Healing Resources for Child Sexual Abuse Survivors: Movement
It is common for survivors of child sexual abuse to feel disconnected from their body. Trauma can often create this disconnection between the mind and the body. Initially, a state of numbness or detachment may have helped you cope with the abuse and overwhelming sensations you experienced in your childhood. But as an adult, disconnection can make it difficult to fully heal and thrive.
How Can Movement Help Me Heal from Child Sexual Abuse?
Reconnecting with your body is an integral part of the healing process. Activities that are designed to help you focus on connecting with your body once again can provide an opportunity to help work through the effects of trauma in a physical context. Additionally, getting your body moving can benefit both your general mental, emotional, and physical health.1
Physical movement often has immediate benefits. Certain activities can impact your body’s hormones and nervous systems which in turn can positively influence your brain function, energy level, sleep quality, PTSD symptoms, depression, anxiety, and stress levels. Many survivors find that getting their bodies moving not only provides a way to reconnect with their body, but also work through “stuck” emotions and thoughts.
While an exercise regimen will not serve as a replacement for other trauma-focused therapies like EMDR or counseling, it can complement the work you do in those settings and provide many other positive benefits that assist your efforts to heal.
What Types of Movement Can I Try?
Yoga is a technique that can help you calm both your body and mind and help reconnect them in a positive way.2, 3, 4 Practicing yoga regularly not only helps you stay grounded in the present but can also help give you encouraging anchors to focus on, such as the pacing of your breath or the pose you are holding. Doing this type of intentional movement can help to relieve trauma that may have been stored subconsciously and internally for years.
With yoga, you can do certain stretches and poses nearly anywhere that feels comfortable to you, whether it’s in a class, in a hotel room during a trip, or in your own backyard. Yoga practices are also easily accessible online, with sources ranging from illustrations to instructional videos to apps. We even created one specifically for you to try on your own.
As effective as yoga is, you don’t have to do yoga poses in order to take advantage of the benefits of stretching. Any type of stretching can help relieve the stress and tension your body may be experiencing. Take 5–10 minutes each day and stretch your arms, legs, back, neck, and shoulders. Pay attention to your breathing and how your muscles feel as you stretch them. Just like with yoga, there should be no pain, so only stretch to the point you feel comfortable with.
You can also try this mindful movement activity to help get your body moving and stretching.
Because trauma lives in both the brain and the body, one thing that can help strengthen your healing is to find ways to release the tension and stress that might be stored in areas of your body. One effective way is through martial arts. For example, when you practice Muay Thai, a form of martial arts that combines breathing and movement, you are releasing muscle tension, focusing your breathing, building strength, developing power and control, and expanding confidence in your body’s ability to act.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR) is a subtle but effective way to help you reconnect with your body and draw attention to the various muscles you use each day. PMR works by settling into a comfortable position and then flexing and relaxing your different muscle groups. As you tense each muscle group for 5–7 seconds, you can channel all your awareness towards that part of your body and the ways it has served you. This is a great exercise to help you become more attune to your body and to appreciate all that it is capable of. It may also provide you with other ideas of how you want to incorporate movement into your day and implement each of the muscle groups you are tensing and relaxing.
Walking can be a powerful part of your healing journey, benefiting both your physical and mental health. When you incorporate the principles of Mindfulness into your walking, it becomes even more powerful. The simple action of taking a walk becomes healing as it strengthens the connection between your mind and body. The rhythm of your steps can help to regulate your emotions as the bilateral movement engages both hemispheres of the brain.5, 6 It also gives you the chance to quiet any stressful thought patterns by focusing only on the present—the setting around you, the senses your experience on your walk, the movement of your body, etc.
Play is an integral part of both emotional and physical wellness. It can help relieve the brain and body of stress as well as help you engage in Mindfulness by being fully engaged in the present moment. What classifies as “play” will look different to each individual. Perhaps it involves going outside to play a game of catch with a dog. Perhaps it’s playing a game of tag or hide and seek with your kids. Or maybe it’s getting on the ground to build some Legos, a board game with a niece or nephew, or snuggle with a pet. Whatever you choose to do to play, make sure you are staying present in the moment and having fun.
Not only is dancing a great way to incorporate movement into even the most mundane of tasks, it can also help boost your mood,7 especially when your favorite music is involved. Whether you are in the car, cooking a meal, cleaning the garage, watching TV, or even in the shower, you can dance. Select a song that you know will bring you joy or revive a beloved memory. Create a playlist of music that makes you smile and feels empowering. Let your body move in whatever way it wants. This can be a fun activity to involve your family and friends as well.
