The Reward of Honoring One’s Feelings
Survivors of sexual assault experience a wide range of emotions. They can feel angry, sad, rage, confusion, helplessness, fear, and so many others. Some have shared that after an assault there are a number of complex and varied emotions that they experience; emotions can feel like they go up and down or from one extreme to another. It is important for you to know that what you are feeling and thinking right now is okay.
Sexual Assault is defined as sexual contact or behavior that is nonconsensual or where someone is coerced or physically forced to engage in a sexual act against their will. Some forms of sexual assault include:
- Attempted rape
- Fondling or unwanted sexual touching
- Forcing a survivor to perform sexual acts
According to RAINN, every 73 seconds someone in the United States is sexually assaulted. On average, there are an estimated 433,648 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year in the U.S. In fact, there are groups of people that are disproportionately impacted by sexual assault and sexual violence.
- Trans People
- LGBQ folks
- People of color
- People with disabilities
- People in prison
- People serving in the military
Women identified persons experience sexual violence at high rates. It is noted that one out of every 6 women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her/their lifetime (14.8 % completed / 2.8% attempted). Millions of persons who identify as men have also been the victims of sexual violence. One out of every ten rape victims identify as male. Source: RAINN
LGBTQ folks face higher rates of poverty, discrimination, and marginalization which puts them at a greater risk for sexual assault. Also, they often face higher rates of hate-provoked violence, which can often take the form of sexual violence/assault. When considering the intersection of race and ethnicity, LGBTQ folks of color are disproportionately vulnerable to sexual assault and violence.
Within the LGBTQ community, transgender people and bisexual women face the most alarming rates of sexual violence. The rates are even higher for transwomen of color, most notably black transwomen. Unfortunately, among these populations, sexual violence begins early often during childhood. The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey found that 47% of transgender people are sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime.
Sexual assault can take many different forms. It is important to remember that it is never the survivor or victim’s fault for what has transpired. This article will help you to navigate your personal feelings after experiencing a recent sexual assault.
Here are a several tips you can attempt to help you make room for your feelings after a sexual assault.
1: Affirm your truth.
Affirm your story. Before you consider sharing your story with others, we encourage you to take the time to say, write or share your story with yourself. Here are some ways to begin to affirm your truth and reclaim your story.
The Healing Power of the Breath.
Deep breaths help connect us to the present moment. Deep breaths help us connect to our bodies. Deep breaths remind us that our voices, bodies, emotions, thoughts and sensations matter. Deep breaths encourage us to listen to the rhythms within. Deep breaths remind us that we carry the wisdom right inside of us, all we have to do is tune in and listen. Taking a deep breath is a radical act of self love, acceptance and self-nourishment.
Breathing is a necessity of life that often happens without you noticing. When you breathe in air, blood cells receive oxygen and release carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is a form of waste that’s carried back to your body and exhaled. Improper breathing (e.g. shallow breaths or chest breathing) can upset the oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange and can contribute to stress, anxiety, fatigue, and other emotional disturbances. The key is to remember that proper breathing is diaphragmatic. In other words, it is not breathing from the chest but from the diaphragm or belly.
Here are some breathing exercises that you can try.
Simple Breathing Exercise:
- Sit comfortably in a chair, stand up or lie down. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Inhale slowly and deeply through your nose. Keep your shoulders relaxed. Unclench your jaw muscles. Relax the tension at the center of your forehead (between your eyes). Your abdomen should expand, and your chest should rise a little.
- Exhale slowly through your mouth. As you blow air out, purse your lips slightly, but keep your jaw relaxed. You may hear a soft “whooshing” sound as you exhale.
- Repeat this breathing exercise for several minutes.
You can perform this exercise as often as needed. However, if you find this exercise difficult or believe it’s making you feel anxious or uncomfortable stop immediately.
Simple Breathing Exercise for Soothing the Nervous System:
This one is a soothing and healing exercise that truly calms the nervous system. You can do this at any time. Sources: Sonia Choquette and The Art of Healing Trauma
- Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Breathe in. Make sure you inhale through the nose; you will notice your belly rise.
- When you breathe out, open your mouth and exhale the air out with the sound of the air releasing a soft sigh sound (Ahhhhh)
- Relax your shoulders, neck, jaw, eyes, arms, and other muscles and just let everything go.
- Do it at least 3 or 4 times or however many times feels right.
Whole Body Muscle Relaxing and Tensing Exercise:
This exercise can be most impactful as it engages all parts of the body. The “whole body muscle relaxing and tensing” technique will focus on the entire body and it is something that can be done in less time since you do it at once rather than focusing on each part of the body as you would with Progressive Muscle Relaxation.
