The words “the scene of the crime” speak volumes in criminal investigations and movies. In the case of sexual assault, despite where the event occurred, the scene of the crime is the body itself. The body then becomes less of a vessel for the spirit, and more of an enemy always reminding victims of what they long to forget. Resolution of the sexual assault requires the body to be empowered. Forming a loving relationship between survivors and their bodies will enhance their ability to care for themselves as well as live with less anger and fear.
During a traumatic experience, the body morphs into a different creature, one that is better equipped to handle the situation. An assault at this level is then captured by this “creature within” who holds onto it to protect the individual from having to deal with such an emotional trauma. Although its intentions are noble, it can only hold on to it for so long. Eventually, the memories and feelings start leaking out, causing the body to remember what the mind has forgotten.
The results are body-based symptoms that may not be recognized by the survivor as having a root in the assault. Survivors may have increased somatic complaints long after the original assault. These complaints may come in the form of gastrointestinal problems, migraines, or chronic pain. Sexual problems may also occur such as pain during intercourse.
Many survivors try to regain a sense of power over their bodies by controlling what food or liquid they allow into their bodies. Because they had no control over what was done to their body when they were assaulted, food may be the one thing they know they can be in charge of. Food may be used to repress feelings or to numb feelings. Some survivors believe if they can control their weight by either being too thin or obese, they would be found unattractive and no one would want to hurt them. For many, their control over their eating has been how they have coped with their assault for many years.
Some survivors may employ the physical pain that comes from cutting, burning, or hitting themselves to cope with the intense emotions they may be going through. One out of one hundred survivors is a self-injurer and more females than males self-injure. Cutting is the most common form of self-inflicted harm. Most do not intend to hurt themselves permanently. Some may harm themselves to feel something real – to experience pain – when they may be feeling separate from reality or have practiced numbing themselves out of abusive situations. Others may find calm and release from overwhelming emotions when they focus their pain on a physical point.
Tattooing and body piercing are other means a survivor may use to reclaim their body as their own. As body piercing and tattooing have become widespread, it has become a more acceptable outlet for individuals who want to express themselves and their emotions through modifying their body. Sexual assault can last from minutes to hours, but the lasting effects can go on for years. The act committed by another may leave a mark on the survivor so deep that at times they may not even see it. The result is a cluster of symptoms that can only be resolved with awareness and empowerment.
Some ways you can soothe your body:
Release positive chemicals through exercise. Frequent and regular physical exercise boosts the immune system, improves mental health, helps prevent depression, and encourages positive self-esteem. Exercise is also good for sleep.
Strength training. Being stronger helps us feel more in control of our bodies and environments.
Give yourself time to mend: sleep. Turning your computer, TV or tablet off 45 minutes before sleeping helps to relax the mind and prepare it for sleep.
Laughter. Watch a favorite comedy. Laughter releases endorphins, which are our body’s natural painkillers. When you laugh your whole body relaxes.
Think about how you could cut down on alcohol, caffeine, sugar, or cigarettes. These things can make you feel good for a short time and finding things that make you feel good is healthy and normal. Identifying things that might make us feel worse in the long run and reducing them can be good for your body and mind.
Relaxation techniques may not always help with post-traumatic stress disorder. If trying to relax is making you more anxious; you could try an exercise that helps you release energy and build strength. The spirit is amazing in its resilience and starts to heal the moment it becomes injured. In becoming aware of the underlying issues caused by the assault, the survivor can begin processing the events and come to a resolution. The creativity survivors of sexual assault use to cope with their trauma is tantamount to their strength as individuals. Perhaps one day, this strength will be released not in response to assault, but as an expression of self-love.
- American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychology www.aacap.org