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Archive for October, 2007

Green Plant (c) Lynda Bernhardt

Yoga and meditation were, and continue to be, very powerful healing tools for me. Now that I have healed the wounds from my childhood, these tools continue to help me grow into a continually more functional and at-peace person. I am talking about these tools together because they really are part of the same process.

In the United States, we have turned yoga into a stretching class, but that is not yoga’s intended purpose. For thousands of years, yoga’s purpose has been to prepare the mind for meditation. So, I do both together – first yoga, immediately followed by meditation.

Yoga is a very spiritual experience when done in the privacy of your own room rather than with a large crowd of people. Yoga helps you focus on being present rather than stuck in the past or fearful of the future. It also teaches you how to quiet your mind – a concept that was foreign to me when I first began these disciplines.

When I first started doing yoga, it almost “hurt” when I finished. I came to realize that the “pain” I was feeling was the release of tension. I had spent most of my life carrying a lot of tension in my shoulders. I truly did not know how it physically felt to relax. Doing yoga helped me to relax my body and, in time, my mind.

Howard Kent’s book, Yoga Made Easy: A Personal Yoga Program That Will Transform Your Daily Life, is a particularly valuable resource for learning the art of yoga as a merging of body, soul, and spirit rather than a series of stretches. It is written for the beginner with no experience in yoga, which is where I was when I started. The book includes lots of pictures and text so you can understand what you are supposed to be doing both physically and mentally.

While Howard Kent’s book also discusses meditation, the best resource I have found is on a blog called The Little Jewel. (If you struggle with religious triggers, skip down to the heading “BASIC MEDITATION TECHNIQUE.”) That blog explains meditation in a very simple way for beginners.

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Positive Coping Tools for Healing from Childhood Abuse

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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Orange Flowers (c) Lynda Bernhardt

Visualization is a powerful healing tool that I do not see used nearly often enough. My intuition drew me toward using this tool: I do not recall reading about it anywhere. Adding visualization to your healing toolbox will be very useful along your healing journey.

What do I mean by visualization? Let me explain by example.

I repressed most of my emotions from childhood, but I was most disconnected from my rage. I honestly did not believe that I had any anger at all. I used to joke that I had a very long fuse that only “blew” once a year. Most of the time, I consciously felt no anger, no matter how justified anger might have been in a situation. I was a walking doormat because of this.

My therapist assured me that I had anger to process, but I had no idea how to access it. I used a few tools and became aware of having rage inside of myself, but none of the tools I tried really helped me to work through it until I stumbled upon visualization.

While I was lying in my bed resting before falling asleep, I closed my eyes and “saw” myself as a young child about to be abused. I could see the basement clearly and my abuser about to harm the child me. Then, the adult me ran into the room and kicked the ever-living $@#% out of my abuser.

I allowed the visualization to get as graphic as it needed with no filters. Sometimes it would get very gory and disturbing, but this was just a sign of the depth of my rage. As I allowed the adult me to beat up my abusers and protect the child me, I could feel the rage pouring out of my soul. The more I did this, the less I struggled with anxiety. I began to feel more at peace.

This is just one example of the power of visualization. You can also use it to shape your future. For example, let’s say you struggle with binge eating. Visualize yourself as a person who is no longer enslaved to this disorder. See yourself wearing loose clothing, and think about how great you would feel. See yourself at rest and no longer needing to “stuff down” your emotions. Do this for just a few minutes and then stop. This plants a seed toward moving in that direction. Now that you have “seen” yourself freed from the disorder, you will begin moving toward that goal. You won’t be free overnight, but if you do this every day, just for a few minutes, you will move toward this reality.

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Positive Coping Tools for Healing from Childhood Abuse

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Pond in Clearing (c) Lynda Bernhardt

I cannot emphasize this strongly enough: If you are just beginning your healing journey, find a qualified therapist with experience in counseling people with your particular history. The healing process is grueling, and it is very, very hard to heal without a therapist helping you along.

