A self-care plan for survivors of sexual assault and harassment

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There’s a lot of buzz about “self-care” these days, but it can be hard to figure out what it actually means. While the media can make self-care seem like an endless parade of bubble baths and massages, self-care is really any deliberate behaviour that helps us maintain our health and improve our overall well-being.

“Self-care is any act that a person does to ensure that their needs are met,” says Margaret Janse van Rensburg, MSW, Placement Student at Carleton University’s Sexual Assault Support Services/Equity Services.

“Survivors of sexual violence have experienced a profound loss of power, which makes it difficult to put their own wants and needs first,” says Janse van Rensburg. “Self-care acts as a way for a person to feel connected to oneself and others, increase their capacity to manage future life events, while minimizing the effect that past events concern them.”

If you have experienced sexual assault or harassment, here are some strategies for making a self-care plan that works for you.

Tools for self-care

1. Remember that your experience is your own

Everyone responds to an experience of sexual assault or harassment differently. There’s no “right way” to feel. You may feel angry, sad, exhausted, indifferent, anxious, or a combination of feelings—and how you feel may change day by day or hour by hour. What you’ll need in terms of self-care will probably look different at different times. For example, some days you may find it useful to talk at length with a friend, while other days you may prefer to get cozy in your room with a good book.

2. Talk to a professional

Finding a source of support is an essential element of self-care. A campus counselling centre, Dean, mental health counsellor, or other professional can provide you with support and help you connect to other resources. “For self-care, I have regular check-ins with a counsellor,” says a fourth-year undergraduate student at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta.

3. Ask friends for support

Your friends are a great support resource. While it can feel hard to ask for help, remember that people like helping others, and your friends want to be there for you.

Let your trusted friends know what kind of support is most helpful to you. Try saying phrases like:

  • “I’m having trouble working up the courage to go to the campus counselling centre. Would you be willing to walk me there?”
  • “It would be helpful to take my mind off of things for a while. Could we maybe watch a movie together?”
  • “Can I tell you about what happened the other night and how it made me feel?”

3 guys talking

If you’re struggling with a specific aspect of self-care, such as getting enough sleep, for example, ask a friend to help you out. In this case, your friend could check in with you about how you’re sleeping, send you gentle reminders to head to bed, and help you make a plan for dealing with insomnia. Similarly, you and a friend could sign up to take a yoga class together and hold each other accountable for carving out time to recharge.

“I reached out to friends to talk about [whether] it was my fault because it felt like it was. They helped me see that I am not at fault and that I deserve better,” says a fourth-year undergraduate student at Ithaca College in New York.

4. Unplug from the media

“One helpful thing to do, if possible, [is] step away from the news and social media if all of the coverage is feeling like too much to handle,” says Megan Thomas, a communications specialist at the National Sexual Violence Resource Centre in Pennsylvania. When stories about sexual assault and harassment are in the media, consider taking a break from watching or reading the news. This doesn’t mean that you’re uninformed or that you don’t care—it just means that you take your self-care seriously. Remember, you get to decide what media you consume.

“Practicing self-care has been essential in recovering from my trauma, as many media outlets and news stories can be triggering and remind me of my assault and cause me to have panic attacks. Relaxation techniques are important,” says a fourth-year undergraduate student at Portland State University in Oregon.

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That said, while taking a temporary break can be helpful, it’s important not to ignore the topic altogether. Consider within what contexts and with what people you’re comfortable discussing it.

5. Invest time in things you love

During a difficult time, you might feel like you don’t want to do the activities you once enjoyed. However, staying connected to people and activities that you care about can help. Whether you’re playing soccer, attending a religious service, or rereading Harry Potter for the 11th time, remember the things that bring you joy and embrace them.

“My favourite self-care strategies are the ones that are enjoyable to do, that take us into the moment, and we leave feeling happy that we did them,” says Cari Ionson, MSW, RSW, Sexual Violence Response and Awareness Coordinator, Mount Royal University, Alberta. “For me, these are usually engaging in hobbies or sports.”

“However, it is also important to recognize that activities that we may not think of as enjoyable can be self care too,” says Ionson. “For example, drinking enough water, making appointments to talk with someone about one’s mental health, or doing laundry. These can seem incredibly unappealing, but in the long run are great ways to take care of ourselves.”

