7 Self-Care Tips for Sexual Assault Survivors

woman holding #METOO sign

Since news broke about allegations against media mogul Harvey Weinstein, more than 40 women have come forward to accuse him of sexual assault. Like any time a high-profile sexual violence case comes to light — Bill Cosby, Brock Turner, R. Kelly — the conversation about sexual assault lasts for weeks, many times with survivors bearing the burden of the discussion.

So is the case with the viral #MeToo hashtag — based on a grassroots campaign started by activist Tarana Burke. It went viral after actress Alyssa Milano tweeted that people who had been abused or assaulted should post “Me too” in their status. The campaign caught like wildfire, with CNN reporting that Twitter has seen more than 1 million uses of the hashtag and many more on Facebook, creating an outpouring of assault stories for public consumption.

For survivors, the #MeToo campaign can be an empowering and validating way to share their story, many for the first time. It’s also overwhelming, especially for sexual assault survivors who deal with mental health symptoms as a result of their trauma. While sharing our stories is crucial, the deluge of reminders of our own sexual assaults can be exhausting and even retraumatizing.

With that in mind, here are seven self-care tips for sexual assault survivors.

1. Unplug

When conversations about sexual assault go viral in our hyper-connected world, it often seems like there’s no escape. If you’re not reading the news closely, then your friends are posting on Facebook or we see news snippets during the commercials of our favorite TV shows. It’s everywhere, all the time.

“Because #MeToo is so prominent, a lot of my clients feel it’s inescapable,” therapist Aida Manduley told CNN. “I am concerned with the victims of sexual trauma and violence who are saying to me ‘I can’t get away from the trigger, it’s everywhere.'”

Though it’s probably near impossible to avoid all the sexual violence news, I find that taking the time to deliberately unplug where I can helps reduce potential triggers. Try reading less of the news, limiting time on social media, and sticking with Netflix or a book to turn down the volume.

2. Go Back to Basics

In their tips for self-care, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network recommends first taking care of our bodies. Are you eating healthy meals? Are you sleeping? Have you been getting exercise? Meeting these basic physical needs not only has benefits of its own — such as increased endorphins from exercise — but they help our mind function better.

“Our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and attitudes can positively or negatively affect our biological functioning. In other words, our minds can affect how healthy our bodies are,” writes Patricia Hart for the University of Minnesota. “On the other hand, what we do with our physical body … can impact our mental state (again positively or negatively). This results in a complex interrelationship between our minds and bodies.”

In Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, there’s an emotional regulation skill called PLEASE, which stands for:

Physical Illness
Balance Eating
Avoid Mood Altering Drugs
Balance Sleep Exercise

Give the PLEASE skills a try because doing all these things — meeting our basic physical needs — actually reduces emotional vulnerabilities. It’s a great way to keep yourself on track physically and emotionally.

3. Get Distracted

While it might fly against the conventional wisdom that we should face down our problems, for trauma survivors, sometimes we need to take a step back and distract or self-soothe ourselves until we regain emotional stability. This is where distraction comes in.

“Distraction works because it interrupts your mood and forces you to ‘shift gears,’” writes Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. “For best results, the thing you engage yourself in as a means of distraction should be both absorbing and interesting to you. Doing this thing should either require your full attention, or be so absorbing of your attention that you will forget yourself.”

This could mean going for a walk or run, journaling or writing poetry, painting or drawing, spending time with a pet, watching TV, or reading a book. Take a warm bath, drink a soothing cup of tea or hot chocolate, meditate, practice deep breathing or relaxation techniques, or any number of other safe activities that are pleasurable and can help you re-ground you in the present moment.

4. Get With Your People

There’s a reason the Beatles sang, “I get by with a little help from my friends.” For sexual assault survivors, it’s crucial to have a safe support network you can reach out to when the going gets tough. Sometimes this is easier said than done.

“Post-trauma survival instincts may cause you to feel most comfortable trusting only yourself, to isolate from others,” writes Tai Pimputkar. “These behaviors may prevent you from reestablishing connection and trust in the world and yourself — vital for healing from the effects of trauma and living a satisfying life.”

Call a close friend, reach out to family, take comfort in a partner’s arms, or join a support or therapy group. Take the time to regularly engage your support system, whether that’s discussing the impact of the news on our mental health, talking about why we’re struggling, laughing about our favorite TV show, or simply spending time together.

5. Find Professional Support

If you’re experiencing disruptive symptoms related to trauma, such as severe anxiety, flashbacks, dissociation, self-injury, thoughts of suicide, or other serious mental health warning signs, consider finding professional support. A mental health professional can not only provide a nonjudgemental space to unpack your experiences, they can also teach you new ways to deal with trauma to recover and live a full life.

When seeking a therapist, RAINN recommends looking for a trauma-informed therapist who has experience working with other survivors of sexual assault and who specializes in modalities shown to support survivors, such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy or somatic therapies, among others. You don’t have to go through this alone.

6. Have a Plan

With so many potential triggers, it’s crucial to have a crisis safety plan in place that includes everything from your distraction skills to support-people’s phone numbers, and emergency resources, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or the address for the nearest hospital.

“I feel very strongly that anyone who has ever had mental health difficulties needs to develop for themselves, while they are well, a crisis plan,” writes Mary Ellen Copeland. “This plan allows us to maintain some degree of control over our lives even when it feels like everything is out of control.”

You can find crisis plans to fill out online, or you can work with loved ones and your therapist to create your own. Consider giving a copy of your plan to your counselor and a friend or family member so you have extra support, and make yourself copies for your home, bag, and anywhere else you can grab it in a crisis.

7. No Pressure

As survivors, we have every right to decide how and when we participate in the conversation, if at all. Sometimes I feel obligated to contribute to the conversation, to post “Me too” on social media. But survivors don’t owe anyone anything, especially when the cost is our health and well-being.

“If ‘Me too’ makes you feel empowered, by all means, type those words. But it’s also important to recognize the campaign’s limitations,” writes Angelina Chapin. “No woman should feel pressure to tell painful stories about being violated, but every man should feel a responsibility to stop behavior that leads to sexual harassment and assault.”

Our voices when we engage are powerful and important, but we have the option — and the right — to decide how and when we speak up. There’s no pressure to share your story, especially if it feels threatening in any way. However you decide to participate, or not, is perfectly acceptable. After all, carrying the burden of sexual assault doesn’t belong solely to us.

Published by

Renee Fabian

Contributor