- Take a very deep breath in with your mouth open; fill your lungs up.
- Hold your breath.
- While holding your breath, tense muscles all over your body as tense as you can– face, fingers, toes, shoulders, stomach, butt, legs, etc. without injuring yourself (if you have a known issue go easy on that part of your body).
- Count 5-10 seconds while holding your breath and keeping all muscles tense.
- Then relax everything, and let go of all the tension in your muscles.
- Slowly let your breath out.
Source: The Art of Healing Trauma
Ancestral Practices. Spiritual Wisdom.
You’ve probably heard the saying, “we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Do you believe that there is a supreme force that exists? Are there religious or spiritual practices that help guide and support you? If yes, dedicate time to your spiritual practice. Perhaps it is energy work or healing with crystals. Or a regular meditation practice. Maybe it is reiki, massage, sound baths or some other healing or spiritual modality. If you are drawn to divination you can use tarot, oracle cards, or playing cards to connect with the divine that resides within you. Or connect with your ancestors, by building an altar that honors them.
One of the ways that I connect with my own healing while deepening my spiritual practice is using tarot and oracle cards. The tarot has helped me to see that the answers I often seek lie within me. It has helped me to facilitate a deeper understanding of my values, interests, and beliefs.
Historically, the tarot has been used as a method to predict the future. Tarot is an ancient tool that dates far back to the late fourteenth century in France and Italy. Today, the tarot is used as a guide to facilitate healing, self-care, and personal development. There are many tarot and oracle decks available that reflect the diversity of the communities who are drawn to this healing tool. Tarot (and oracle cards) can help you to uncover strengths and areas for improvement, discovering internal and external blockages to help you get unstuck, and help you understand values and core beliefs.
The benefits of a regular tarot practice:
- It will allow you to find peace and comfort with whatever lies ahead.
- It will allow you to learn more about parts of yourself you may have not thought about before or were unable to make room for.
- It will encourage you to practice self-reflection and introspection while journaling, writing, or sitting with important feelings.
Whatever form of alternative healing that you are drawn to. I encourage you to put it into regular practice at this time.
Narrate your story.
Using self-narration is a wonderful tool to help you write your story. Be sure to speak or write in the first person. The power of hearing your voice, listening to your tone, sitting with your body sensations as you narrate your story can be healing and transformative. Sit with the feelings that emerge or notice and observe what movements or shifts happen in your body. You can record an audio of yourself using your phone or computer. Or feel free to write instead of using audio. Do not worry about anyone else hearing your words. This narration is only for you. Consider these prompts to begin with.
- My story begins…
- What I remember…
- It is time that I tell my story in my voice….
- My truth is…
- The truth is…
- The little person inside of me wants to say…
- The little person or inner child inside of me needs me to share or say…
Write, Visualize, Paint or Draw your story.
There is a great deal of power in writing your story in your own words. You can also skip the writing and tap into your artistic sensibilities. Perhaps you want to draw, color, paint or use another artistic medium to express yourself. Use your favorite pen, pencil, paintbrushes or marker. Get your favorite journal or paper and just free write the thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations that come up when you think about your story. Or use pictures to highlight the feelings, thoughts and messages that come forward. Here are some prompts to help you get started.
- What story do I tell about myself?
- What story inspires me to move forward? What story hinders my growth?
- What thoughts come to mind when I think about what happened?
- What feelings come to the surface?
- What memories emerge for me?
- What sensations or tension can I locate in my body? Where is the tension? Does the tension travel or stay in one part of my body?
- If you are shedding tears, can you put a picture or image to describe or identify the meaning of the tears?
- Dear body, I thank you for….
- What moments remind me of my strength, courage and resilience in the face of adversity?
Reflect on your truth. Reflect on your story.
Consider writing and reflecting using the following prompts:
- What feels true to you at this moment?
- Where can you find the source of your power? Reflect upon the times where you have exuded strength and confidence.
- What would you like to share about your story? Who is worthy of hearing your story?
- Who can you trust to hear, listen and hold space for you and your story?
Now that you’ve dedicated time to intentional self-reflection and inner awareness. You may now be ready to open up to someone.
2: Share what happened to you.
It can be very difficult to admit that you were raped or sexually assaulted. There is a stigma attached that makes one feel shame and/or guilt. You may feel icky or weak because of what happened. You may also be afraid of how others will respond to you. Will they judge you? Will they believe you? Will they look at you differently? It will probably seem easier to just not say anything at all. Or you may want to minimize or downplay what happened or keep it secret because the thought of sharing feels difficult to bear or too overwhelming. But when you stay silent, the pain of this trauma persists. As radical Black Feminist, poet, mother, and lesbian Audre Lorde has shared, your silence will not protect you from the harm of trauma and sexual violence. So, it is better to speak knowing that in sharing with someone who has the right to hear your story, you will make space for your healing.
