Finding the Right Help
Many survivors of child and adult sexual abuse may need the help of professional counsellors and therapists as part of their healing journey. Finding the right therapist for you can take time, and it depends on your needs. It’s ok for survivors to shop around to find someone that they can trust and feel safe with. Just because a therapist is recommended or has experience treating people who have been sexually abused doesn’t mean that they are the right one for you.
There are many different treatments and interventions for sexual abuse. Some communities have integrated family-focused models for children who have been abused, and some work with the non-offending and abusive parent or caregiver. Counselling can be one-on-one or in a group setting, and many survivors have benefited from both at different times in their healing journey. Group therapy also provides social support for survivors, and can be a close and powerful way to share similar experiences, and receive support. As well, residential programs for survivors of sexual abuse are beginning to emerge and they offer more intensive support for those who need it and are able to participate (See www.pathsofcourage.com as an example). Further, peer support programs are being developed to provide more intentional, and ongoing, support for survivors. These relationships can be tremendously empowering, and usually involve survivors who have done some healing and have experience and wisdom to share.
Survivors have found a range of therapeutic approaches helpful, including:
This is individual therapy that helps a person express and process difficult emotions associated with the abuse. It helps the individual develop self-compassion and self-care strategies for managing moments when he or she feels emotionally overwhelmed, in addition to learning to trust again.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
This trauma-focused therapy helps to reduce negative emotional and behavioural responses following child or adult sexual abuse, or other traumatic losses and events. The treatment addresses distorted beliefs around the abuse, and provides a supportive environment in which individuals can talk about the traumatic experience. It can also help parents of children who have been abused to cope effectively with their own emotional distress, and develop skills that can support their children.
This is an empowering and collaborative form of therapy which recognizes that individuals possess natural competencies, strengths, and wisdom that can help guide change in their lives. Survivors are viewed as separate from their problems and their story, and over time can work to begin to gain perspective about their experiences, and move forward in a productive way with their lives.
Eye-Movement Desensitization and Re-Programming (EMDR) Therapy
This is a powerful short-term therapy that is effective for treating victims of traumatic events including sexual abuse and violence. It uses a person’s own rapid, rhythmic eye movements to subdue the power of emotionally charged memories of past trauma. Over time, this helps memories become more manageable and less traumatic, and is effective for treating things like complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Mindfulness based approaches are designed to deliberately focus a person’s attention on the present experience, in a way that is non-judgmental. Mindfulness has its roots in Eastern techniques, in particular Buddhist meditation, and it helps to direct focus away from intrusive and painful thoughts to paying attention to, and accepting, the present situation whether it’s viewed as positive or negative. This can help reduce stress and anxiety, and can involve meditation, yoga, body work, or different forms of exercise that enable the survivor to be present in the moment. It can also involve using journaling, art, or creative activities to process a person’s experience and allow them to begin to let go.
This form of therapy can involve different kinds of animals including horses, dogs or cats, with the animals serving as vehicles for self-awareness and emotional healing. It builds upon the nurturing and non-judgmental bond between animals and humans, and helps reduce stress and anxiety, improves social interactions and self-esteem, and can be empowering, especially for child survivors of sexual abuse.
Since art therapy is a visual and sensory process, it can help children and adults access traumatic material stored in their implicit memory, which is body-based, and often deep-seated. Art making allows individuals to work non-verbally and can be a safe way for survivors to process their trauma, communicate the devastating effects, reduce depression and anxiety, and improve their ability to self-soothe and care for themselves.
Energy work encompasses a wide continuum of healing practice, and is based upon the belief that we are more than just our physical body. Practitioners believe that we also possess an energetic body, which is an unseen extension of our physical body, and can be impacted by trauma. Also understood is the belief that with the right kind of support, our bodies can heal themselves. Practitioners work to channel healing energy into the person through hands-on, hands-off or distant healing. This includes a wide range of practices from Reiki, or healing touch, to things like qigong. Many survivors have found this kind of therapy relaxing, grounding and empowering.
Survivors can also benefit from the networks of others who have experienced similar things, and from intentional peer support relationships, which can help survivors explore their options and decide what’s best for them.