probably heard this word before, here we define it as “the ability to focus on empowering thoughts and feelings while choosing to coexist with non-productive thoughts and feelings.” Mindfulness is all about choice. Are you turning toward the sunshine or the shadows?

Mindfulness is something that you can practice daily, and you’ll actually see amazing benefits from it if you do. Every time you are in a situation where you feel overwhelmed or upset, step back for a minute and choose your response. You’ll soon realize that you feel empowered by the simple act of choosing where to aim your focus and how to deal with a situation.

5. Faith

The fifth strategy is Faith. While you may hear this word all the time, at The Younique Foundation we define it as “the act of moving forward on your belief that wholeness and healing are possible, even if you may not see it.” With Faith, you believe that you are capable of healing and that every day you are taking steps on that healing journey.

One easy way to think of faith is as a seed. You plant it, give it the support it needs in the form of water, sunlight, fertilizer, etc., and believe that it will grow. You may not see progress every day. Sometimes it can be weeks before you’re even sure the seed is growing at all – but if you keep taking care of it and giving it what it needs, one day it will bloom.

For more information about the 5 Strategies to Reclaim Hope and how you can use them in your everyday life, you can read our Reclaim Hope book and workbook on our website at youniquefoundation.org/resources. Which strategy will you use today to help yourself heal?

The Role of Exercise in your Healing Journey

Exercise is a great way to progress further in your healing journey from childhood sexual abuse

It seems anytime you talk about exercise you’re supposed to talk about weight loss. That’s the primary benefit, right? This is actually false. For a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, exercise has myriad benefits (and weight loss isn’t even one of them).

When you take the time to practice self-care, that includes finding a way to exercise regularly. That can be overwhelming – especially with the glut of information out there about the “best” way to do pretty much anything and everything.

Before we give you 5 Easy Tips to Exercise Every Day, let’s start by listing the health benefits of daily exercise (for even more information on this, read the book Body Kindness by Rebecca Scritchfield):

  • Increased happiness
  • More energy
  • A greater connection to your body (especially important for a survivor)
  • Better sleep
  • Improved memory
  • Increased self-confidence
  • Less stress
  • Alleviated anxiety
  • Greater creativity
  • Decreased cognitive decline

With so many benefits, what’s stopping you from exercising every day? It probably has something to do with time, energy, confusion of where to start, or something else along those lines. Here are 5 EASY tips for exercising every day:

1. Make it fun.

When did we stop thinking that exercise could be fun? Find something that you love doing, even if you’re not great at it. Try roller skating, aerial silks, take a tango class, or just play tag with your kids outside. Whatever you decide to do, make it fun!

2. Do it every day, it doesn’t matter how long.

Consistency is key. Even if you only exercise 10 minutes a day, you’ll see the benefits.

3. Be mindful.

Use this time to check in with your body. Don’t just go through the motions; really feel your body moving and flexing and stretching. Listen to your heartbeat and pay attention to your breathing.

4. If at first you don’t succeed…

Don’t give up. If you miss a day, an exercise doesn’t help, or you find yourself being triggered by something, make adjustments. Don’t give up on exercising altogether. Try something different, commit again, just keep trying.

5. Schedule it.

If you don’t make time for something, you’ll never have time for it. When you’re planning your day, formally or informally, decide when and where you’re going to exercise. It can be as simple as, “I’m going to take the stairs back up to the 6th floor after lunch at work today.”

Exercise will be an incredible help on your healing journey. Take the time to make it a priority, along with your other self-care practices. Make the goal feeling better, not looking better, and you might find that your relationship with exercise changes in a positive way. It’s worth a try, right?

two people holding hands

Survivors and Sexual Intimacy

If you’re involved in a relationship with a sexual abuse survivor, there might be moments when you don’t know exactly how you can be most helpful in her recovery. Uncertainty about how to help is especially likely to arise when it comes to the most intimate aspects of your relationship, like sexual activity. You want to have a healthy sexual relationship with your partner, a relationship that leads to well-being and continued healing, but what does this look like?

