CN: discussion of trauma, PTSD, rape, and disordered eating. My advice is derived from research and personal experience. It is not meant to replace professional advice, which I will always recommend you seek if it’s accessible to you.
Living with trauma can dramatically alter how you experience the world. Especially if the trauma was physical or sexual in nature, you may feel like you’re living in a different body altogether. But even if the trauma was neither of those things, you can still be impacted physically. Remnants of the event are lodged under your skin like shrapnel, and you can barely remember what life was like before this was the case.
After awhile, the tough truth sinks in: there is no going back to “how it was before.” Instead, you must find a new normal. For a lot of survivors, that sense of “normal” begins and ends with feeling safe in our bodies again. We want to feel safe enough to go about an average day without experiencing fear and pain. After that, we can do anything.
Here are some tips I’ve employed to help me reach that baseline level of comfort after many years of living with post-traumatic stress.
Safewords aren’t just for kinky sex. They’re merely verbal codes that signal a need to pause and check in. You may find it helpful to develop a specific safeword for the moment when a past trauma breaches the present. You can use it in any setting or situation, sexual or otherwise, to alert someone close to you that you’re struggling. The discreet nature of safewords means that you can use them around other people and still maintain your privacy.
You can even develop safewords just for yourself. I have a short series of words to use when I’m feeling triggered and don’t have anyone around to support me. Repeating them helps me ground and soothe myself, and shortens the panic attack significantly. If you’ve seen Marvel’s Jessica Jones (and if you haven’t, the first season is incredible), think of the scenes where our titular heroine repeats the street names around her childhood home when she’s plagued by flashbacks.
Not only can using a trauma safeword support you on the spot, but it can help you in the long run as well. After using the word(s) for awhile, you may begin to make more conscious connections between the moments that require them. Maybe you notice that a particular sound or smell is setting you off regularly. Now you know to protect yourself from that sensation, or begin the process of clearing the toxicity around it.
Using safewords actually helped me reach a very pivotal point in my healing process. At that time, insomnia was the most debilitating aspect of my PTSD. For almost five years after being raped, I was lucky to sleep for an hour or two per night. After adopting my safewords, I eventually realized that I used them most often in the morning, when I was still in bed.
Then it finally hit me: I was still sleeping on the mattress that I was assaulted on. I was not consciously aware of this, but my body certainly was. I replaced the mattress immediately, and almost as soon as I did so, my sleep slowly began to improve. Finally, I had the foothold on sanity I needed to make other healing changes in my life.
This is the mindfulness practice that helped me learn how to meditate to begin with. I still hear so often that meditation is about “clearing your mind,” a herculean task when you have an anxious brain. Once I learned that meditation was more about being present in your body in that moment, it felt much more approachable to me.
Even so, sitting quietly and being present with your body can be deeply unsettling to some, so tread carefully while you figure out whether or not this practice is for you. My favorite way to meditate is to devote all of my awareness to one sensory input at a time, and rotate between all five. Here’s how to do it:
1) Sit in whichever way makes you feel most grounded and balanced. I like to sit cross-legged on the floor with my back against a wall. You just want to be comfortable and able to clearly feel the surface beneath you.
2) You can close your eyes or keep them open, whichever feels less distracting. I tend to work with a soft gaze on a fixed point. Focus your full attention on the sensation of your breath traveling in and out of your body. Drawing breath can only occur in the present moment, so if you can stay with it for awhile, that’s huge!
3) Now that you’re tuned into your body’s essential rhythms, shift your awareness to one of your senses. Any sense. What do you hear? Traffic rolling by? Cats mewing? Distant laughter? Have an open, curious attitude as you absorb all of this information. Keep breathing deeply.
4) Then shift your focus to the next sense, and the next. There’s always something to observe, even if your eyes are closed or there’s no food nearby. Is there an aftertaste in your mouth from your last snack? Can you observe the light dancing through your eyelids? What is the most minute detail of your environment that you’re able to perceive?
