After abuse, your body can start responding in dysfunctional ways to everyday situations. A dark room can trigger nightmares, and a hug can cause flashbacks. Your heart beat rises, your breathing turns shallow, and you can start experiencing anxiety. When this happens frequently, it is called an elevated stress response which can contribute to, among other things, high blood pressure, weight gain, sleep issues, and a depressed immune system. All of these lead to poor health, both physical and mental.
One of the most important parts of recovering from abuse is managing stress levels so that your body learns to react in different ways to triggers and to cope with the elevated stress. There are a variety of methods for stress management. Here are five of our favorites that we’ve personally tried and found helpful during the recovery process.
Five Tools for Stress Management While Recovering From Abuse
What: Mindfulness, or awareness, is simply observing and becoming conscious of what you are experiencing in the present moment and to accept your emotions and experiences without resistance or judgement. When you experience anxiety or sadness because of abuse, it can be empowering to stop and take a moment to become aware of your feelings in a non-judgmental way.
Why: This tools is especially helpful for abuse survivors because it has been shown to target and reduce the effects of stress on the body.
How: There are a variety of ways to start practicing mindfulness. You can take a day class, or an six to eight-week course. You can pick up a book on the topic or find mindfulness exercises online. We really like this mindfulness guide from Help Guide and Harvard Health.
What: Exercise can take the form of running, walking, yoga, kickboxing, rock climbing, trampoline jumping, dancing, weight lifting, and more. It’s any activity that gets your heart rate raised and makes sweat come out of your pores.
Why: We know we need it for physical health, but when you’re recovering from abuse, it can be hard to motivate yourself to get out and be in the world. After all, you could get hurt again. But exercise has been proven to have many healthy benefits. Specifically, it helps reduce anxiety, boost your mood, and can help prevent future bouts of depression.
How: Start with a daily walk around the same time each day. Even 10 minutes of walking has been proven to improve mental health. Commit to a walk every day for one week, then add another week, and so on. Taking a kickboxing or self-defense class is also a great idea, as both of these can help you work out anger and make you feel more able to protect yourself from further abuses.
What: Meditation is similar to mindfulness, but takes a longer form. It involves sitting in a quiet place and centering your mind so that thoughts and experiences are happening separately from your self. Think of it as an extended session of mindfulness.
Why: Abuse often triggers anxiety which turns into depression. Meditation helps you identify and accept your emotions and experiences without fighting them. It allows you room in your mind to slow down, calm down, and heal.
How: If you aren’t ready to commit to a course, start with an app. We especially love Headspace for it’s ease of use and the great British accent. If you search on iTunes, you’ll find a variety of podcasts, audiobooks, and other content simply by searching “meditation.” There are many related to abuse topics.
What: Yoga is an ancient practice that has recently become more popular. It usually takes place in a gym or studio class that lasts 60-minutes of stretching and holding poses for a few breaths.
Why: Yoga is our favorite because it incorporates several habits that can help improve mental health. It involves mindfulness as you concentrate on matching your actions to your breaths, exercise because it gets your heart rate up (ever done a 1-minute plank into a downward dog?) and strengthens your muscles, and meditation because classes typically open and/or close with a few minutes of meditation. It’s especially good for abuse survivors because it pairs physical and mental health together in a gentle and supportive environment.
How: Do a Google search, or call your gym, to see where you can take a class. Stick with it for a few weeks so you can start to see the benefits. If you aren’t ready to commit to paying for a class, you can also search for tutorials on YouTube. Learning how to do a sun salutation is a great place to start.
What: Counseling is talk therapy. It’s a safe place with a trained professional where you can talk through and issues you may be experiencing.
Why: Abuse steals from its victims in a variety of ways. One of those can be that your experience is questioned and dissected by dozens of family members, officials, and legal professionals. Talk therapy allows you to work through the abuse in a safe place where you are the expert. A great counselor will equip you with tools and methods of dealing with your past experiences.
How: The easiest way to do this is by calling your GP and asking who they recommend. If you do not have a GP, search for an abuse counselor in your hometown via your preferred search engine. Studies have shown that 8-10 sessions are the best time frame to start. If you can’t afford one-on-one therapy, there are also a lot of group therapy sessions that are low-cost or free in most major cities.
Further reading: Impacts of child abuse on the physiology of the brain.
You’ll notice that each of these methods only works if you stick with it. If something doesn’t work the first time, try it a few more times just to make sure it won’t work for you.
If you haven’t already done so, talk to a medical professional about your options and find out if they have any recommendations for recovery. Not all of these tools will work for you, but it’s a good idea to try out each method to see what helps you.