It’s About More than Vacations

Self-Care for Survivors of Sexual Violence

Did you find yourself overwhelmed or triggered by the social media avalanche of #MeToo? Are you feeling stressed by work, neverending to-do lists, and chores? Sounds like it’s time for some self-care.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to book a fancy vacation or trip to the spa. Some people don’t like them, some can’t afford them, and some can’t find the time. (But if you do and you can, by all means do!) Read on to dig deeper into the idea of self-care and explore some simple strategies.

What exactly is self-care?

If self-care is more than massages, what is it at its core? Sharon Imperato, BARCC’s manager of clinical services, shares: “A lot of people have the conception that self-care is getting your nails done or doing things like that — and those can be self-care activities — but it’s really about realizing you’re being impacted, whether by a traumatic experience you’ve had, what’s going on in the world, or the work that you do, and recognizing that you need something extra. It’s about giving yourself permission — and that piece is key — to do things that are just about you, that nourish you.”

“It’s about giving yourself permission — and that piece is key — to do things that are just about you, that nourish you.”
— Sharon Imperato, BARCC manager of clinical services

Vanessa Seibald, a BARCC senior bilingual clinician, talks about how for some survivors of sexual violence, self-care can take on very practical aspect: “Self-care is a necessity for you to continue doing what you do in your life. Self-care can be about taking care of your basic needs, like sleeping, eating, showering. This can be difficult for a survivor because their body is where they’ve been traumatized, and many of the signals and rhythms are disrupted.” Illustrator Hannah Daisy championed some of these more basic forms of self-care in a series called Boring Self Care.

One of the hallmarks of effective self-care is that it looks different for everyone. “Self-care is very individual,” says Bella Alarcon, a BARCC bilingual clinician. “And it doesn’t have to take a lot of time or any money. Even just taking one minute to yourself to take a few deep breaths can make a difference. The key is having the intention while you’re doing it.” It might be meditation or exercise; studies have shown these can help with depression and anxiety, and for survivors they can be a safer way to connect with their bodies. It might be watching Netflix or drawing. It might be reading or playing with your dog. What is helpful to some people may not work for other people.

Why it’s not easy and why it’s important

Though it might seem counterintuitive, have you noticed how hard self-care can be? There’s a lot at play there. “In the U.S., people have grown up in a culture that does not prioritize self-care,” Vanessa says. “It can be seen as egotistical, selfish, that you’re taking away time from other things you should be doing, like work.” People often internalize those messages growing up, and those messages present real obstacles.

For survivors, it can be even harder — and that much more important. “Survivors often struggle with self-blame, guilt, and believing they don’t deserve to take care of themselves,” explains Sharon. In BARCC’s work with survivors in counseling, we work on countering those beliefs and self-critical thoughts. Sharon continues: “Even that concept of recognizing that ‘I deserve to do something for myself’ is important for survivors in their healing process; self-care is a basic coping skill. Survivors need ways to escape and cope that are healthy and safe; otherwise it’s difficult to function when you’re thinking about trauma 24–7.”

Self-care makes it possible to show up in the rest of your life the way that you want to, whether that’s achieving your goals, succeeding in your work, or being a good friend, sibling, parent, or coworker. “If you don’t prioritize self-care on some level,” Bella says, “you’re not going to be able to keep on functioning.”

Some tips

  • Think about the supportive people in your life who you can reach out to when you’re having a hard time and who will support you in taking care of yourself.
  • It may sound cheesy, but treat yourself like your best friend would. And be thoughtful with how you talk to yourself: if you wouldn’t say it to a friend because it’s too mean, try not to say it to yourself.
  • Consider the many various aspects of your experience that might need care and attention, including your mind, emotions, body, spirit, and relationships.
  • Experiment and figure out what strategies work for you.
  • If you’re struggling with taking care of yourself, don’t be hard on yourself. Be kind to yourself as you navigate challenges and acknowledge any small steps you take.
  • Give yourself credit for the things you are already doing to take care of yourself.

A few simple techniques

Want to do a little self-care right now? Try the following simple exercise: If you’re in the need for some grounding to bring you back into your body and into the present, you can sit in a chair, press your feet into the ground, and push your back into the chair. You can focus your attention by choosing a nearby object, noticing its parts, and describing it out loud.

You can also try a simple breathing exercise for a few minutes (please note that breathing exercises may be triggering for some survivors). Concentrating on the breath may help you relax and calm anxiety.

  • Count “1, 2, 3” slowly in your head while breathing in.
  • Count “1, 2, 3, 4, 5” slowly in your head while breathing out.
  • Repeat for several rounds.
  • Remember to breathe deeply into your belly and to keep your breaths slow.
  • You can add a “1, 2, 3” segment of gently holding your breath into the rotation if that feels good.
  • You can also place your hands on your chest and stomach, feeling your breath coming into your body and feeling it go out of your body.

Tell us your self-care strategies!

There are so many self-care ideas out there (check out this great list on Buzzfeed), and we want to hear yours! What works for you? Do you have a favorite activity or app? We’ve heard good things about Calm, the PTSD Coach (geared toward veterans but has some good tools), and many more. Whether you’re into walking, crafting, mountain climbing, or just simply breathing, we hope you find a moment in your day today to dedicate to yourself.

Are you a survivor, or a friend or family member of a survivor, looking for more support? BARCC offers free and confidential services to survivors of sexual violence and their loved ones. Learn more about our services online or call our 24-hour hotline at 800–841–8371.