Self-Care and Trauma Survivors

What is self-care and what role does it have in healing after trauma? Therapists often talk about this, but what if you are not sure what it means? Or what if caring for yourself seems like a strange concept?

I see the beginning of trauma therapy as focusing quite a bit on developing good self-care skills. This is the groundwork that paves the way for later trauma processing. Engaging in self-care activities may stem from already feeling love for yourself. More often for survivors, engaging in these activities may be part of your journey to learning to love yourself.

As I was thinking about this topic I found a great resource from RAINN, The nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. I am going to share it with you here, and talk more about self-care activities in the days ahead.

Self-Care for Survivors

Good self-care is a challenge for many people and it can be especially challenging for survivors of rape, sexual assault, incest and sexual abuse. It can also be an important part of the healing process.

Physical self-care is an area that people often overlook.

  • Food
    • Food is a type of self-care that people often overlook. People are often so busy that they don’t have time to eat regularly or that they substitute fast food for regular meals.
    • It’s not always reasonable to expect people to get 3 square meals a day (plus snacks!) but everyone should make sure they get adequate nutrition.
  • Exercise
    • Exercise is one of the most overlooked types of self-care. The CDC recommends at least 30 minutes of exercise 5 times a week.
    • Exercise, even if it’s just a quick walk at lunchtime, can help combat feelings of sadness or depression and prevent chronic health problems.
  • Sleep
    • Although everyone has different needs, a reasonable guideline is that most people need between 7-10 hours of sleep per night.
    • See this Medline Plus article for more information about getting a good night’s sleep.
  • Medical care
    • Getting medical attention when you need it is an important form of physical self-care.
    • Some survivors put off getting medical care until problems that might have been relatively easy to take care of have become more complicated.

Emotional self-care will mean different things for different people. It might mean…

  • Counseling
    • This could mean seeing a psychologist, a clinical social worker, or therapist.
    • Local rape crisis centers often provide counseling or can connect you with a provider. Call (800) 656-HOPE or go to to find a center near you.
  • Keeping a journal.
    • Some survivors find that recording their thoughts and feelings in a journal or diary helps them manage their emotions after an assault.
  • Meditation or relaxation exercises
    • Relaxation techniques or meditation help many survivors with their emotional self-care. For example:
      • Sit or stand comfortably, with your feet flat on the floor and your back straight. Place one hand over your belly button. Breathe in slowly and deeply through your nose and let your stomach expand as you inhale. Hold your breath for a few seconds, then exhale slowly through your mouth, sighing as you breathe out. Concentrate on relaxing your stomach muscles as you breathe in. When you are doing this exercise correctly, you will feel your stomach rise and fall about an inch as you breathe in and out. Try to keep the rest of your body relaxed—your shoulders should not rise and fall as you breathe! Slowly count to 4 as you inhale and to 4 again as you exhale. At the end of the exhalation, take another deep breath. After 3-4 cycles of breathing you should begin to feel the calming effects.
  • Emotional self-care can also involve the people around you. It’s important to make sure that the people in your life are supportive.
    • Nurture relationships with people that make you feel good about yourself!
      • Make spending time with friends and family a priority
    • If you have trouble finding people who can support your experience as a survivor, consider joining a support group for survivors.
  • Be wary of…
    • Friends or family who only call when they need something
    • People who always leave you feeling tired or depressed when you see them
    • Friends who never have the time to listen to you
    • Anyone who dismisses or belittles your experience as a survivor
  • You can deal with these people by setting limits.
    • You don’t have to cut them out of your life (especially with family, that may not even be an option!) but choose the time you will spend with them carefully.
    • Make sure that your time with these people has a clear end.
    • Cut back on the time you spend with people who don’t make you feel good, or spend time with them in a group rather than one-on-one.
    • Screen your calls!! There’s no rule that says you have to answer your phone every time it rings. If you don’t feel like talking on the phone, call people back at a time that’s more convenient for you.
  • You can deal with these people by letting some go.
    • If there are people in your life who consistently make you feel bad about yourself, consider letting those friendships or relationships go.
      • This can be a difficult decision. Remember that you deserve to have people around you who genuinely care about you and who support you.

Another challenge can be in finding time for fun leisure activities. Many survivors have full time jobs, go to school, volunteer and have families. Finding time to do activities that you enjoy is an important aspect of self-care.

  • Get involved in a sport or hobby that you love!! Find other people who are doing the same thing!
    • Knowing that people are counting on you to show up can help motivate you.
  • If you have a spouse or partner, make a date night and stick with it.
    • Turn off your cell phones (within reason. If the babysitter needs to be able to find you, consider leaving him/her the number of the restaurant so that you can turn off your ringer!)
  • Treat leisure appointments as seriously as business appointments. If you have plans to do something for fun, mark it on your calendar!

