Mindfulness for Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse (CSA)
Mindfulness as a philosophy and practice teaches us that most psychological problems are mind-made, and rooted in the common habit of dwelling in the past or focusing on the future. By learning mindfulness skills, every practitioner, including survivors of CSA, will be able to adopt a different, more liberating and fulfilling attitude to what their minds produce, including thoughts, desires, physical reactions, emotions, and actions. The ability to be mentally alert and present to emerging experiences in the moment without judgement is a key element in helping survivors of CSA overcome current manifestations and symptoms of traumatic events of the past.
Many adult survivors of CSA experience symptoms, or full-blown episodes, of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression. These manifest as part of a traumatic spectrum of symptoms that may include hyper-vigilance and anxiety, somatic complaints, substance or alcohol abuse, irregular sleep patterns, and issues with self-confidence and self-efficacy. For many, intrusive traumatic memories of the abuse remain intense, making it difficult to form new, trusting relationships with significant others.
So, how can practicing mindfulness help adult survivors of CSA deal with traumatic and debilitating memories, and other remnants of the past, in a way that allows them to lead a life of genuine fulfillment and joy?
Neutralising traumatic memories and toxic emotions
Mindfulness enables increasing, non-judgmental awareness of thoughts, memories, and emotions, as these arise in the present moment. Furthermore, the capacity to objectively witness and recognise all emerging mental content – whether traumatic or positive – as transient experiences, increases and strengthens with mindfulness.
Mindful processing of negative emotions and memories in the here-and-now helps to cultivate emotional flexibility, and gradually obviates the need to suppress or avoid unwanted experiences. In other words, through mindfulness, we learn to do away with filtering experiences as either negative or positive, wanted or unwanted, whilst also learning to accept and be with any experience in the present moment. In this way, traumatic thoughts and toxic emotions gradually begin to lose their ‘sting,’ as well as their seemingly unshakeable hold over the psyche.
Mindful breathing, mindless chatter, and PTSD
A common, useful tool to cultivate a state of mindfulness, especially in mindfulness meditation, involves focusing attention on the breath. The breath is a physical marker of one’s mental state at any time, making the person aware of whether breathing is calm, stifled, shallow, or even noticeable. In the process, mental activity slows down and all kinds of thoughts and mental noises in the form of images, fleeting emotions, sensations and memories come into awareness with more clarity. For survivors of CSA, habitual intrusive and anxiety-laden thoughts and emotions are likely to emerge.
This practice allows them to start noticing, and therefore begin to engage with, unwanted traumatic mental content without trying to control, avoid, or suppress it. As the witnessing mind partakes in the present moment, it becomes aware of the body’s usually subliminal reflexive reactions. Gradually, the mindfulness practitioner is able to see and contain emerging somatic and mental anxiety without being overwhelmed by it. The realisation that the anxiety, though connected to past experiences, is continuously created by the mind in the moment, and that it passes and is not as life-threatening as it seems, can bring tremendous relief and a sense emotional freedom to survivors. This is one effective way to learn to establish genuine control over troublesome symptoms that, in turn, come from conditioned thought processes and reactive emotional patterns set in motion by past experiences.
A Word of Caution: Mindfulness can initially be extremely distressing for survivors of CSA as it taps into emotional pain stored in the body. If you are a survivor of CSA and wish to try mindfulness, I urge you to seek help from a professional mindfulness practitioner in the first instance. Eventually you will become your own practitioner, but you might find you need extra support at the beginning of your journey.