Self-Care Tips for Trauma Survivors

In therapy sessions, I’m always inviting people to take care of themselves.

I do a lot of therapy with trauma survivors and adult survivors of child abuse. And self-care is particularly important in these cases.

Surviving abuse or trauma presents unique challenges. There’s the emotional storm, with its ups and downs, maybe flashbacks, disturbing memories, the struggle to feel good about yourself, to feel safe.

So I’ve assembled some tips and tools to help trauma and abuse survivors along this healing journey. Anybody can benefit from these tools. But I think they’re particularly important for trauma survivors.

 Be Kind and Gentle with Yourself: This is the most important teaching. We tend to be hard on ourselves. Trauma or abuse survivors have survived a harsh experience, and often internalized a lot of negative messages and assumptions about themselves. In therapy we practice learning to cast those messages aside.

 It’s important to remember that you are doing the best you can, and it’s good enough.

We all have an internal narrative. It seems to run all the time. If you pause and listen to it, you’llprobably notice that it’s pretty harsh. It’s often focused on the past, telling you that you shoul have done better, or focused on the future, telling us how bad it’s going to be, or how bad we are, or that we’re going to mess things up.

The chances are that you wouldn’t let anyone else talk to you that way. If you have a friend who is in a similar circumstance to yours, you’d probably offer kindness and compassion. Offer yourself the same kindness and compassion that you would offer to anyone else in your situation.

You deserve it.

When you notice a harsh internal voice, just be kind and tell yourself “it’s ok, you’re doing the best you can.”

Positive Affirmations: This is an important tool for learning to be kind to yourself.

And although you can’t change what happened, you can change what you tell yourself about it. In other words, it’s helpful to reprogram your brain to mute those self-defeating thoughts and views, and enable a more positive, loving and compassionate view of yourself.

Daily positive affirmations can help that process. For example:

Start each day looking in the mirror and say three times: “Hello <your name>, I love you and accept you completely.” You may not feel like you mean it at first. It may even be difficult. But the more you do it, the more you will come to believe it.

You can also repeat to yourself:

  • I’m a good person.

  • I am loving and I deserve to be loved.

  • I am well and safe in the present moment, no harm will come to me.

  • I have permission to express my feelings and ask for what I want.

  • I am well and safe in the present moment, no harm will come to me.

  • I love myself, I am valuable, I am worthy.

  • I am well and safe in the present moment, no harm will come to me.

  • The abuse was not my fault, I am a good person.

  • All of my feelings are okay and I have permission to have them.

  • I am strong, courageous and brave.

  • I am capable of healing.

There are dozens of positive affirmations that you can practice. You can create your own to help with whatever you are struggling with.

There are also some great books of daily affirmations. One of my favorites is Affirmations for the Inner Child by Rokelle Lerner.

Healing Through your Body: In his book The Body Keeps the Score, trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk notes that people store energy from trauma in our bodies, in addition to storing memories, views and negative assumptions in the mind. So you need some sort of physical outlet to help release the intense feelings of grief, rage and hurt that often accompany trauma.

Regular physical movement can help. You can learn and practice Yoga, do cardio exercise, go for walks, dance to music that makes you feel good while chanting positive affirmations. There are lots of outlets for physical activity. Find something you love, something that doesn’t feel like a chore. Personally, I like doing cardio at the gym, while listening to music or watching an interesting, or entertaining video on my iPhone. But you don’t need a gym membership to nurture yourself with physical activity. Physical activity should be a compassionate act of self-care, not a self-defeating punishment that we do because we have to.

Also, make sure you’re meeting your physical needs. This includes getting sufficient sleep, eating regular and healthy meals and seeking medical attention when necessary.

Breathe: When you are having an intense emotional experience: rage, grief, hurt, or the disorientation that goes with traumatic memories — your body has a physical response — your heart rate goes up, your blood pressure goes up, your breathing gets fast and shallow, and your adrenal system starts pumping adrenalin. Your mind may be racing and you may have difficulty focusing.

So, the first thing to do when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed is to consciously slowdown your breathing. Just start taking long slow deep breaths into your belly. One way to dothis is to place your hand on your belly, so that your pinky finger is right at the top of your navel. Take slow, deep breaths so your belly is moving your hand out from your body.

When you slow your breathing, a few things happen right away. First, your breathing slows down, which helps to lower your heart rate and blood pressure. Your head will clear. You’ll start to feel more centered and relaxed.

In therapy sessions, I often teach people to pause and do deep breathing three times a day. Just take ten slow deep breaths. Try it first thing in the morning, some time in the middle of the day and before bed at night. I suggest this practice to help train the mind and body to remember to pause and breathe under stress.

You won’t always be in a situation to close your eyes to practice slow breathing. You may be driving, or in a business meeting. But you can always slow your breathing and focus on taking long, slow deep breaths.

Meditation: Meditation helps us relax and reduce stress. It makes it easier to stay in the present moment, to experience more balance, calm and a sense of centeredness to our daily activities. Meditation helps us to be with the difficulties that arise without being swept away or overwhelmed by them, and generally to be more focused. A daily meditation practice can help you have more space around the intense feelings that accompany trauma.

Some people find the thought of meditation to be esoteric or intimidating, but it’s really not. And you can’t do it wrong. The breathing exercise above is a short form of meditation. There are hundreds of ways to meditate. I prefer a Mindfulness Meditation practice, because it’s simple and easy.

Simply find a comfortable place to sit, with your back straight, but not rigid, with both feet on the floor, and your hands in your lap. Gently close your eyes, and bring your attention to your breathing. Take a few deep breaths to get focused, then just breathe naturally and continue to focus on your breath. A good way to do that is to focus on your abdomen or chest moving in and out as you breathe. You can also focus on how your breath feels going in and out of your nose.

Your mind will wander away almost immediately. When you notice that you’ve wandered off, gently, but firmly bring your attention back to your breathing. I emphasize gentleness here. There’s no need to be hard on yourself. The mind naturally wanders. Just bring it back. An important part of this practice is learning to be kind and gentle with yourself.

You may be lost in thought for a long time before you even notice it. That’s ok. When you notice you’ve wandered off, just come back.

Some people tell me they can’t meditate because they can’t get their mind to be quiet. Don’t worry about that. The mind doesn’t get quiet. We’re learning to observe it, without getting swept away by it. You can’t do this wrong. The doing it is the doing it.

Try this for ten to fifteen minutes every day. The effects are subtle, but cumulative. You’ll start to feel more relaxed and centered day to day. The things that bother you won’t bother you as much. The sources of stress and anxiety may not go away. But they’ll be more manageable.

There are lots of good resources and books on meditation.

You can find more detailed instructions for meditation here. I also like the book Seeking the Heart of Wisdom by Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield.

I hope you’ve found these suggestions helpful. If you’re struggling with issues related to trauma or abuse, I’m here to help. Please call me at (812) 371-6330, or email me at ken@insight-counseling.org