Let me first start by saying Dr. Bessel van der Kolk is a brilliant, brilliant man. He’s an author who has dedicated tons of his research towards PTSD. You may have heard of his book, The Body Keeps The Score. After reading this book a while back and listening to many interviews with him, I was not surprised when I found out his approach to treating trauma is done through bodywork, such as yoga. In fact, yoga addressed many trauma wounds that talk therapy was not able to reach or heal.
Dr. Bessel van der Kolk talked about the two most common therapies that are used in a New York Times Magazine post: cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy. He stated that the purpose of this therapy is to “desensitize” the patient to the fear, which isn’t effective therapy for trauma because desensitization is not the same thing as healing. The other therapy commonly used, CBT, is where the patient will look at their thoughts and see the illusions with a rational perspective. However, again, he pointed out that this is another ineffective therapy for trauma because “Trauma has nothing to do with cognition, it has to do with your body being reset to not interpret the world as a dangerous place.” Trauma needs to be reset in the primitive parts of the brain, which talk therapy, or CBT, cannot reach.
Most therapy uses the “top-down” approach, which addresses the “evolved” part of the brain, otherwise known as the neocortex. This is where you’ll talk and learn to observe your emotions and thoughts. Now, of course, this is helpful, but trauma is stored in the body through sensory. You cannot rationalize with that part of you that goes into “fight or flight”. This is why therapies such as EDMR, brain spotting, somatic therapy, yoga, and hypnosis really help propel one’s recovery from sexual abuse.
This is also why addiction is hard to break when it is just approached by addressing emotions. We must understand that aside from emotions and genetic factors, the limbic system in the body is highly activated. You cannot rationalize with surfacing addiction urges, just like you cannot rationalize with PTSD triggers. This is why this “bottom-up” therapy approach can help with addiction, especially if trauma related. I talked in my podcast (Episode 2) this past week about how to deal with this part of the brain, which is the limbic system.
I thought that by avoiding certain people, places, sounds, or experiences would prevent me from being triggered. Yet, after trauma your entire nervous system is still on high alert, meaning your body is still acting as if you are still in the trauma. If you are someone, or know someone that experiences frequent flashbacks, nightmares, or can’t seem to be brought down to earth, then here are some suggestions that have helped me, and still to this day continue to. The “bottom-up” approach to healing trauma is essential. It really gave me a glimmer of hope when I felt like I was failing talk therapy that I had been going to for years.
You’re shocked, speechless, and trying to put together the right words to say just within a matter of seconds. No, no, no. You don’t want to believe it. You’re scared for them.
When a close friend discloses they have been raped, you want to do everything you can to help them. You want to take their pain away. And as much as I wish it were possible, you can’t alleviate the pain from them. What you can do is give them comfort and unconditional support. That makes more of a difference than you may think. Now, before I discuss ways you can help, I’m going to give you a few tips on what to avoid doing when a friend discloses to you that they have been abused. From personal experience, the reactions of family and friends made a strong impact on me.
What NOT to do:
Don’t ask questions, especially ones that are not relevant at the moment. I know, there are probably a ton of questions surfacing, but hold back right now from asking them. Examples of unnecessary questions are: Why didn’t you tell me right away? Were you guys ever romantically involved beforehand? Did you try to push him/her off? Why didn’t you report it after? Basically, if you are questioning yourself whether you should ask the question or not, I’d advise to not ask it.
Don’t minimize it. Things like, “Well at least he didn’t…..,” or “It could have been worse if he..” is not the thing to say. Even if you were also abused in the past, avoid bringing up your story at that moment. By not bringing up past cases, you are giving your friend’s story that necessary space to be talked about. It also can feel overwhelming to hear other survivor’s stories at that moment, because they may automatically and mentally place themselves in the other story, especially if they were abused recently.
Do not give the benefit of the doubt to the rapist. “Were they drunk?” “Did he know what he was doing?” “Maybe he thought you consented to it,” “He was such a good person, I can’t believe he’d do such a thing.” When a friend tells you that they were abused, the focus needs to be on them and not the rapist. It doesn’t matter about all the past times the abuser has seemed like a good guy, and it’s not even that important right now regarding who it was. What matters at this moment is that your friend was raped and they need your help.
Which leads me to…
What TO Do:
Try, (I know it’s hard) to remain calm: Sudden outbursts and cursing the abuser’s name isn’t going to help your friend. When someone has been through something like rape, they need a safe, calm, gentle place to go to.
Fewer Questions and More Statement Responses: “I’m so sorry you went through that,” “You didn’t deserve that,” Empathy is key here. Instead of direction and problem solving, most survivors need a good listener at the moment. Other good things to say are “I am here to listen,” “I love and care for you, and will be here to help you in any way you need.”
