In the United States, the plight of sexual violence is prevalent and persistent. To put the numbers in perspective, a person experiences sexual assault every 73 seconds. Women and girls are among the most vulnerable. In fact, 1 in 6 women has experienced an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. Research shows that most survivors continue to suffer well after the attack, many of them by disassociating from their bodies.
Studies show that about 90 percent of people living with a dissociative disorder and 50 percent of individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have a history of childhood sexual or physical violence. These conditions, which lead to distance, discomfort and/or fear of their bodies, develop as a coping strategy that helps survivors isolate themselves from unbearable trauma. However, overtime this prolonged disassociation can prevent full recovery and lead to physical ailments.
For many sexual assault survivors, healing includes reconnecting to the body and restoring sensory and emotional awareness. This is typically done through a combination of psychotherapy and somatic healing techniques. This alternative body-oriented therapy helps survivors access the memory of the trauma (which often causes trouble with the nervous system), and helps them learn to identify when this system goes into fight, flight or freeze mode because of perceived, rather than a real, threat.
The road to recovery is long and difficult, and many therapists recommend survivors accompany sessions with embodied practices and rituals. Both strength-building and free movement body-based practices can help individuals reconnect, regain trust and restore agency with the body, its movements and its pleasures. Ahead, learn of some embodied practices that might help survivors reclaim their bodies after sexual trauma.
One of the most common ways survivors strengthen their mind-body connection and reclaim their bodies is through trauma-informed yoga, which is increasingly offered at women’s shelters and sexual assault support groups. Yoga, sometimes called “moving meditation,” has several therapeutic properties that are ideal for survivors. To start, the ancient Indian practice helps survivors “just be,” allowing them to calm their brain from reliving the trauma and exist in the present moment. Even more, its multiple poses and postures help survivors acquaint themselves with their bodies and its movements, while simultaneously allowing them to move energy and release emotions that might have been locked in large muscle groups for years. In building strength and improving poses, yoga can also help survivors regain a sense of control and power that might have been lost after the abuse.
Another way to release trauma that has been stored in the body is through dance. From sacred dance, to salsa to hip-hop, rhythmic movement can help loosen up tight muscles related to stress and anxiety. Less tense, the body can flow freely, which could also help instill trust, rather than doubt, fear or blame, in the body. This is especially true with pole dance. The climbs and spins of pole dance builds strength as well as self-trust, helping to restore a sense of power and confidence in one’s capabilities. Even more, pole also has the potential to help survivors reconnect, or perhaps connect for the first time, with their sexuality. PTSD related to sexual assault can manifest in many ways, and it commonly shows up during sex or arousal. For some, sexual contact triggers upsetting memories or leaves survivors feeling distressed or shame. Others might have lots of sex but are unable to gain a sense of intimacy with a partner. Pole, a practice that requires few garbs and sultry moves, helps people engage with their bodies on a personal and sensual level.
Fitness can also help survivors heal from past traumas and restore one’s relationship with their body. Like with other strength-building embodiment practices, bodyweight exercises can help people, particularly those who disassociated from their bodies or blamed it for the harm done to it, can witness the power and capabilities of their bodies. Additionally, fitness classes like self-defense can also teach survivors techniques that will help them feel empowered in their body as they navigate the world again.
Finally, many sexual assault survivors who develop a sense of disconnection from their body might also experience body shame, hatred or urges to self harm. It’s not uncommon, for instance, for survivors to develop an eating disorder. Considering the history these individuals have with food and exercise, fitness, or other high-cardio embodied practices, might not be ideal for survivors who also struggle, or have struggled with, disordered eating. Instead, body-based activities that are enjoyable and deal with free movement might be a better fit, including sports like basketball and tennis, or martial arts like qigong and tai chi.