December 6, 2023 Dec 06, 2023 11 min read
Anyone who has experienced a traumatic event knows how daunting it can feel to approach the recovery process. Trauma creates lasting changes in our brains and bodies, making healing a complex and complicated process.
But recovering from sexual trauma is always possible…
In this article, we break down the process of sexual trauma recovery into 14 easy-to-understand steps. Feel free to save this article and reference it anytime you need some extra support or guidance in your trauma recovery process.
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Here’s the catch – there is no fool-proof, step-by-step formula for healing sexual trauma. Healing trauma of any kind is a long, complicated, and circuitous process. The phrase “healing is not linear” has become something of a cliché in recent years, but it’s also deeply true.
The process of recovering from sexual trauma can take years, and it rarely, if ever, feels logical or predictable.
So, take this guide for what it is – a suggested framework for what healing from trauma could look like in your life. But rest assured that your own healing process will look and feel different. No one’s healing process looks the same as anyone else’s.
The steps on this list can be practiced in virtually any order, simultaneously, and repeated as many times as feels helpful or necessary. In fact, attempting to follow them rigidly as a step-by-step path to healing will likely lead to disappointment and confusion.
Be patient. Try to remain hopeful. Be careful not to hold yourself to unrealistic expectations. Healing takes time, and trying to push yourself too quickly through the process will only make things harder.
Sexual trauma is no joke, and shame is one of its nastiest weapons. It’s all too easy for survivors of sexual trauma to feel broken, ruined, or somehow at fault, which is why offering yourself abundant compassion whenever possible is so important.
As Brené Brown famously said, “Shame cannot survive empathy.”
Often one of the least comfortable parts of healing, processing our difficult emotions is a critical aspect of dislodging trauma from our bodies. When all we want is to feel healed and whole, pushing unpleasant emotions away is very tempting. But these emotions are actually the key to finding our way to a more stable place. The phrase “the only way out is through” holds true when it comes to trauma healing.
Allow yourself to feel the weight of what you’ve been through. Feel the emotions it brings up. Grieve for yourself the way you would if something tragic happened to someone you dearly love. Things like crying or even expressing anger in healthy and safe ways are immensely helpful strategies for moving through trauma.
Because processing grief and rage can be intense and even painful, seek support when you need it. Working with a therapist or counselor is a great way to build a safe container for processing difficult emotions. Remember to take breaks when you need them and practice diligent self care.
Where are you in your relationship to your trauma right now?
What kinds of things are you struggling with?
How is your trauma affecting your life?
Take stock of these things by writing about them in a journal, recording voice memos to yourself, or exploring them in another way that works for you. Acknowledge where you are in order to more clearly determine where you want to go. By doing this, you can measure your progress and identify wins along the way. Being able to acknowledge and celebrate your progress is an essential part of the healing process. Taking stock can also help you have compassion for yourself and what you’ve been through.
Once you have a clear idea of where you are and what you’re struggling with, you can begin to formulate your goals.
What does “healing from sexual trauma” mean to you?
What does a life free from sexual trauma look like?
Consider using a journal to explore your ideas.
Although working with a therapist is not a requirement for recovering from sexual trauma, it can make the process faster, more effective, and less confusing. Many stages of the healing process will be especially difficult to navigate without help from a skilled and experienced professional.
Preferably with the help of a therapist, it’s important to assess and address any specific mental or physical health symptoms you may be experiencing as a result of trauma. For example, if you experience panic attacks or sleep disturbances, addressing these issues will help you more effectively approach the rest of your healing process.
While not everyone will want to take this route, some sexual trauma survivors may be interested in seeking formal mental health diagnoses or getting on medication to manage certain mental health complications.
For more information on this topic, check out our article “How Sexual Trauma Impacts Mental Health.”
Because sexual trauma is almost always rooted in experiences involving other people, relationships are fertile ground for healing work, and setting healthy boundaries is an important part of this.
Setting boundaries can look like letting your partner know you’re not interested in sex for the time being, asking your friends not to encourage you to date until further notice, or requesting that the people in your life refrain from bringing up certain topics around you.
Boundary setting can be extremely hard for trauma survivors, so have patience with yourself as you learn and practice this skill.