5) When you’re focused on the tactile sensations, observe what your skin feels, like a cool breeze blowing across it, but also observe what you feel deeper inside your body. Start to feel your pulse flowing, the way your bones hang off one another. All those tiny sensations your brain usually filters out. Once you’re in that space, start to scan your body from head to toe, analyzing each area. Again, take caution here, it can be more intense than you expect.
6) Notice areas that feel open and expanded, or tight and constricted. If you find a tense spot, send two deep breaths to that area and keep going. Spend extra time in the places that feel comfortable or pleasurable, and savor that feeling. If you find a spot that brings up fear or pain, take note but don’t dwell on it. You’re just gathering information.
7) Once you’re done, return your focus to your physical connection to the ground or floor, and slowly drift back to standard consciousness. Welcome back! Jot down any information that came to you during the meditation for later reflection. If you’re a journaler, these notes make for great prompts.
It might take a little while to determine how to meditate in the way that’s most helpful to you. Mindfulness exercises are great for dealing with trauma, because they can serve as a spot treatment for when anxiety flares, and also help your brain build resilience to stressors over time. I’d say to focus more on consistency than frequency or duration at first, and then build up to your ultimate goals.
Try attaching the new habit to an existing one to help it stick more easily. You could make time to meditate for ten minutes after you’ve made your bed three days per week, or after dinner every night. Avoid meditating too close to bedtime while you’re learning, or you might fall asleep!
Develop a Movement Practice
During the worst of my PTSD, my body was both very sedentary and riddled with chronic pain. At the time, it was mystifying, but it’s very obvious to me now how interrelated all of these problems were.
My trauma had manifested as physical pain, and as the coping mechanisms that exacerbated it (such as binge eating inflammatory foods). Being in pain on a daily basis made the prospect of exercise laughable, but being so sedentary was weakening my muscles and joints and worsening my depression. My depression made me feel helpless about my PTSD. Rinse and repeat.
Don’t worry, this isn’t the part where I tell you to “just exercise.” No one falls into a cycle that vicious because they didn’t know to try exercising, and any “advice” that implies this is insulting. If exercise felt doable, believe me, I would have done it. Apparently, pain and suffering can be quite immobilizing. Who knew.
That being said, a regular movement practice can make a tremendous difference in quality of life for trauma survivors. I find that the term “exercise” can evoke overexertion, ableism and training for an arbitrary goal. It may not fit the context of your healing process, and therefore I prefer “movement practice.”
To me, a movement practice is any routine of motion, no matter how high- or low-impact, that promotes the strength and vitality of the body, mind, and spirit. It includes everything from deep stretching to skating to swinging (yes, like in a playground!).
My four favorite ways to move are swimming, doing yoga, walking, and hoop dancing. All are just as invigorating for my soul as my physical form, and have dramatic impacts on my mood, so it’s an easy commitment! These are mostly low-impact activities, which allows me to get moving more frequently and for longer periods of time. They also involve virtually every body part, so I get great energy flowing through every inch of me while I move. And best of all, I do them all outside, which automatically uplifts me.
For the record, swimming doesn’t mean doing laps, and yoga doesn’t have to mean an hour-long class. You can lean on a pool noodle and kick your legs, or spend ten minutes on two helpful yoga poses at home, for example. It’s whatever is accessible to you.
If that level of activity still feels out of reach right now, do what I did and start with some simple stretches. Stand up, open your feet a bit, and reach for the floor to release the tension in your lower back. Do a few lunges and open up the hip flexors. Even sitting cross-legged on the floor every so often can strengthen your core and improve your posture.
While you’re moving, observe whether the areas you’re working with are housing fear or pain. Learn to distinguish these sensations from ones of mere discomfort, or exertion. If you feel open to it, revisit these painful zones with massage, meditation, or careful stretching. Practice holding space for the pain that lives there. Let it lead itself out.
Just the Beginning
Maybe none of these suggestions feel manageable to you at this point in your healing process. Maybe they’re just not the best fit for you. All of that is okay. If nothing else, I do hope these ideas can help you determine some of your needs and boundaries so you can honor them moving forward. I’ll be sharing some more ideas soon! You completely deserve to live in peace.
For more resources on healing from trauma, see this excellent compilation over at Formidable Femme.