Listen, Listen, Listen: Although you may want to go find the guy and kick him in the balls, hold off from telling your friend that. It may be a difficult story to listen to, but by just listening you are giving their words air to breathe. By just speaking out loud without questions and comments, the survivor feel heard. One of the worst feelings as a survivor to feel is to feel unheard, not believed, or misunderstood. I know you have a lot of questions and a lot to say, and it may feel like you’re not doing much by listening, but this is, in fact, one of the best things you can do.
“I Believe You,”: Is one of the most consoling things for a survivor to hear. Before telling you, they’ve probably had many back and forth conversations in their head about whether or not to say anything. This especially goes for cases when the abuser was someone you knew. A lot of the time survivors hold back from speaking because the pain of not feeling heard or believed just makes the wounds even deeper. So the fact that they are disclosing this to you means that they are really going out on a limb by sharing. They trust you. So by saying, “I believe you and am here to help,” seals that trust between both of you. Sexual abuse shatters the survivor’s trust in anyone, so to be that foundation of trust is one of the best things you can do. Your friend needs a trusting figure in their life right now.
Support Their Decisions: “That was a crime and I want you to know that I will be there to support you if you want to report it.” Remind them of that option, but don’t pressure them if they don’t want to. I know you probably want that prick to be charged but go with your friend’s decision. A lot of people ask “Why don’t survivors report rape?” and I can give a list of reasons right off the bat. When a survivor reports a rape, they are the ones who will be going through a lot of hell. Not the abuser. You see, there will be hours of sitting in waiting rooms at the hospital, station, or court. It’s torture. Rape kits feel beyond invasive. There will be stacks of endless paperwork where they’ll have to write that person’s name down over and over again. They’ll be asked many detailed questions, bringing them back to that moment of the assault for days on end. Going through this process feels like a nightmare you can’t wake up from. The survivor not only has the psychological reminders and flashbacks of the abuse replaying in their mind every day, but they will then literally have to devote their days to the case after reporting it. It practically becomes the core of their life during that process. What you can do is to offer to be there with them if they want to report it and remind them that they won’t be alone during the process.
**If your friend disclosed that they had just been abused: please also remind them of the option that by keeping evidence, it will help their case later on if they choose to report it. Examples of this are: Waiting to shower, brush teeth, eat, smoke, or drink. Honestly, after rape, all you want to do is to wash it off. Definitely validate that by saying, “I know you want to shower right now, but maybe wait until after you see the doctor just in case you will need it as evidence later on.”
If the rape just happened, reporting it is the last thing they are thinking about. Actually, they are probably having a difficult time thinking clearly at all, so a good first step to offer after listening is to go to the doctor or hospital. Remind them that they can still go to the hospital and not have to report it to the police right away. The police will be informed that a crime has occurred after the rape kit is completed, but no charges will be pressed until your friend chooses to do so. The hospital’s main priority is to take care of your friend’s physical wellbeing and collect evidence if they chose to report it.
As a child, when I spoke about the abuse, it was not handled correctly by my mother. This impacted me emotionally almost just as much as the abuse itself. There were a lot of excuses for the abuser such as: “He had a hard life,” and “but remember, he had his own problems.” There was also a lot of, “Your brothers can’t know,” “If your grandfather finds out, it would literally kill him,” “Don’t you dare tell anyone because it’ll make my family look bad.” However, looking back as an adult, I know her intentions were not to cause shame or to hurt me, but more that they were strong reactions that stemmed from her own fears and wars. She did the best she could with the tools and knowledge she had at the moment. But now after you read this, thankfully you will know better. The things is that: most abusers are people you know. I know you may feel shocked, betrayed, afraid of how relationship dynamics may play out within the family, community, or friend’s circle, but please believe your friend and tell them that. Remind them that you will support their decision no matter what. That’s what they need.
Recently, I disclosed to my friends about recent incidents that happened with someone a lot of people trusted, even myself. After opening up about it to a close friend of mine, I cried afterward. Not just because I was overwhelmed and afraid regarding the situation, but more because he responded to me so compassionately. It was then that I realized THIS is what support looks like. These are the responses I wish I heard when I was younger. If you are reading this as someone who has been abused: I want you to know that there are people and good friends out there like this that you can trust. They might not be blood-related, but there are still good, trustworthy people in this world. I promise. If you are reading this as a friend of a survivor: Please be like this friend who stood by my side. The reactions of friends and family impact the survivor much more than you think. When I felt like I couldn’t trust people again, these responses from my friend reminded me that there are people you can trust. There are people in this world who care.
Here are some of the consoling things that were said that you can also say to your friend who was raped or abused physically and/or emotionally:
“If something happened, I want you to know that it’s not “dramatic” of you to be uncomfortable.”
“I don’t know what happened, and I won’t ask but if you need to talk, I’m here.”
“I am so sorry.”
“Listen, you did not deserve that.”
“We are good friends and it does make things complicated but what’s more important is the RIGHT thing.”
“I got your back like a chiropractor sis.”
THIS is what support looks like, this is how to respond.