Reach out to someone you trust.
Social Worker and Researcher Dr. Brene Brown, LMSW, says that it is important to reach out to someone you trust and who has earned the right to hear your story. Is there someone in your life that you trust to hold space for you? Is there someone in your life that can offer you nonjudgmental support and compassionate care?
Engage with the parts of you that are strong and powerful.
Trauma can leave one feeling helpless and disempowered. It is important to remind yourself of your strengths and resilience skills that have gotten you through the most difficult obstacles.
Affirmations are one way to help remind you of your resilience, power and bravery.
You can write your own affirmations. The goal is to keep them short and simple. Write them in the present tense. You can begin affirmations using I statements. Practice reading these affirmations daily. One way can be to stand in front of a mirror and read them to yourself aloud every day for at least 30 days.
Here are some affirmations you can try.
- I love and accept myself for who I am in this moment.
- I am safe, connected, and loved.
- I am courageous.
- I am calm and peaceful.
- I take time to enjoy the little joys of life.
- I am perfect just the way I am.
- I am surrounded by the love and support of my chosen friends and family.
Mantras are powerful words and phrases that can help you stay focused and centered.
This is another powerful technique to help you connect with the parts of you that are resilient, brave, and courageous. Mantras are effective when you repeat the words over and over again.
Here are some examples of mantras you can try.
- I am stronger than I think.
- I have what I need to get through this.
- I am enough.
- I can handle feeling uncomfortable.
- I can feel my feelings.
- I can do this.
Consider joining a support group.
Healing can happen in connection and in community with other survivors who can relate to what you feel and think. Support groups are a wonderful way to begin the process of sharing your story, to learn to be seen, heard and understood. Check out our website to find groups in your area.
3: Be kind to yourself when feelings of guilt and self-blame surface.
You may be feeling like there was something you could or should have done to avoid a situation or prevent the assault. You may doubt your ability to make judgments. Remember that you did the best you could under extreme and traumatically stressful circumstances.
Sometimes when we are in the spiral of feelings that are guilt and self-blame it is very hard for us to see beyond that. These are the moments where you can practice self-tenderness and self-compassion. How can you practice being kind to yourself in those moments when the experience of trauma rises and self-blame comes with it? Take deep breaths. Stay hydrated. Take a walk outdoors. Listen to your favorite song. Remind yourself that you are worthy of love and compassion. Consider writing some powerful affirmations or mantras that you can recite aloud.
4: Prepare for and anticipate flashbacks, triggers or troubling memories.
Try to anticipate and prepare for triggers (see Coping With Triggers article written by Andrea Glik). A trigger is anything—a person, place, thing or situation—that reminds you of the traumatic incident or event that could set off post traumatic symptoms, such as a flashback or a series of troubling memories. Sometimes triggers are obvious such as seeing an object, being in an area or neighborhood that reminds you of the incident. While others may take some time to identify and understand such as hearing a song or sound, or a smell/scent are triggers. Some triggers don’t have to be external. Internal feelings and sensations can also trigger symptoms.
Examples of external triggers:
- Sights, sounds or smells associated with the trauma
- People, location or things that calls to mind the trauma
- Significant dates or times, such as anniversaries or a specific time of day
- Types of weather or seasons
- Media coverage or conversations about trauma or troubling news events
- Situations that feel confining (stuck in traffic or small spaces, being in a large crowd)
Examples of internal triggers:
- Any bodily sensation that recalls the trauma including pain, old wounds and scars or a similar injury
- Having strong emotions especially feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, feeling out of control, angry, stuck or trapped
- Having feelings towards loved ones that are filled with a mix of love, vulnerability, resentment, anger or any other feelings that feel intense or strong
- Physical discomfort such as thirst, hunger, fatigue, illness or frustration.
During a flashback you can feel a sense of dissociation, as if you are detached, disconnected or like you are out of your body watching someone else experience a trigger or flashback. The key is to ground yourself in the moment.
- Remind yourself that you are having a flashback and that even though it may seem real it is not; it is not happening again.
- Take deep slow breaths. Relax your jaw, shoulders, neck and other body parts and muscles. (Check out the breathing exercises in section #1).
- Notice your surroundings. Look around the room or area. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What is beneath you? Imagine yourself as a tree, standing tall and firmly planted on the ground. Your feet, like the roots of this tree are connected to the earth. You are slowly coming back to yourself.
