5 Powerful Self-Care Practices That Can Save Your Life After Emotional Abuse

Alexandru Zdrobău

When survivors of emotional abuse leave the toxic relationship, the journey to healing is just beginning. Victims of psychological violence are likely to still be reeling from the symptoms of trauma, including but not limited to: reoccurring flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety, dissociation, depression and pervasive feelings of low self-worth. They may even have urges to check up on or reconnect with their abuser due to the intense trauma bonds that developed during the abuse cycle.

Along with support from a trauma-informed counselor, ongoing practices of self-care to supplement therapy are powerful ways to begin tending to the mind, body and spirit after abuse.

While not every healing modality will work for every survivor, experimenting with these practices and finding the ones that suit your journey can be extremely beneficial. The following practices can potentially save your life on the journey to recovery:

1. Meditation.

When we’ve been traumatized, the areas of our brain related to executive functioning, learning, memory, planning, emotion regulation and focus become disrupted (Shin et. al 2006). Meditation has been scientifically proven to benefit some of the same areas of the brain that trauma affects – such as the prefrontal cortex, the amygdala and the hippocampus (Lazar, 2005; Creswell, 2015; Schulte, 2015).

Meditation places survivors back in the driver’s seat of their own psyche. It enables the survivor to reclaim their reality, heal their brain and act from a place of empowerment rather than their trauma.

A daily meditation practice helps to strengthen neural pathways in positive ways, increases grey matter density in areas of the brain related to emotion regulation and mitigates our automatic reactions to the fight or flight response which tends to go haywire after trauma (Lazar et. al, 2005; Hölzel et. al, 2011). Meditation also enables you to become more mindful of your emotions in general and aware of your cravings to break No Contact with your abuser. This allows you the space to consider alternatives before acting impulsively on your urges to go back to your toxic relationship.

2. Yoga.

If the effects of trauma live in the body, it makes sense that an activity that combines both mindfulness and physical activity can help to restore balance and bring empowerment. Yoga has been proven by research to help ease depression and anxiety; it has also been shown to improve body image, expand emotion regulation skills, increase resilience, bolster self-esteem for high-risk populations and improve symptoms of PTSD in domestic violence victims (Clark et. al, 2014; Van der Kolk, 2015; Epstein, 2017).

Yoga allows survivors of abuse to counter the powerlessness of the trauma that is stored in the body by reengaging in powerful movement.

According to researcher Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk, yoga provides self-mastery that helps traumatized populations regain ownership over their own bodies. It allows trauma survivors to rebuild a sense of safety in their bodies that trauma often robs them of. It can help to curb disassociation by reconnecting us with our bodily sensations.

 “I’d say the majority of the people we treat at the trauma center and in my practice {have} cut off relationships to their bodies. They may not feel what’s happening in their bodies. They may not register what goes on with them. And so what became very clear is that we needed to help people for them to feel safe feeling the sensations in their bodies… yoga turned out to be a very wonderful method for traumatized people…something that engages your body in a very mindful and purposeful way — with a lot of attention to breathing in particular — resets some critical brain areas that get very disturbed by trauma.” Bessel Van der Kolk, Restoring the Body: Yoga, EMDR and Treating Trauma

3. Reality check anchoring.

Survivors of emotional abuse are likely to have been gaslighted to believe that the abuse  they endured wasn’t real. It’s important that they begin to “anchor” themselves back into the reality of the abuse rather than re-idealizing the relationship they just left. This is extremely helpful for when survivors begin to question the reality of the abuse, or when they struggle with mixed emotions towards their abusers, who periodically showed affection towards them to keep them in the abuse cycle. Many victims of abuse still have positive associations with their abusers due to techniques like love bombing and intermittent reinforcement; others associate them with survival, especially if the abuse threatened their sense of emotional or physical safety.

Anchoring creates a habit of reconnecting with the reality the abuser sought to erode. It validates the survivor and reduces cognitive dissonance about who the abuser truly is.

Survivors are particularly vulnerable after they leave their abusers; their abusers often try to manipulate them into coming back and revert back to their sweet, false persona in doing so. That’s why it’s necessary to not only block texts and phone calls from your abuser but remove any connection with them and enablers on social media. This removes temptation and information about them altogether from your healing journey. It gives you a clean slate to reconnect to what truly happened and how you felt – rather than the ways in which the abuser will try to distort the situation post-breakup.

To begin anchoring yourself, keep a list of at least ten of the most major abusive incidents that occurred in your relationship with the narcissistic abuser or at the very least, ten ways in which you felt degraded. This will come in handy when you’re tempted to reach out to them, to look them up on social media or respond to their attempts to ensnare you back into the abuse cycle.

It is best to work with a trauma-informed counselor to create this list so you can address any triggers that may arise when anchoring yourself back to the reality of the abuse. If you have abusive incidents you find massively triggering, it may be best to choose incidents that are not as triggering until you find healthy ways of managing your emotions.

Even making general statements such as, “My abuser disrespected me on a daily basis” or “I was made to feel small every time I succeeded” can be helpful to remember when you’re tempted to rationalize, minimize or deny the impact of the abuse. While it can be jarring to redirect your focus to the abusive aspects of the relationship, it helps to reduce cognitive dissonance about your abuser. Reducing this cognitive dissonance is fundamental to your commitment to recovery.