I was in the process of waiting to adopt a second child when my flashbacks started, so I did not want to enter into therapy. I feared that the social worker might view me as “crazy” and refuse to approve our home study, which would prevent us from adopting again. So, I decided that I was going to heal on my own. Big mistake! I was having flashbacks daily and overwhelmed with pain. I found myself lying on the floor in a full-fledged panic attack, shaking uncontrollably and banging my head on the floor while considering ways to kill myself. I decided in that not-so-proud moment that anything was better than this. The next morning, I sought out a therapist. I am so glad that I did.

Therapy is nothing like you see on television. You do not lie on a couch (unless you really want to) while a stoic person holds a notebook and says, “… and what do you think of that?” a hundred times. Therapy is also not intended to be a lifelong commitment. Instead, therapy is about having someone in your corner who knows the way out. The actual healing takes place between sessions with your therapist acting as a cheerleader and guide.

A therapist also helps you reframe your experiences. For example, I told my therapist that I had been triggered and cried for over an hour – deep, wracking sobs that came from somewhere so deep inside that I found it hard to believe that I could survive that level of pain. His response was that this was good because I was feeling. I had spent most of my life numb, but now I was experiencing my emotions again. I never would have viewed this experience as “good” without his reframing it for me.

A therapist provides you the validation that it was “that bad.” Most abuse survivors minimize their experiences, saying things like, “She almost killed me, but it wasn’t that bad: Others have been through worse.” A therapist also provides reassurance that you are not crazy and shines a beacon of hope that you will heal. He also helps you to stay realistic about your healing expectations.

Some health insurance plans cover therapy. Many therapists charge on a sliding scale, so even those of you with limited means can still afford therapy. If you are in school, many colleges offer free therapy for their students. Therapy is not a luxury: It is a crucial part of the healing process.

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Positive Coping Tools for Healing from Childhood Abuse

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Friends (c) Lynda Bernhardt

Talking with friends is a great way to get through the very painful times. It is especially helpful when you have a friend or two who knows what you are going through so you can just call and say, “I’m free-falling!” without having to go into explanations. It can be very hard to reveal your history to a friend, but I strongly encourage you to take the risk with someone you trust (or at least someone who you believe deserves to be trusted).

I used to fear that if anyone knew my history, she would run from the room screaming. I believed that all that I had experienced made me a bad person. Because I was repulsed by myself, I believed that others would be repulsed as well. What I discovered was that people who learned my story respected me and became fiercely loyal to me. It was such a relief to share my burden with another person.

As I was working through the healing process, I would sometimes become very triggered and feel strong urges to harm myself. I could not just “will” these urges away. I found that calling a friend was one of the best things I could do to ground myself enough to prevent myself from self-injuring. I would focus on my friend’s voice and “ground” myself until I no longer felt like I was free-falling into my pain.

Watching a friend’s reaction to your history can be powerful in helping you heal. Each time another friend reacted by saying, “It wasn’t your fault,” it helped me believe this a little more. It also helped to see friends’ anger toward my abuser and to hear them tell me how strong they thought I was.

Leaning on a friend cannot replace what you need in therapy, which I will get into in my next post. However, talking with your friends can be a wonderful supplementation to therapy. Also, having these friends in your life can help you transition out of therapy when you are ready to stop.

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Positive Coping Tools for Healing from Childhood Abuse

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Plant (c) Lynda Bernhardt

A good support group can be invaluable as you work through your emotional issues. It helps to know several people who are traveling the same journey, especially when you know people who are in various stages of healing. That way, you can be inspired by those who are farther along and also feel good about how far you have come when you see those who are just starting out.

You do not have to go to a “live” support group to find the support you need. I found invaluable support at message boards for adult survivors of childhood abuse. There are many sites available, including some that are tailored for specific types of abuse.

My favorite site is Isurvive, which has forums for all forms of abuse, including sexual, physical, emotional, and ritual abuse. I found the site in December 2003, when I was new to flashbacks and still in a place of questioning whether I could trust the images in my head. I found so much loving support from the people there. It was nice to post when it was convenient for me and then receive responses from people all over the world who understood me. For the first time in my life, I felt like I truly fit in somewhere.

