How Sexual Assault Impacts the Mind and Body
We rounded up some of the most common questions asked by survivors of sexual violence surrounding disassociation, body image, intimacy and self harm and asked trauma therapist Trish Glover, LMHC to share her insights on how to manage and overcome these challenges.
Q: Since being assaulted, I’ve felt really disconnected from my body. Is that normal? Will I ever feel connected again? What can I do to help myself feel more connected?
It is normal to feel disconnected from your body after sexual assault and it is possible to reconnect to your body again. Reconnection is a process that occurs over time. When we are harmed, especially in a sexual way, we separate from the site of the pain, from our body and from ourselves. While it is protective, it also creates a sense of disconnection. We can feel disconnected from our bodies and emotions and therefore from ourselves and others. Reconnecting to the body and to your feelings is often (understandably) difficult due to the uncomfortable sensations and painful emotions that may be present regarding the assault. Reconnection needs to be done over time, gently, and at your own pace. To facilitate reconnection, body-based, creative and pleasurable activities and practices can be very useful. For example, yoga, simple stretching, breathing exercises, physical activity, integrating activities that connect to the five senses, in a pleasurable way, can foster connection. Engaging in art, writing, dance, music, etc. can also support connection.
Q: Being assaulted has really impacted the way I view my body. I feel like it’s less “mine” now and sometimes I feel like I almost resent it. In what ways can I improve my body image?
It is also common to have resentment toward your body after sexual assault. We can feel that our body betrayed us (didn’t fight; felt positive/pleasurable sensations; froze, etc.). Working to develop a relationship with your body over time is part of a recovery process. Using the strategies suggested above can help you reconnect to your body. Also, beginning to focus on all the things your body does for you, to support you, may be a helpful strategy. Focusing on the simple and necessary functions such as breathing, walking, standing, moving from place to place, digesting, resting when needed, etc. can help re-focus the relationship with your body. Visit this link for more information on grounding techniques (integrating the senses).
Q: I really struggle with intimacy now. I sometimes feel physical pain in my sexual organs, and sometimes I totally space out during sex. How do I move past this? What can I do to maintain a healthy sex life?
Intimacy and sexual activity are often triggering (being taken back to a traumatic incident by a reminder in the present) and cause survivors of sexual assault to “space out” or avoid sex and intimacy all together. Being triggered can result in emotional, physical, and/or mental re-experiencing such as in images, flashbacks, associated feelings (fear, vulnerability, sadness, anger, disgust) and/or somatic reactions (pain, nausea, increased heart rate, shortness of breath, headaches). Finding ways to reconnect to your body in a positive, non-threatening, safe way is important. Communication with your partner(s) about what you are experiencing can be a useful part of the process. It is essential that this process occur in the context of a safe relationship and this recommendation is made with the assumption that the relationship is safe. It’s important to develop ways to remain present while experiencing the feelings and sensations that arise from being intimate. “Spacing out” or dissociation is normal and keeps us from feeling the pain. The first step is to address spacing out and to remain present even when discomfort arises. (See question above on reconnection and grounding.) Working toward addressing the discomfort and then communicating what you need when triggered is helpful.
It can be helpful to work with a trauma-informed therapist and/or a local Rape Crisis Center to process triggers and develop strategies to remain present when triggered. When triggers occur it is common to immediately try to avoid the trigger and related sensations and emotions. Over time, and in your own time, reducing avoidance and developing tolerance of uncomfortable reactions, as well as expressing your experience, helps to decrease the intensity and frequency of the reaction. This takes time, patience and self-compassion. Finally, having a medical exam regarding physical symptoms is important to rule out any medical issues that may also be causing pain and need care.
Q: I’ve turned to self-harm as a method of coping with my trauma. What should I do?
It is very common to develop symptoms such as an eating disorder, self-harm, and substance use/abuse after a traumatic incident such as sexual assault. These actions often provide a sense of control and/or relief from emotional pain and distress. The strategies above for grounding and self-soothing can be very supportive in addressing these symptoms. Given the safety risks, I recommend seeking the assistance of a trauma-informed therapist who can help you address the thoughts, feelings, impulses and body responses that contribute to an eating disorder and self-harm.