Tai Chi & Qi Gong
Tai Chi is a gentle Chinese martial art you can use to support centering your attention and help connect your brain and body in the present moment through mindful movement.8 Tai Chi has been aptly called “meditation in motion.” Its gentle actions can help still the mind and promote a relaxed focus so you can refine your purposeful intention and attitude of compassion.
Try out some basic Qi Gong with Ksney to help with relaxation and balance.
How Will I Know Movement Is Helping Me Heal?
While movement in general can add to your health and healing, a key factor that can help you determine which types of movement will be most effective for you is the level of enjoyment and fulfillment you get from the experience. As you take advantage of even brief occasions to move and be physically active, you are taking steps toward healing. When you use these moments to incorporate new thoughts and patterns of practice into your life, you provide your brain with increased opportunities to develop new neural pathways; movement can also help you tune into sensations and awareness that may not have been available to you in your healing before.
Even after experiencing the benefits of physical movement, the limbic system can still make finding the motivation to exercise difficult. Here are some ways that you can find a physical activity that you (and your limbic system) will enjoy, physically, mentally, and emotionally. The key is finding what fits for you and making a plan that will help you incorporate it into your life.
What’s a type of exercise or movement that you would be open to exploring? Is there a physical activity that you’ve always wanted to try? For example, maybe you want to try rock climbing or surfing or frisbee throwing. Or maybe you like the idea of simply walking around your neighborhood. Write down some physical activities that sound fun to you or that you would like to do more of.
Try one, then review.
Try out one of the ideas on your list. As you do, notice how your limbic system responds to the activity. How did the exercise make you feel before, during, after, and much later? What thoughts or emotions (if any) were released? If this one didn’t work out, don’t give up. There are many other ways for you to explore movement and exercise.
Plan and overcome barriers.
If you find something that you do enjoy, plan how to incorporate it into your life. As you begin (or continue) to implement physical activity as a part of your healing, obstacles will arise, and that’s natural. First, identify what barrier you have, and then utilize your frontal lobe and find creative solutions to help you overcome it.
Common Barrier: “I don’t feel like doing this right now.”
Example Solutions: “Invite a friend to join me and hold me accountable,” “Just take one step toward my goal today,” or “Find a different activity that still gets me moving but sounds fun right now.”
Continue exploring new things or try switching up old ideas to better suit your personal enjoyment and current needs. For example, you might dislike cardio at the gym, but you enjoy breaking a sweat while gardening in your backyard, or dancing in the living room while listening to a favorite song.
As you incorporate moments of movement into your daily routine, you are practicing:
- Acknowledgement by understanding how trauma has had an effect on your whole self, not just your emotional or mental health.
- Mindfulness by drawing your attention to the present moment and becoming more aware of how your body is navigating certain activities.
- Aspiration by seeing your body as an integral help to accomplishing your goals and transforming past pain into personal growth.
Disclaimer: Not all exercises are suitable for everyone. If you are concerned about whether the exercises in this movement activity are right for you, do not do them unless you have cleared it with your physician. These exercises can result in injury. If at any point during your exercise you begin to feel faint, dizzy, or have physical discomfort, you should stop immediately. You are responsible for exercising within your limits and seeking medical advice and attention as appropriate. Saprea is not responsible for any injuries that result from participating in this activity.
- Rosenbaum, S., Vancampfort, D., Steel, Z., Newby, J., Ward, P., & Stubbs, B. (2015). Physical activity in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychiatry Research, 230,130-136.
- Emerson, D., & Hopper, E. K. (2011). Overcoming trauma through yoga: Reclaiming your body. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
- Van der Kolk, B. A., Stone, L., West, J., Rhodes, A., Emerson, D., Suvak, M., & Spinazzola, J. (2014). Yoga as an adjunctive treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 75, 559–565.
- West, J., Liang, B., & Spinazzola, J. (2017). Trauma sensitive yoga as a complementary treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder: A qualitative descriptive analysis. International Journal of Stress Management, 24,173-195.
- Perry, Bruce D., & Winfrey, Oprah. (2021). What Happened to You? Flatiron Books.
- Buchele Harris, H., Cortina., K. S., Templin, T., Colabianchi, N., & Chen, W. (2018). Impact of coordinated-bilateral physical activities on attention and concentration in school-aged children. BioMed research international, 2018.
- Levine, B., & Land, H. M. (2015). A meta-synthesis of qualitative findings about Dance/Movement Therapy for individuals with trauma. Qualitative Health Research, 26,330-344.
- Tsai, P., Kitch, S., Chang, J. Y., James, G. A., Dubbert, P., Roca, J. V., & Powers, C. H. (2017). Tai Chi for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Chronic Musculoskeletal Pain: A Pilot Study. Journal of Holistic Nursing,36(2), 147-158.