This month I thought I’d do something different and share my responses to a recent interview I did with Vidya Rao of Healthywomen.org. Most of my answers didn't make it into the article, as is often the case with these types of interviews. In fact often answers are taken out of context, thankfully Vidya didn't do that. The article is titled What Is Considered Sexual Assault?
It covers "what you need to know about different forms of sexual assault and what you can do if you’ve been assaulted."
Her questions to me focused on symptoms and healing. Perhaps there's one that you're interested in. Here are her questions and my answers:
Vidya Rao: What are some of the common mental/emotional responses that people have shortly after experiencing sexual assault?
Erika Shershun: Shock would be the first one. Fear, grief, shame, anger and/or rage are common emotions that come up before and during the healing process. When I say healing, I’m referring to processing and integrating the trauma to the point that symptoms greatly lesson or are resolved.
Some suppress, minimize or compartmentalize the trauma, and for some the memory is repressed. This is not a conscious choice, rather their mind and body’s way of not causing further overwhelm and therefore further trauma to their system. This happens when the internal (developmental, psychological, somatic…) or external (relational, financial…) resources needed to begin healing are unavailable to them at the time of the trauma.
This explains why many survivors develop new symptoms or symptoms worsen 10, 20, 30, even 60 years after the traumatic event(s) occurred. Their system is screaming out for their attention, telling them they’re ready and it’s time to do the work of healing.
V.R: What is the long-term mental/emotional impact?
E.S: Survivors’ nervous systems are often in an ongoing or heightened state of fight, flight, or freeze. This releases toxic amounts of cortisol, adrenaline and other hormones into their bodies that over time can cause all kinds of physical and psychological issues. Depression and anxiety are common, but there’s much more. You can read a list of trauma symptoms that many survivors experience on my March blog post.
V.R: Survivors often blame themselves or ruminate on what they could have done differently. Why is this the case and how does this impact healing? How do you help them let those feelings go?
E.S: Many survivors have been met with shaming comments when they have reported the trauma to family members, friends, law enforcement, hospital staff, even counselors. This creates further trauma.
There is a lot of mixed messaging, judgment, and shaming in our culture about the body and sexuality. Often the deep conditioning around these issues creates a feeling of shame for something they had no control of. If they could have stopped the traumatic event, they would have.
When a traumatic event is happening, our nervous system moves into one of two states, for the sake of simplicity I'll again use the non scientific terms fight/flight, or freeze. Most survivors freeze, then blame themselves for not having done more to fight. I explain to them why their body responded the way it did, the body always goes toward survival. I also teach them how to practice and take in self compassion.
V.R: What are steps sexual assault survivors can take to heal, particularly when shame might prevent them from seeking help?
E.S: Healing is a process that takes time, integration can’t be rushed. There are many steps to the healing process, but I always begin with teaching clients to ground, and calm their nervous system.
If they’re not wanting to or can’t afford to work with a therapist who specializes in working with trauma, preferably sexual trauma, they can read and do the practices in my workbook, the Healing Sexual Trauma Workbook, or take my online course. I wrote the workbook and created the course so that other options would be available to those seeking support, especially those who don’t have access to trauma therapy or don’t feel safe enough to sit with a therapist.
It warms my heart to find that in addition to survivors themselves, a lot of therapists are using the workbook with their clients.
V.R: What modalities have been particularly beneficial for patients you've worked with? Why?
E.S: My work is rooted in Somatic Psychology (body, mind, soul), and draws on many modalities including EMDR, Mindfulness, parts work, and Energy Psychology to name a few.
Somatic - Trauma is stored in the cells of the body, we have to pay attention to the body’s sensations and patterns of movement to integrate the trauma and heal. Many survivors dissociate from their body (feel numb, checked-out, or outside of their body) because it wasn’t safe to be in their body during the traumatic event. We start out by learning to cultivate a felt sense of safety which is needed in order to do the work of healing.
EMDR, and Energy Psychology are methods that can address deeply held subconscious believes with memory reconsolidation, and support integration of the traumatic event.
Parts work helps to generate feelings of acceptance and self-compassion. Self-compassion is an antidote to shame.
Mindfulness is needed to strengthen our ability to be present, all we really have is the present. When we’re not present (dissociating, anxious, dwelling on past regrets or future worries) we’re missing out on the fullness that life has to offer. Play and creativity of all types require presence.
V.R: What do you think is important for sexual assault survivors to know?
E.S: No matter what happened to them, it wasn’t their fault - they did not give permission. Their body did what it had to do to help them survive. It’s never too late for them to heal, with the right tools and support, healing is always possible. They are not alone.
There's so much more I could say in response to each of her questions, healing is a complex process. The Healing Sexual Trauma Course covers 6 months of material and goes into much greater depth on each of these topics, and many more.
Wishing you much ease on your healing journey.