4. Self-soothing and inner child work.

Although you were traumatized by your abuser, there may have been other traumas that were brought to the surface due to the abusive relationship. You could have a wounded inner child that also needs to be soothed by your adult self when you’re feeling particularly emotional. Your unmet needs in childhood were likely compounded by this experience, so self-compassion is needed during this time.

Survivors struggle with toxic shame and self-blame when they’ve been abused. Even though they know logically that the abuse was not their fault, the abuse itself has the power to bring up old wounds that were never healed. It can speak to a larger pattern of never feeling quite good enough. Changing the course of your negative self-talk is vital when you’re healing, because it tackles old narratives that were likely cemented due to the new trauma.

Being gentle with yourself is essential after abuse. Sometimes, the most powerful form of compassion is self-compassion.

When these ancient, deep-seated emotions come up, soothe yourself as if you were speaking to someone you genuinely love and want the best for. Write down some positive affirmations you can say whenever you are grieving, such as, “I am worthy of true love and respect,” or “I have a right to all of my feelings. I deserve peace.” This will train you over time to exhibit sensitivity and understanding towards yourself that will curb self-judgment and self-blame that abuse survivors are prone to. This self-compassion will extend to maintaining No Contact as well.

Remember, when you are judging or blaming yourself, you’re more likely to engage in self-sabotage because you don’t feel worthy of peace, stability and joy. When you accept and show compassion towards yourself, you remind yourself that you are worthy of your own care and kindness.

5. Exercise.

A daily exercise regimen can save your life after abuse. Whether it be running on the treadmill, going to dance cardio classes or going for long walks in nature (which has also been proven to have its own health benefits), commit to a practice that you really enjoy. If you’re lacking motivation, start small. For example, commit to thirty minutes of walking each day rather than an hour. Exercise releases endorphins and lowers cortisol levels, potentially replacing the biochemical addiction we develop with our abusers with a healthier outlet (Harvard Health, 2013).

Exercise allows you to embody your increasing resilience and strength after leaving your abuser. It battles the biochemical addiction your body developed to the chaos of the abuse.

This addiction is formed through chemicals like dopamine, cortisol, adrenaline and serotonin which exacerbate the bond with our abusers through the highs and lows of the abuse cycle (Carnell, 2012). Exercise can also begin to counter the physical side effects of the abuse such as weight gain, premature aging, sleep problems and illness caused by an immune system overwhelmed by trauma.

There is a victorious and empowering life ahead of you after emotional abuse. You can survive and thrive – but you must be committed to your self-care in the process. TC mark

References

Carnell, S. (2012, May 14). Bad Boys, Bad Brains. Psychology Today. Retrieved September 6, 2017.
Clark, C. J., Lewis-Dmello, A., Anders, D., Parsons, A., Nguyen-Feng, V., Henn, L., & Emerson, D. (2014). Trauma-sensitive yoga as an adjunct mental health treatment in group therapy for survivors of domestic violence: A feasibility study. Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 20(3), 152-158. doi:10.1016/j.ctcp.2014.04.003
Creswell, J. D., Taren, A. A., Lindsay, E. K., Greco, C. M., Gianaros, P. J., Fairgrieve, A., . . . Ferris, J. L. (2016). Alterations in Resting-State Functional Connectivity Link Mindfulness Meditation With Reduced Interleukin-6: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Biological Psychiatry, 80(1), 53-61. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2016.01.008
Epstein, R., & González, T. (2017, April). Somatic Interventions for Girls in Juvenile Justice (Rep.). Georgetown Law. Retrieved September 6, 2017.
Harvard Health Publications. (2013, August). Exercise is an all-natural treatment to fight depression. Retrieved September 6, 2017.
Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. (2011). Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 191(1), 36-43. doi:10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006
Lazar, S. W., Kerr, C. E., Wasserman, R. H., Gray, J. R., Greve, D. N., Treadway, M. T., . . . Fischl, B. (2005). Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. NeuroReport, 16(17), 1893-1897. doi:10.1097/01.wnr.0000186598.66243.19
Schulte, B. (2015, May 26). Harvard neuroscientist: Meditation not only reduces stress, here’s how it changes your brain. The Washington Post. Retrieved September 5, 2017.
Shin, L. M., Rauch, S. L., & Pittman, R. K. (2006). Amygdala, Medial Prefrontal Cortex, and Hippocampal Function in PTSD. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1071(1), 67-79. doi:10.1196/annals.1364.007
Tippett, K., & Van der Kolk, B. (2014, October 30). Bessel van der Kolk – Restoring the Body: Yoga, EMDR, and Treating Trauma. Retrieved September 6, 2017.
Van der Kolk, B. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
This article has been adapted and originally appeared on Psych Central as These 5 Self-Care Practices Can Save Your Life After Emotional Abuse. 

Shahida Arabi

Shahida is the author of Power: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse and the poetry book She Who Destroys the Light. She is a staff writer at Thought Catalog.

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