Our bodies are receptacles: they receive and they hold. When something traumatic such as a sexual assault happens to us, the body receives that event and it changes how we react and respond to various stimuli. A sexual assault can stay alive – very alive within us, on a deep, even cellular level. We can experience a sense of betrayal from our bodies as it negatively reacts to things that were benign to us prior to the assault. That reaction can also be no reaction, when we get so depressed it is hard to move.
Recovering from trauma requires regaining a sense of self autonomy. In the moments of terror during the assault, the perpetrator took over. He or she temporarily took control as your body reluctantly agreed to go along. The fear of the moment was so overwhelmingly powerful that you had no choice but to follow along with this hijacking of your body.
Then why, now that the assault has ended, are you still feeling this loss of control? Maybe it’s even been years since the assault, but you still feel like you are not commander in chief.
As mentioned earlier, your body is a receptacle and, much like that fruitcake you take every year as a gift from Aunt Tilly and promptly dump in the trash, you don’t want this but it’s yours nonetheless. But unlike the gift of fruitcake, you don’t have to keep this one. You don’t have any obligation other than the one you have to yourself to find ways to feel better.
Movement gives the body and the brain a sense of autonomy and authority. That very thing that was taken from you during the assault, you can gradually gain back by moving your body. With movement you’re sending the message that you are the boss of this body, that this zone is under your authority. Toxicity in our lives leaves us without autonomy, and even if that is just a momentary lapse in our sense of being our own boss, it is a moment too much.
The body needs to move. The body craves movement. Although you may not be feeling it on the surface, your body is probably sending you signals about what it wants and what it needs. The movements can be small in the beginning, especially if your emotional state is a more sad or depressed state. But do the small movements. Make the bed, walk the dog, comb the hair and for God’s sake – brush the teeth!
Words are hard to access when our body feels foreign to us and we feel like a stranger in our own home. The expression of the body through movement can unlock what we may be struggling to communicate verbally. It doesn’t have to be spoken to be healing.
There are endless possibilities on how you can get moving. Here are 5 suggestions for purposeful movement to help you regain the controls over how and to what your body responds:
1 – Yoga – Any kind of yoga can be helpful to not only regain that sense of autonomy, but also to create a sense of safety in the body. Many of the poses in yoga can initiate the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the rest and digest system. When this system is engaged, it can increase a feeling of relaxation. The relaxation creates grounding and a feeling of being safe within our own bodies.
Trauma Informed yoga is becoming more available and seeking out an instructor teaching just to those that have survived sexual assault can be very useful. Some of the poses in yoga expose regions of the body in ways that may be triggering for a survivor. An instructor teaching trauma informed yoga will be aware of these poses and leave them out of the practice or provide alternatives to poses that may be triggering.
2 – Martial Arts – Learning and practicing a skill such as Tai Chi or Karate has the potential to create a sense of empowerment. These skills can both be used as a form of self-defense which gives a survivor more choices in what happens to their body. The knowledge that they have the ability to protect themselves becomes choice enough.
The movements learned in martial arts are purposeful and the mental clarity gained around calming the mind with simple movement help a survivor to recognize their worth and reclaim their authority over their body.
3 – Dance – Trauma in the form of sexual assault can rob the survivor of recognizing pleasure within the body. Dance helps to integrate the body, brain and spirit through the creative expression of the body. Dance can be a way for the body to tell the story of what happened when words are inaccessible. Dance can create a sense of pleasure in the body while being grounded in the security of the creative process.
4 – Running – One of the traps of surviving a trauma is the negative, ruminative thinking that may result. When we aren’t moving we are trapped by these thoughts and what I have learned is that we can’t think our way out of trauma and anxiety. We can however perform the rote movement of one foot in front of another and oftentimes that simple repetition takes us out of our head and into our body, thus reconnecting us from that place where trauma created a schism.
There isn’t much that can compare to the feeling of freedom running can create. Where we were once trapped by the event that happened and the limiting negative beliefs that resulted, we can at least temporarily remember what it feels to be free.
5 – Hiking – There is a section of woods that I’ll go out to as often as possible and, more likely than not, it’ll just be me and the woods out there. I can’t see any other people and I can’t hear any of the signs of civilization. I can spend an hour in those woods and get a lifetime of healing. I don’t think about my stressors when I’m out there. I don’t worry about the things that challenge me when I’m out there. Mostly, I’m just grateful.
Like running, it is the one foot in front of the other simplicity that helps us reconnect. Being out in nature has the uncertainty of not knowing what may happen, but it also has the predictability of getting to the end by continuing to push through. Out there climbing and moving forward, it is hard to not recognize our connection to something bigger than us. It is a clear and beautiful metaphor, that is recognized on a deep level, for the journey a survivor is taking.
This is certainly not an inclusive list of the various types of movement that can help us cope with the after effects of trauma. Any type of movement is good movement. Some of these suggestions happen in community, which instantly bumps up the therapeutic quality. Combining some solitary movement and movement in community would help a survivor feel safe in several different places.
Lydia Kickliter, LPC
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