Make your self-care a priority, not something that happens (or doesn’t happen!) by accident.

Parts of this section were adapted from materials provided by Domar, A., Self-Nurture: Learning to Care for Yourself as Effectively As You Care for Everyone Else.


Kathleen Young, Psy.D.

This entry was posted in Abuse, Health, Mental Health, Rape, Relaxation, Self-care, Sexual Abuse, Therapy, Trauma and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to Self-Care and Trauma Survivors

  1. Shimon Cohen says:

    Thank you so much for this I thought I was on top of my stress, but this article gives me new insight

  2. Often survivors are quick to put thier needs and healing journet on the back burner. Thanks for the supportive article.

  3. My typos are terrible in previous comment.

  4. castorgirl says:

    I often wonder if the most difficult part of self-care, is accepting (or understanding) that you are worthy of it?

  5. Anon says:

    Since you are a therapist, I want to tell you something since I know for sure that I am not the only abuse survivor who has ever experienced this. In the past when I heard about ‘self-care’, I interpreted that as, “No one else wants you or really cares what happens to you. Not even me, your therapist who claims to want your trust. Go away and take care of YOURSELF alone. Because you’re disgusting and no one else wants you or cares about you. You’re on your own. Don’t come crying to me when you have a flashback. I don’t care if you are trapped in the closet hugging a pile of smelly shoes for comfort. If that’s all you have, then that’s all you deserve. Get away from me and stop your sniveling, you wretched freak. A mindful bubble bath is plenty good to erase your trauma. Now go away and take care of yourself alone. I can’t stand your bleeding. GO DIE OUTSIDE. I can’t have your filthy blood on my carpet.”

    • This is such valuable input, Anon. I think I shall address some of these issues you raise in a whole separate post!

      I hope you, or anyone, interpreting a therapist in this way is able to discuss that in the therapy! So much powerful work can be done around this very issue if one is able to share their reaction.

  6. Anon says:

    And, in reference to my above comment, I think A LOT of us are carrying the kind of baggage that would lead us to interpret self-care talks in that way. It would have helped me a lot and spared me the additional trauma (which I am still working through) to have been told that I am valuable and should be nice to myself and that it is okay to want comfort. And that it’s okay to ask safe others for comfort and that I am also powerful and can give some to myself, too. So much depends on language, the therapy relationship and how such a concept is handled with someone who has known nothing but trauma and rejection.

  7. Anon says:

    One more thing – it probably would not have been enough to simply be ‘told’ from some therapy script that I am valuable. I needed my therapist to treat me as if that were true instead of throwing it all on me when I was in the middle of ground zero. DBT and ‘mainstream mindfulness’ ruined my life, retraumatized me and prevented me from healing. I’ve found a new therapist and I am still trying, but all that stuff really devastated me. And I’m not the only one.

    • It is horrible that you had a therapy experience that was retraumatizing! It takes a lot to persevere and try again after that; good for you!

      I think it is understandably difficult for many trauma survivors to believe that they are really valuable/valued by their therapist (or anyone). I think it takes consistency of messages and actions over time for that to begin to sink in!

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  9. Thanks for addressing this topic!

    I’ve been on both sides of this, as a client feeling that the therapist doesn’t care, and as a healer trying to help people learn self-care. I think timing is a big part of it – I remember one bodyworker who started talking about self-care when I was dissolved in tears, and even at the time I could tell she was too uncomfortable to sit with my strong emotions.

    I think another piece is to teach self-care, right there in the office, rather than simply making it an assignment. And a third piece is to acknowledge all the ways the client is already taking care of themselves, starting with showing up for therapy. In the most helpful therapy session I ever had, the therapist focused on what I was already doing right. I’d never experienced that before. Sadly she wasn’t available for further sessions!

    • Hi Sonia-

      So much is indeed about timing. Yes, to the issues of helping professionals sometimes moving to “self-care” from a place of discomfort with strong emotions. Sometimes perhaps we move too quickly to trying to “fix” the pain, forgetting that being with someone in their pain is profoundly healing in itself.

      I love what you say about focusing on strengths and what already is working. And yes indeed, everyone who shows up for therapy needs to give themselves big credit for that form of self-care!!

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  14. OneSurvivor says:

    Thank you for writing about this. Self care can be very difficult. Sometimes it is because of how we view ourselves, but sometimes it is because our situation makes it difficult. I have been trying to deal with that for five years now. I am praying my situation will change soon because some of the most important things I should do for self care I can’t…not here and now. 😦

    Thanks for the reminder, though, of how important it is. And thanks for all the suggestions for good self care.

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