Along with setting boundaries, an indispensable part of healing from sexual trauma is cultivating safety in all of your intimate relationships.
If you are engaged in any ongoing abusive dynamics in your life, it will not be possible to meaningfully heal from trauma until those dynamics have shifted or those relationships have ended. This could be a difficult pill to swallow depending on your circumstances, but ensuring that the people in your life – particularly the people you have intimate relationships with – are safe, respectful, nurturing, understanding, and flexible with your healing process is essential.
To learn about abusive relationship dynamics, check out our article “Understanding Cycles of Abuse (and How We Get Stuck in Them).”
Being triggered into a trauma response can have negative impacts on our relationships until we learn to manage our reactions in healthy, safe, and responsible ways. This is why understanding what triggers your trauma is an essential part of healing. Once you know what your triggers are, you can begin to safely work with them as you manage your body’s response to feeling activated.
For more information on this topic, check out our article “Triggers and Trauma Responses: What They Are and How to Cope.”
As you begin to navigate your triggers and trauma responses, befriending your nervous system will be an essential part of this process. When we’re triggered, our sympathetic nervous systems are activated. In other words, we begin to enter “fight-flight-freeze” mode. Depending on which reaction we are predisposed to, this can create a range of difficulties for us and our relationships. Thankfully, it’s possible to navigate our nervous system states with awareness and some degree of control once we understand what’s happening and what our bodies need.
Although some researchers disagree on its helpfulness, the polyvagal theory of the nervous system and its associated regulation-based practices has proven extremely helpful for many people healing from trauma. For an introduction to polyvagal theory, check out this video from Deb Dana, a clinical social worker who has helped make polyvagal theory more accessible.
One of the most frustrating aspects of sexual trauma is the disconnect it can create between us and our bodies. As a way of coping with trauma, our brains tend to dissociate, leading to a sense of disconnection or alienation between our brains and bodies. Reestablishing a safe connection to your body is an essential part of healing from sexual trauma.
In order to feel comfortable, empowered, and relaxed in your body, practice techniques for re-establishing safety. This will look different for each person, but some strategies include cultivating a regular yoga practice, practicing breath work, working with a dance/movement therapist, or any other embodiment-based practice. Some survivors might find that even simple things like getting massages or dancing around the living room can help re-establish the brain-body connection.
For more on this topic, check out our article “Connecting With Your Body to Heal Trauma.”
Although it might seem like sexual trauma survivors are doomed to lives of constant work and toil, taking frequent breaks is actually a crucial part of the recovery process.
To avoid “healing burnout,” give yourself permission to do something other than focus on your healing from time to time. Taking breaks can look like hanging out with friends, seeing live music, taking a nap or hot bath, or anything else that brings you comfort or joy. You might find that these breaks last for days, weeks, or even months. Trust yourself to return to the work of healing when you have the capacity for it.
As always, remember that healing requires patience. The process of recovering from sexual trauma is guaranteed to feel disheartening, frustrating, and slow from time to time. This is normal, and it is not an indication that you’re failing in your healing journey. As a wise person once said, “Little by little, the healing adds up.”
Recovering from sexual trauma is not easy. But with dedication, consistency, and the right resources and support, anyone who has experienced sexual trauma can cultivate more health, safety, and comfort in their lives.
For more support dealing with mental health struggles after sexual assault or abuse, check out the following articles available through Go Thrive Go:
Recovering from sexual trauma is neither easy nor quick. However, the process can be broken down into individual steps, making it somewhat less daunting for survivors. Steps include practicing self-compassion, establishing recovery goals, working with a therapist to address trauma symptoms and mental health conditions, cultivating health and safety in one’s relationships, getting to know one’s triggers and trauma responses, re-establishing a safe connection to the body, and taking breaks when needed. As with all aspects of the trauma recovery process, working alongside a trained mental health professional can drastically improve outcomes and recovery time.
Dana Anastasia (they/them) is an independent writer, editor, podcaster, and artist. With a degree in interdisciplinary sociology and a background in domestic violence and sexual assault advocacy, Dana brings a keen awareness of victim and survivor needs and experiences to their work. Learn more at www.danaanastasia.com.
December 4, 20234 min read