“My self-care post-sexual assault included meditation, getting a massage, doing face masks; activities that helped me feel comfortable in my own body. I also did axe throwing, which helped me feel powerful.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate student, Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Minnesota

“I volunteer at a sexual assault centre and provide advocacy and support to survivors while helping out with community projects that bring awareness to sexual violence. Being involved in such ways is my self-care.”
—Third-year graduate student, University of New Brunswick

“I run and bike to get the stress out and help myself grow stronger.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate student, Albertus Magnus College, New Haven, Connecticut

“The self-care I practice is regular check in’s with a counsellor and massage [through the massage program] at the university.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate student, Mount Royal University, Alberta

“I practice many self-care techniques, such as keeping a positivity journal, meditating, and volunteering. Helping others helps me feel like I have a purpose, which eases my anxiety.”
—Fifth-year online student, Ventura College, California

“Some of the best self-care routines for me are meditation, healthy eating, and exercise. “
—Second-year undergraduate student, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, British Columbia

How to support a friend

These tools are also useful if you’re supporting a friend who has experienced sexual assault or harassment. A 2014 study of 1,863 survivors of sexual assault published in the Journal of Community Psychology found that those who received more social support experienced fewer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

If a friend chooses to share an experience of harassment or assault with you, do your best to listen with an open mind. Allow your friend to lead the conversation. Avoid asking questions that sound blaming, such as, “Were you drinking?”

“I advise anyone who is offering support to a survivor of sexual violence to always believe them and to avoid ‘why,’ questions,” says Janse van Rensburg. “Listening to the survivor without judgement, keeping neutral expressions, and showing sentiment can be helpful.”

“I sent them daily texts to remind them that I was around, but also said that I would not be mad if they didn’t reply just so they knew that there was support available, but without suffocating them,” says a second-year graduate student at Queen’s University in Ontario.

Focus on your friend’s feelings

two females consoling a third friend

When you hear about a friend’s experience, it’s normal to feel a wide range of emotions, including shock, anger, fear, and sadness. You may be tempted to tell them exactly what you think they should do next and feel upset if they disagree. What’s most important at this moment is to keep the focus on your friend’s feelings, even if they are different from yours.

“My experience in supporting others has led me to believe that expressing that I do not know what it is like can be helpful,” says Janse van Rensburg. “Further, it can also be important for a survivor to know that they are not alone in feeling the way that they do. Phrases such as ‘a lot of people experience feelings like this,’ can be helpful.”

Help connect your friend to support resources

In a supportive and nonjudgmental way, offer to connect your friend to resources on campus or in the community, such as a campus counselling centre or a local survivor support organization.

Remember that, ultimately, it’s up to your friend to choose how they want to proceed after an assault or harassment. Part of what makes sexual assault so difficult and potentially traumatic is that it takes power away from people. By letting your friend decide what they want to do next, you help to give them back their autonomy. The exception is if you are concerned about your friend’s immediate safety. If you think that your friend is at risk of further sexual assault or harassment, or if your friend talks about wanting to hurt themselves or others, then reach out to a support resource such as the campus counselling centre on their behalf.

“[Give] them reassurance and support instead of shame, guilt, or advice. [Share] resources or other means of support when they feel ready to reach out and otherwise just be there for them when needed,” says a third-year graduate student at the University of New Brunswick.

Offer to join your friend for self-care

Remember that your friend is still the same person they were before they shared this experience with you.

“I believe that the best thing that a person can do to offer someone support is to keep them company, perhaps doing a small activity with them. This can help negate feelings of isolation which may accompany sexual violence,” says Janse van Rensburg.

Seek support yourself

Supporting a friend can be challenging and emotionally draining.

“Supporting someone who has been victimized by sexual assault or harassment can be incredibly stressful and challenging and it is important to take the time to engage in self-care strategies for yourself as well,” says Ionson.

Talk to a campus counsellor or Dean to make a plan for your own self-care while you support your friend.

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Article sources

Cari Ionson, MSW, RSW, Sexual Violence Response and Awareness Coordinator, Mount Royal University, Alberta.

Margaret Janse van Rensburg, MSW, Placement Student at Carleton University’s Sexual Assault Support Services/Equity Services.

Megan Thomas, communications specialist, National Sexual Violence Resource Centre, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Dworkin, E. R., Ullman, S. E., Stappenbeck, C., Brill, C. D., et al. (2018). Proximal relationships between social support and PTSD symptom severity: A daily diary study of sexual assault survivors. Depression and Anxiety35(1), 43–49.

Hébert, M., Lavoie, F., & Blais, M. (2014). Post traumatic stress disorder/PTSD in adolescent victims of sexual abuse: Resilience and social support as protection factors. Ciencia & Saude Coletiva19, 685–694.

Orchowski, L. M., Untied, A. S., & Gidycz, C. A. (2013). Social reactions to disclosure of sexual victimization and adjustment among survivors of sexual assault. Journal of Interpersonal Violence28(10), 2005–2023.

Ullman, S. E., & Peter‐Hagene, L. (2014). Social reactions to sexual assault disclosure, coping, perceived control, and PTSD symptoms in sexual assault victims. Journal of Community Psychology42(4), 495–508.