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A woman wrapped in a robe, lost in thought, illustrates introspection in the journey of healing sexual trauma.

A Journey of Redemption: Overcoming Sexual Trauma Through Mindfulness

How can victims of sexual trauma find healing and recovery? The answer lies in the transformative power of mindfulness and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Suffering from sexual trauma is, unfortunately, all too common in today’s world. More than half of women and close to one in three men have experienced sexual violence at some point in their lives. The ripple effects of sexual trauma can be lasting and difficult to overcome, but the good news is that an increasing amount of research supports the idea that healing sexual trauma is possible through mindfulness. Even those suffering from the challenges posed specifically by sexual trauma have been shown to benefit from mindfulness training. 

When I was young, I was the victim of a child pornography ring. I repressed the memories of the things I experienced during that time and struggled for years with symptoms of sexual abuse that I didn’t understand. I encountered several challenges in every relationship I pursued. For example, I carried a heavy amount of blame and disgust for myself, especially related to my sexuality. I also felt ashamed and confused every time anyone with romantic interest expressed tenderness or intimacy in any form, whether physical or emotional. As I worked with a counselor years later, I was introduced to mindfulness as a practice to help cope with trauma and was able to overcome many of the negative effects I lived with every day. The tools I was given have helped me implement a daily mindful practice and to continue to enjoy greater and greater satisfaction in my relationships. 

What is Mindfulness, and What Are the Benefits? 

Mindfulness is the practice of “bringing attention to one’s own thoughts, feelings, and actions as they occur, with curiosity, openness, and acceptance.” It is “paying attention on purpose.” Mindfulness is a state of being that encourages increased awareness and acceptance of every experience, whether positive or negative. This can be difficult because it suggests the benefit of embracing an unpleasant moment instead of attempting to control or ignore it. While challenging, the act of allowing awareness and acceptance of thoughts and feelings associated with trauma and letting them come and go without judgment presents the opportunity of making peace with the past and present. The very nature of mindfulness can help trauma survivors let go of shame, judgment, and blame for the things they have experienced and replace those feelings with curiosity and acceptance of themselves.

The ripple effects of sexual trauma can be lasting.

Being able to accept our trauma is an important step in healing sexual trauma and accepting ourselves, even as we have been shaped by trauma.  Making peace with our trauma opens the door to accepting our lives, relationships, and the people we love. People who practice mindfulness show an increase in self-esteem, relationship satisfaction, and satisfaction with their sex lives. Other benefits from a sexual standpoint are an improvement in sexual desire, sexual arousal, and general sexual functioning.

How Is Mindfulness Practiced?

“Mindfulness is always mindfulness of something.” A good place to start practicing mindfulness is being mindful of your breathing, which is something that is always present. Try paying attention to each breath in and each breath out. Pay attention to how it feels physically in your body and how it feels emotionally to take a slow breath in and a slow breath out. When you give attention to your breath, you are being present in the moment and putting your focus on the here and now. Try setting aside a specific amount of time each day to be more present with your thoughts and feelings. This is a great beginning towards being more mindful. 

Healing from sexual trauma can seem daunting, but here are three steps you can take to begin the journey. 

The First Step: Make Peace with Your Identity as a Sexual Being

Our sexual identity is an important part of sexual health. This sexual identity involves our ideas, thoughts, and feelings about ourselves as sexual beings. Unfortunately, sexual trauma survivors can tend to feel shame, fear, and even disgust toward themselves regarding their sexuality. However, childhood sexual abuse survivors who practice mindfulness are shown to have a more positive perception of themselves as pertaining to their sexuality. They are also more likely to experience greater sexual satisfaction, which is likely attributable to their higher rates of sexual self-esteem and lower sexual depression. The practice of mindfulness can help us accept and even celebrate ourselves as we are. 

Step Number Two: Remember Thoughts are Just Thoughts

Sexual trauma survivors often struggle with difficult memories that can trigger negative perceptions about themselves and the things that have happened to them. For many years I tried to pretend I didn’t have any negative thoughts or negative feelings at all. I perceived any negativity as “bad,” and therefore, it shouldn’t have any part in my life, which seemed only to cause these thoughts and feelings to resurface more persistently. As an alternative to suppressing or avoiding negative thoughts and feelings, mindfulness encourages letting them come and go “gently” and without judgment. When we can slow down or eliminate the tendency to label our thoughts about past and present experiences as “good” or “bad,” we are freer to let the moment become what it is authentically. By allowing our thoughts to flow naturally, we regulate our emotions more effectively, we are more intentional, and we are more connected to the present moment. Being focused on the present allows us to truly enjoy each experience, whether during physical intimacy or just in our everyday lives. 

Step Three: Disidentify with the Past

When trauma occurs in someone’s life, they often feel responsible or less valued. Although intellectually, they may know that is not true, they may need to visit with a therapist to re-story their self-perception. This involves challenging any negative internalized beliefs and reinforcing strengths and positive perceptions. Beginning to objectively view our trauma is an important step in learning to disidentify with negative sexual experiences. Mindfulness can help us to “reperceive” our relationship with the trauma; seeing the experience with greater clarity fosters a change in perception and a greater possibility for improvements in our future outlook. Mindfulness has also been shown to help people become “more present centered (as opposed to past or future centered) during sex, and more process absorbed … both processes contributing to improving sexual experience.” When we let go of our ties to who we may have thought we were as a result of our trauma, it allows us to become who we want to be. It is even possible to reframe and view our trauma as a separate occurrence—something that happened to us as opposed to something we choose to participate in or to be identified by. While our trauma may have been sexual in nature, it is completely different from the sexual relationship we choose with our current partner. 

In Conclusion: Progress, Not Perfection

Taking steps in healing sexual trauma can be a daunting task, so it is important to be patient with yourself. Looking for signs of progress instead of expecting perfection is another way to give yourself the space and time you need to heal. Take courage in the fact that many survivors who have chosen a mindfulness approach have made great improvements in their relationships and overall well-being. While challenging, the journey you take to heal and improve your relationship with yourself and others will be well worth the effort.

Additional Mindfulness Resources

Alloflife.org – A website dedicated to mental and emotional health from a mindfulness standpoint. “Mindweather 101” is a free course offered on the site that teaches aspects of mindfulness. 

Chelomleavitt.com – Resources include research, podcasts, and other links that teach techniques geared toward mindfulness and sexuality. 

Mindfulnesscds.com – Jon Kabat-Zinn’s scientific papers and other resources for mindfulness and healing.

Plumvillage.org The mindfulness teachings and practices of Thich Nhat Hanh, who explains “the art of mindful living.”

About the author

Libby Bybee

Libby Bybee is a research assistant in the BYU School of Family Life, pursuing a degree in Marriage and Family Therapy.
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