To help understand the survivor perspective, consider that, for a survivor, her initial sexual experiences happened when she was being threatened, coerced, or manipulated. She wasn’t in a situation where was able to fully understand what was going on and give consent. Due to these negative experiences, sex and trauma can be strongly linked in her brain. This connection isn’t something a survivor can just forget about or disregard. A supportive partner can be a key part of healing. Here are some specific things you can do to foster a healthy sexual relationship:

Focus on intimacy, not just sex

 Intimacy involves deeply knowing and trusting someone. Survivors often have difficulty trusting people, especially if the perpetrator of abuse was a trusted individual like a close friend or family member. Spend time building intimacy with your partner. Focus on both physical and emotional intimacy. Build physical intimacy through activities like holding hands, giving massages, or just sitting together to watch a movie. Emotional intimacy can come from genuine conversations about feelings, hopes, dreams, and worries. Strong physical and emotional intimacy can lead to a healthier and more satisfying sexual relationship for both partners.

Recognize that sex can be a trigger

 A trigger is something that sparks a memory and reminds people of a traumatic event. Triggers can make a survivor experience a flashback where she feels like abuse is happening again. Unfortunately, sex can be a trigger for many survivors. If you notice that your partner is beginning to shut down or experience anxiety during sex, it could mean that she no longer feels safe. Maybe her triggers include certain positions, sexual acts, places, or smells that you should avoid. Recognize that sex is an activity you will need to approach with care and understanding.

Communicate

 One of the keys to the success of your relationship is frequent and open communication. Discuss what is acceptable and what is off-limits when it comes to sex. Your goal here isn’t to explore past trauma in graphic detail. Your goal is to establish what will make her feel safe and comfortable. A survivor might feel like she’s ready for sexual intercourse but then change her mind. If your partner ever says she wants to stop what you’re doing, then stop. Continuing to have sex will only damage your relationship and possibly make it more difficult to be intimate in the future.

Survivors need to build trust with their sexual partners and feel like they are in charge of their sexual experiences. Focus on ways that you can make sex a safe activity that will empower the survivor in your life and strengthen your relationship with each other.

3 Ways Non-Writers Can Find Healing Through Journaling

In Writing as a Way of Healing, author Louise DeSalvo says, “I use my writing as a way of fixing things, of making them better, of healing myself.” We know what you might be thinking right now: Writing helps some people, but not me. I’m not a writer. Don’t worry—even if you feel this way about writing, this blog is still for you.

Writing can be a healing activity for anyone, and it doesn’t have to be intimidating. When you write to heal, you’re not writing an essay for your high school English class—you’re writing totally for yourself.

When you write, there’s lots of things you can try. Maybe the first thing you think of is expressive writing where you sit down and write whatever comes into your head without censoring yourself. That’s one way to approach healing writing, but consider trying some of these other ideas:

1. Focus on gratitude  

One of the 5 Strategies to Reclaim Hope that participants at The Haven Retreat learn about is Acknowledgement, and a good thing to acknowledge is all of the good that’s happening in your life. Spend some time writing down things you’re grateful for, and try to be specific. Don’t just say, “I’m grateful for my family.” Say, “I’m grateful for my healthy son who did the dishes today without being asked.” Maybe you can write down just one thing every day if more feels intimidating.

2. Journal a ten-word story about yourself.

If you’re stressed by writing lots of words, try writing just a few. It can be a fun challenge to tell a story with a limited number of words. List positive words that describe you and then try to craft a single sentence that tells a story about you, something like “Sensitive, intelligent heroine looking for a hopeful and inspirational adventure.”

3. Think about the future.

Part of healing is having Faith that things can be different and better than they are now. Use writing to envision the future you want. Write in vivid detail about what you want your life to look like in one year, five years, or ten years. Think about what is most important to you and write about your future like it will happen.

Variety can be a good way to move forward on your healing journey. If you haven’t tried writing for a while—or if you always do the same thing when you write—try mixing things up. Writing is a flexible activity, so experiment to find ways it can help you. Give healing writing a chance and see what it can do for you.

How to Re-Wire Your Brain After Childhood Sexual Abuse

In a previous blog we discussed the different parts of the brain and the basic way that childhood sexual trauma can affect them. We also addressed the way that childhood sexual abuse can prime your brain for addiction.