Many message boards offering support also have chat rooms, so you can find instant support if you are free falling. I rarely go into chat rooms, but there have been times when a flashback was particularly painful, causing me to struggle with the urge to harm myself. Because late at night is a difficult time for many survivors, chat rooms are often monitored at night for situations just like this. On more than one occasion, I found instant support at midnight. There is no replacing that kind of support when you are in a very bad place.

Another nice thing about on-line support groups is that you can maintain your anonymity. I was not open to walking into a room filled with people who would know my name and see my face. I could not have looked another person in the eye and shared my story in the early months. However, I could choose an anonymous name on a message board and share all without worrying about being rejected or gossiped about.

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Purple Flowers (c) Lynda Bernhardt

Simplifying your life goes hand in hand with my last post about setting boundaries. Many adult survivors of childhood abuse have given others the impression that they are either Superman or Superwoman and can handle anything. Now that you are in crisis as you deal with your past, you cannot do all that you used to do. You need to simplify your life.

When I was dealing with flashbacks and facing my past, I resisted simplifying my life. I believed that I had to complete any commitment I had made, and because I could not say no, I had a lot on my plate. After having an anxiety attack, I realized that I had to slow down, but I did not know how to do it. Each time I thought about dropping a commitment, I thought of all the reasons that I could not do it. So, I came at it from a different direction – I could keep three activities, and the rest had to go. I wound up quitting over a dozen activities, some as small as moderating a message board and some as large as a volunteer committee position with my church. Healing became much easier when I was no longer spread so thin.

Healing from childhood abuse is a fulltime job, so you need to keep the rest of your life as simple as possible. There are some responsibilities that you cannot drop, but take a vacation from the optional ones. You will need all of your energy to focus on healing, so try not to spread that energy out in too many directions.

Accept help from others. Let them baby-sit your children or cook you a meal. Take a year off from volunteer obligations. If you can afford it, cut down to part-time at your job. Stop hosting gatherings and organizing family get-togethers. Simplify your life for a while so you can focus on healing.

Related Topic:

Positive Coping Tools for Healing from Childhood Abuse

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Winding Plant (c) Lynda Bernhardt

Setting boundaries is a very important and powerful positive coping tool. When I entered into therapy, my therapist told me that practicing setting boundaries was my homework every single week. Until you learn how to set boundaries, you will not feel safe, nor will you feel like you have a voice. I cannot emphasize strongly enough how important it is to begin setting boundaries in your life.

What do I mean by setting boundaries? You need to decide what you are willing to give to others and what you are not and then stick to the boundaries that you set. A more succinct way of saying this is to practice saying no.

I used to be a doormat. I could not say no to people, and so some people would take advantage of this. I felt guilty if I said no, even when the request was unreasonable. It took me lots of practice to feel comfortable saying no. Now I have gotten pretty good at it. :0)

I used to believe that I did not have the right to say no, particularly to family members. I spent a lot of time feeling bitter about the things that I “had to do” for others that I did not want to do. I failed to see that I was the person choosing to do these things. Just because another person asks does not mean that I have to do it. This concept was eye opening to me.

What finally helped me set and enforce boundaries was looking at the practice in a different way. Each time that I allow another person to step over my boundaries, I am choosing to hurt myself rather than hurt another person’s feelings. Considering that the other person was often unreasonable in his request, it really was ridiculous for me to be hurt rather that hurt the feelings of someone who was taking advantage of me.

By setting boundaries, I weeded out the people who were using me from those who truly cared. Those who truly cared about me were proud of me for setting boundaries while the users got angry.

As I became better about setting boundaries, I redefined the relationships in my life. The good ones got stronger while the dysfunctional ones grew weaker. I was able to feel safe because I knew how to stand up for myself.

Related Topic:

Positive Coping Tools for Healing from Childhood Abuse

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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