Erika Shershun, MA, MFT
Why Is It So Hard To Heal From Sexual Trauma?
Unintegrated trauma can impact every area of a survivor’s life. When I speak of healing, I’m referring to a significant reduction or elimination of trauma symptoms. If anyone’s ever implied to you that it’s quick or easy to achieve this, if you’ve been told to “just get over it” or “put it behind you and move on”, you can be sure the messenger hasn’t healed from big T trauma, and isn’t trauma informed.
Whether you’ve just started on your healing journey, have been struggling to heal for years, or have been avoiding, compartmentalizing, or suppressing the trauma because you don’t feel ready to do the work of healing, here are some of the most common reasons why it can feel so hard to heal from sexual trauma.
1. You Don’t Feel Ready or You’re Not Ready.
To heal from trauma, you have to be able to connect with some level of internal and external safety.
I always begin the work of healing by helping clients to develop or reconnect with a sense of safety. You can’t be present to do the work of healing when your system is in the fight, flight, or freeze response. It’s a process that takes practice, with gradual improvement (more on this below). Without a sense of safety, you can get stuck in survival mode unable to access the fullness of who you are, your creative expression, your ability to take on new challenges and to grow, and your sense of connection to others and all of life.
If you’re in a perpetually unsafe situation, such as ongoing intense harassment or an emotionally or physically abusive partner, it’s very difficult to heal because your nervous system is constantly in an unregulated state. Even so, it’s better to seek help if possible, to begin by taking one step at a time. That’s all we can ever really do.
Healing from trauma requires resources.
A resource is someone or something that elicits, supports, and nurtures a felt sense of well-being. The more resources you have, the better equipped you’ll be to handle the disappointments and challenges life brings. Unfortunately, a traumatic event can cause you to lose touch with your resources, bringing about feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness. Part of trauma work is to help you reclaim resources that were lost and develop new ones.
Unfortunately, healing requires time and financial resources as well. It can feel infuriating that you have to invest so much to heal after being victimized. Many of my clients go through a familiar phase of anger or rage at what feels like further injustice. I support and encourage them in finding healthy ways to express the anger, and reassure them there will with time be rewards for all of their hard work.
If money is your main barrier to healing be sure to see if there is a rape crisis center in your county, and seek out low fee clinics in your state. If you filed a police report you can apply for victim’s assistance to pay for therapy. Most Universities that offer clinical psychology or clinical social work degrees have low fee training clinics with therapists in supervision, and many associate (pre licensure, also in supervision) or licensed therapist’s make space for a limited number of sliding scale clients (they tend to run higher than low fee clinics which are subsidized).
As far as time, for my clients it requires an investment of 50 minutes of therapy a week or bi-weekly, with approximately 12 minutes a day of practice, and practice as needed when triggered...
An increase in symptoms can actually be a sign that you’re ready to begin healing.
Trauma symptoms can at times be subtle, lurking under the surface for years affecting us more than we realize in every aspect of our day-to-day life. I know from personal and professional experience, if you’ve been suppressing or repressing sexual trauma, at some point symptoms will increase and intensify.
This increase in symptoms can be uncomfortable and even frightening, yet this is your body and mind (which are really one) screaming out for your attention. Your entire being is letting you know it’s time to begin the work of healing, you’re ready. You likely don’t feel ready, but your inner wisdom is telling you otherwise. I view this as a clear sign that you are resourced enough to begin the work of healing.
2. The Fear of What You’ll Discover If You Do the Work to Heal.
This is the biggest reason people are fearful of turning inward and doing the work to heal. Having named the fear is a great first step. Naming it helps to diminish fear’s power over you. It’s natural to resist change, our brains are wired that way – to fear the unknown. This helped our ancestors to survive. Yet most everything you’ve ever accomplished, including taking your very first step, brought up fear or anxiety before you took that leap.
You might be afraid of what it will take, that you won’t have the time, energy, or emotional capacity, or you might be afraid of how you or your relationships will change if you move beyond this. It’s worth taking some time to consider, what are you fearful of losing with change, and what might some of the gains be?