The trauma that you experienced in childhood leaves a lasting impression on your brain. Your limbic system (survival part of the brain) is hyper-aroused and will do whatever it can to protect you – whether that’s good for you or not. So how do you gain control again and move past the pain? Below are five things you can do to re-wire your brain and work toward healing. Each one is inspired by one of the 5 Strategies to Reclaim Hope.

1. Mindful eating.

This can be especially useful if you have a tendency to use food as a way to cope with emotions. Take the time at one meal today to take a bite and experience your food. Chew it. Really taste it. Inhale deeply between bites. Don’t rush through your meal, but take the time to really enjoy every bite you take.

2. Junk journaling.

Writing can be intimidating if you don’t feel like you’re a good writer. You can spend too much time worrying about your words or sentences or self-consciously censor yourself. Junk journaling is the answer to that. Find a cheap notebook that isn’t too fancy and just write. No one will ever read it. You don’t have to worry about what you put into it. And because it’s just a junk journal you can even destroy it when you’re done. The act of writing in it can be amazingly healing.

3. Forgive yourself.

Too often survivors of sexual abuse blame themselves for what happened. If you’re going to re-wire your brain and move forward on your healing journey, you’re going to have to address that and forgive yourself. That process will be different for everyone, but a great place to start is by discussing it with a trusted friend or licensed therapist.

 4. Meditation.

There are a lot of different ways to meditate. You’ll need to find the one that makes you feel the most at ease and comfortable. The goal of meditation is to bring your thoughts inward and truly connect with yourself once again. As you do so you calm the limbic system, which will allow you to take more control when it tries to protect you in an unhealthy way.

 5. Power pose.

The way you hold yourself can make a huge difference in your feelings about yourself. Amy Cuddy gave an amazing TED talk about the benefits of power poses. So as you start your day tomorrow, stand in front of your bedroom mirror and channel your inner Wonder Woman. Put your hands on your hips and raise your chin. Do this for a minute or two every time you’re feeling low and see what it can do to raise your spirits.

The truth is that there are no quick and easy ways to re-wire your brain. It takes time and energy combined with knowledge to change the effects that trauma had on your brain. That being said, it only takes small steps every day to make a difference. You can re-wire your brain. You can find healing.

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When Healing Plateaus

It is good to have an end to journey toward;
but it is the journey that matters, in the end.
– Ursula K. Le Guin –

Think of the last time you took a long road trip. There were probably moments when everything went smoothly. You were on the freeway with a clear sky and an open road, zooming toward your destination. Chances are, there were moments that were less than ideal, too. Maybe it started to rain and you couldn’t see as far as you wanted to. Maybe you spent some time sitting in traffic totally stopped. You knew you would ultimately make it to your destination, but it didn’t feel like you were making much progress as you sat in the traffic jam.

We often refer to healing as a journey, and your journey might feel like a road trip. There are moments when everything is going well and you feel like you’re making good progress toward your goals. But there might be times when you feel like your progress has come to a stop. You just aren’t moving forward the way you want to. You’re sitting in gridlock rather than driving down the road. What can you do if you feel like your healing isn’t progressing the way you want it to? Below are three things you can try:

1. Acknowledge that it’s normal to have some moments when you stall on your healing journey.

Emotional healing is complicated and takes time. There are bound to be ups, downs, and plateaus along the way. Don’t judge yourself if you feel like you’ve hit a roadblock.

2. Spend some time reflecting on everything you’ve accomplished.

Maybe you’ve achieved the recovery goals you set, and that makes you feel like you’ve reached a plateau. Do you need to figure out a new way to challenge yourself to reach the next level of your recovery? Is there a hurdle you’ve resisted facing head-on and now you’re in a place where you can tackle it?

3. Mix up the strategies you use to address your challenges.

For example, if you always journal to work through emotional issues, try doing a physical activity instead to see if it helps you discover new insight. Incorporating variety is one way to find your way out of a rut.

It can be overwhelming to feel like you’re not progressing. Find comfort in the fact that discomfort is a normal part of the healing journey. Just as you expect some traffic and potholes when you drive, you should expect some moments of frustration on your road to recovery. Use these moments to reflect. Remember that you don’t have to resolve everything right now. Just try to find one specific thing you can do today to help yourself on your healing journey.

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