Pay attention to your body’s signals and messages. The body carries deep wisdom and data that communicates to us not only what aches and hurts but what we need to heal. Reassure yourself that these flashbacks are not happening at the moment. It is just a memory reminder to take care of yourself.
Take immediate steps to self-soothe.
Self-soothing can take many forms. Self-soothing is about comforting, nurturing, and tending to your needs in moments of distress. The importance of self-soothing is that you are tapping into all your senses. Self-soothing pertains to entering into the world around us through our five main senses individually or in a multisensory way. We can also soothe ourselves mentally and spiritually.
One of the most important aspects of self-soothing techniques is to remember that not one technique works for everyone. Be sure to try new techniques until you find something that works for you. Consider these steps to take when embracing a self-soothing practice. 1) Be Present, 2) Focus on your senses, and 3) Permit yourself to be fully immersed in the experience.
Self-Soothing Techniques for each of the senses:
Notice what is around you. Look at nature and the landscape around you. Look at the sky, the sunset or sunrise, watch a full moon and/or look up at the stars. Watch a candle or fireplace. Be mindful of what is attractive or appeals to you visually. Draw yourself into what appeals to you. Learn to see the beauty in the ordinary or your everyday surroundings. Some examples: Look at art or do your own drawing.
Self-reflective prompt: What visuals or images come to mind that alleviate or bring ease into your life?
Listen to sounds that comfort you or sit in complete silence. Go outdoors, find a comfortable place to sit, close your eyes, be still and hear what is happening in your environment. Listen to the ocean waves, the sound of a fan or air conditioner, white noise or try listening to binaural beats on YouTube.
Self-reflective prompt: What sounds are you drawn to that bring you a sense of calm?
Consider aromatherapy such as lavender essential oil or another scent that you gravitate to that makes you feel peaceful and calm. Or burn your favorite scented candle and sit mindfully while smelling the soothing sounds.
Self-reflective prompt: What smells do you notice in this moment that feel soothing to you?
Learn to eat mindfully and slowly focusing on taste. Enjoy some seasonal fruit. Enjoy each small bite of food or sip a drink of a warm cup of tea or your favorite drink with your full presence and attention. Or eat one piece of a small treat and be sure to savor each bite.
Self-reflective prompt: What flavors or foods bring you a sense of comfort and calm?
Get under a warm, soft blanket or clean, cool sheets. Mindfully notice what your body is in connection with and seek out what pleases it. Touch or pet a dog, cat or other animal. Stay fully present with your body while petting. Pay attention to your bodily sensations. Consider asking a trusted ally or loved one for a hug, massage or a cuddle. Or consider stroking your own neck or body. Use your favorite lotions or body oils on your skin.
Self-reflective prompt: What forms of touch bring you relief?
Engage in a restorative or healing activity.
Read a book, go for a walk, talk to a friend, wash the dishes, go swimming, yoga, or something else that feels restorative. Make sure to do something to help you immerse fully into the activity. If you finish, move on to a new activity. Try Emotional Freedom Technique also known as psychological acupressure or tapping.
Do something that you enjoy.
Are there hobbies and interests that bring you comfort or are just plain fun? Make a list of the things you enjoy. Use the list when you are in need of it.
Ground yourself in the present
(See breathwork exercises in section 1 of this blog).
5: Stay in Connection
Participate in social activities. It is important to remember that connection cultivates care, compassion, and courage to help us through the hardest of times. The more connected we are to our community the better we can feel supported. Be sure to spend time with loved ones and those you trust.
6: Rest and Restore
Healing from trauma is a gradual process that takes time and looks different for everybody. Take time to rest and restore your body’s balance and rhythm. Take care of yourself physically. Do what feeds you.
“Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we’ll ever do.”– Brene’ Brown
It takes time to recover from sexual assault. Be patient and practice being tender with yourself. Let yourself feel the full range of emotions. Give yourself permission to feel what you feel. It will be uncomfortable, but it is necessary to help you to begin to own your story, to reclaim your voice. Remember: healing is not linear. The path to healing is complex and unique to your life, your journey, and your experiences.
The Art of Healing Trauma: Illustrated Healing Exercises, Stories & Research. http://www.new-synapse.com/aps/wordpress/?p=1195
Sexual Assault and the LGBTQ Community by the Human Rights Campaign. https://www.hrc.org/resources/sexual-assault-and-the-lgbt-community
Schwartz, A. (2016) The Complex PTSD Workbook: A Mind Body Approach to Regaining Emotional Control & Becoming Whole. Althea Press.
E. Francis (2019) The Body Heals Itself: How Deeper Awareness of Your Muscles and Their Emotional Connection Can Help You Heal. Llewellyn Publications.