Sexual Trauma: Moving Toward Restoration
Cynthia Morris MACC, LPCA
Sexual trauma expert, Dan Allender, is quoted as saying “There is no greater return on evil than sexual trauma.” Abuse can take only seconds and the ramifications of it can last a lifetime. Painfully, rape, incest, molestation, sexual bullying, pornography, sexting, unwanted advances and other sexual traumas can’t be undone. Therapy, however, can help with the imprints that have left the heart, mind, body and soul devastated in shame, contempt and the way we relate to ourselves and others.
Most people come to therapy for something other than sexual trauma. It may be something in their life that is overwhelming in the present such as relationship problems, job problems, kids in trouble, divorce, medical diagnosis, anger, reactivity, depression, anxiety, etc. Most come describing physical sensations like chest tightness, heaviness, muscle spasms, headaches, gastrointestinal problems, sleep problems, mental fog, difficulties concentrating, etc. Regardless of the specifics, one thing that you can count on, current trauma will awaken past trauma.
Bessel Van Der Kolk (The Body Keeps the Score) teaches that sexual trauma or any other type of trauma changes the brain in three major ways. The first is threat perception. Traumatized people see a threat where others see something manageable. This is not a cognitive process. It is felt and fear driven. This takes place in the part of the brain that makes sure the body is okay and able to survive. The second is trauma changes the brains filtering system that helps distinguish what is relevant right now and what can be dismissed. This makes it difficult to be present and aware and engaged in the “right now”. The third is trauma changes the structures of the brain devoted to yourself. This is a defensive response that is felt in the body with sensations such as heartache and gut-wrenching feelings, making the body feel bad. Many people end up coping with this by using drugs, drinking, eating, spending, sex, etc. Others find a way of lessening their response to themselves. When this happens the person also lessens the way they respond to pleasure, sensuality, excitement, and connection deep in their core.
Science shows that there are two types of knowing in the brain. One creates story for people to hear. It is called the autobiographical self and is rooted in language that connects experiences and assembles them into a coherent story. The other type of knowing is based on moment to moment self-awareness and is based mostly in physical sensations. It registers how we experience the situation deep inside. These two different ways of knowing are in different parts of the brain and are largely separate from each other. While the story of the autobiographical self is necessary in therapy, it is the second system of self-awareness that needs to be accessed and reconciled to help the person that has been traumatized. The body is the bridge to integration and restoration.
Knowing this information about the brain informs therapists how to work with the body and brain when traumatized people come to see them. Targeted interventions from trained therapists are one way to help people begin the restoration process. This is not to say the path of healing is a quick, fixed and determined process. The path to restoration is not linear and can’t be rushed. There are many facets to sexual trauma. Think of it as a journey where a guide (therapist) goes with you and walks alongside you. Your journey will take you through mountainous, rough terrain and crowded highways, and winding country roads. Every individual’s topography looks different. Journeying towards restoration and freedom to feel without becoming overwhelmed, enraged, ashamed, or collapsed is a process of integrating one’s body and mind. It can involve:
Finding a way to become calm, focused, and mindful.
Learning to maintain that calm in response to images, thoughts, sounds, or physical sensations that remind you of the past.
Finding a way to be fully alive in the present and engaged with people around you.
Not keeping secrets from yourself, including secrets about the ways that you have managed to survive.
This means that in addition to helping the body and brain in the physical realm, your guide (therapist) helps you name the ways that you are reenacting the trauma in the present. This is not as obvious or easy as it sounds. There are many subtleties of reenactment that a trained therapist can help someone navigate with kindness and care for the one who has survived sexual trauma.
Keep in mind, there is no one “treatment of choice” and no one therapist that has the only way to treat trauma. There are different routes in therapy to help you on this journey. Look for therapists that employ some of the following therapies: Mindfulness, DBT, EMDR, Trauma Focused Narrative Therapy, Experiential Therapy, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Somatic Experiencing, IFS (Internal Family Systems), Psychodynamic, and Neurofeedback. When looking for a therapist, ask what their specialties are and types of therapies they use to help with trauma. It is also important to look for a therapist that has done their own work in therapy.
Additionally, the stress that results from unaddressed sexual trauma has a huge impact on the brain and body over the weeks and years that may be unrecognized as stemming from the original trauma. It is important to care for and listen to your body. The following are some researched ways that someone can care for their body:
sleep, eating well, exercise, sunlight, prayer, gratitude, service/kindness, laughter, music, social support and caring community, mindfulness and body connection through yoga, rhythmical moving, dancing, meditation, breath work, and EMDR, massage, acupuncture, aromatherapy, supplements, medication, holistic integrative medicine, sex, stress journaling, and curiosity regarding your body.
The path to healing must be intentional. Thankfully, it is possible for the human mind, body and heart to be resilient and restored. Trauma need not have the last word. If you have any questions regarding sexual trauma and/or are ready to be intentional with your life, please visit our website at surehopecounseling.com or email [email protected].