As you’re doing the work of healing, you’ll learn tools to help regulate your nervous system if your triggered, dissociating, or experiencing flashbacks. It’s important to remember that you can choose the pace you go at. If it feels like too much, slow down. If you’re working with a therapist, let them know you want to go slower, they should welcome and honor your request.
I won’t mislead you, healing from sexual trauma is not easy. It takes courage and determination to do the work of healing. You may or may not have memories surface, and sometimes you can feel a little or a lot worse before you feel better. This is what I wrote in the introduction to the Healing Sexual Trauma Workbook:
“Healing from sexual assault is a journey that takes time. There will be twists and turns along the way. You may have a breakthrough, followed by a time of reprieve; then a new discovery, detail, or memory will surface. This can feel devastating, like a big setback, and when your nervous system is in a depressed state, you may lose hope of ever healing from sexual trauma. But the journey’s not linear; it’s not about crossing a finish line. Each time you encounter what feels like a setback, another piece of the trauma is stepping into the light of day to be healed. It’s your preceding success, however small, that allowed for this new challenge to be faced. It’s like peeling off layers of an artichoke, eventually you’ll come to the most wonderful center, the undefended heart.”
I visualize the process of healing from trauma something like this:
Lots of highs and lows as you slowly but steadily continue to improve and work your way to symptom reduction or elimination. I can assure you from first-hand experience and client feedback, when you get to the point of symptom relief it will all feel well worth the effort you’ve put in.
3. Healing can’t be rushed.
We all want results yesterday. The problem is, if you go too fast your system will be overwhelmed and you run the risk of being retraumatized. Something happened that overwhelmed your system and left you traumatized in the first place. You don’t want to add to or intensify the trauma by trying to speed up the process.
One isolated incident of life-threatening trauma (big T) takes less time to heal from than multiple traumas (complex trauma). On average my individual clients take one to two years to move beyond their symptoms. This time often includes processing some relational or developmental trauma as well as sexual trauma.
4. Healing Must Be Embodied.
You may have already read a lot of books and watched a lot of TikTok and YouTube videos on healing trauma, yet still find yourself suffering from just as many symptoms. Trauma is stored in and throughout the body, so intellectually comprehending what’s needed to heal is not enough, you have to apply and embody what you’ve read.
This is a segment about why we include the body in trauma work from p.45 in the Healing Sexual Trauma Workbook:
“You cannot heal from trauma without listening to and working with the body and what it’s communicating… what you experience physically and what you believe mentally are intimately connected. Every aspect of physical experience is integrative in nature. This means what you physically feel has a strong influence on what you think and believe. Conversely, your thoughts, interpretations, and beliefs affect your body and what you physically feel. While your body can move without thought preceding it, every thought produces subtle or not so subtle movement within your body (Bowen 2012). An emotional pain, such as hurt, might generate a constriction or an ache in your chest or stomach. With anger, you might feel tension in your jaw, shoulders, or abdomen. This is your body communicating to you, letting you know that something needs your attention.”
These sensations usually proceed thought, although you may not be aware of them. It's important to bring awareness to the body and its sensations to generate change in patterns of constriction and the accompanying emotions and thoughts that are no longer serving you as you heal.
5. Healing Takes Practice.
It’s not one and done. Healing doesn’t happen in a once weekly 50 or 60-minute therapy session, it happens in the other 167 hours of your week. In other words, it’s how you apply those ah ha moments and all that you learn in therapy to the rest of your week that determines the results.
And practice is essential, healing slows down significantly for those who refuse to practice. The practices of grounding, learning to help regulate your nervous system, mindfulness, and self-compassion are among the most important. You can do all of these practices in as little as 12 minutes a day, yet it’s also important to do them as needed. These are practices you will continue to benefit from even after your symptoms have subsided.
Healing is a journey of courage, and growth is a journey of discovery that takes a lifetime. They go hand in hand and together will have a profound impact on the quality of your life.
To your healing!