What I Learned about Grounding and Sexual Abuse Survivors

Photocredit: Raissa Bandou via Flickr

I thought I’d write a bit about some of the healing things I’ve learned in 22 years of clawing back the effects of being raped as a child from my life. One of the first and probably most important things I started working on was reclaiming a sense of being in my body.

<possible religious triggers>

I was raised loosely Christian, but when I was exploring my spirituality as an adult, I found that I needed something a lot more overtly empowering of women, with a very very low (or preferably nonexistent) patriarchal component. (Patriarchy means ‘father rule’, and I’d had quite enough of that.)

I came first to my own beliefs, that my higher power was nature, and then discovered existing religious structures that fit. I became Wiccan, in a social justice tradition called Reclaiming, who are kind of the Quakers of NeoPaganism. The nice thing about Wiccans is that people have a lot of choice on what to believe and how to practice, which suited my need to reclaim control of my life from my parents.

Pagans and Wiccans begin most of our meditations and ceremonies with something called grounding, which is a meditative act of connecting with our own body and then, energetically with the earth and sensations around us. This is apparently easy for some people, I’m thinking for folks whose bodies have not been traumatically violated.

It was only when I tried to do it, to ground, that I discovered that I had virtually no awareness of my body. If I held my arm behind my back, I could only tell where it was by looking for it with my eyes, or by reaching out for it with my other arm. I must have been phenomenally clumsy. When I started to pay attention to my body, at first I could only experience it with a great amount of attention. I started by touching my own skin, and comparing the sensation of feeling the outside of the skin with my ‘active’ hand with attending to the sensation of being touched by my own hand from inside.

At first the sensation on the ‘outside’ was a lot stronger than the sensation on the inside. I could feel what temperature my skin was by touching it with my hand, but if I took  my hand away and tried to attend to what temperature my skin was without touching it, I couldn’t tell. I’d guess, and then check by touching with my hand.

Gradually, with practice, I became aware of sensation from the hairs on  my skin, how they would raise themselves when I was cold and if I concentrated I could feel the air disturb these hairs, giving me some clues about how my body was moving.

Grounding myself to a degree that I could be adequately prepared for ceremony in my view took several months of practice, and a lot of concentration each time. Over time it has become fairly easy. I pay attention to the temperature of my extremities and other safe parts of my body on a regular basis, pay attention to subtle sensations like currents of air over my skin, my pulse, the buzz of blood moving around within me, whether my eyes or mouth are moist.

It is still easy to fall into my default setting, which is to turn most of these sensations off. However, I find staying connected to my body is worth it. I think better, I’m more aware of my surroundings and I can take better care of my needs in the moment, like knowing when I have to pee, relax my muscles or eat. People respond better to me when I am grounded, like they feel I am more there.

At other times it all seems to much, to be typing here and notice that the palms of my hands are a lot warmer than the backs, that the fingers themselves have a mild ache, that I’ll need to change position because my neck is getting stiff. It seems like it breaks my focus on what I’m trying to do or write.

But this was supposed to be about what I’ve learned. Here are my tips for getting into your body if you are as dissociated from it as I was:

When trying to ground, pay attention first to physical sensations in relatively safe areas of your body. If you have been out of your body for a while, don’t try to do it all at once, or you may be in for a weekend of flashbacks. Be gentle. Find a safe place (in my case,  my feet) where you can be minutely aware of sensations without it triggering anything. Put your awareness there, and feel everything you can, the temperature of the skin, and then if you can, inside the skin. Feel any differences in levels of comfort or discomfort in your safe body part. In my case, right now, between my big toe and my second toe, there feels like more movement space than between the other does. Move the body part slightly and observe how that changes the sensations. Take a few deep breaths from time to time to prevent yourself from completely leaving the rest of your body while you focus on this one part.

In time work up to being closely aware of two body parts at the same time, say your hands and your feet. Gradually work into being aware of the whole body at once.

You might find once you do this that there are certain parts of your body that you have no sensation from. These are possibly areas where some trauma is held. Be very gentle in getting in touch with these places. You might want to make your first few attempts with a supportive friend present or in session with your therapist, so you have someone to help remind you that you are safe in the present, and to help you release any feelings that come up.

It helped me to have something comforting to do for that body part. I was a low-income student at the time, but I could afford to buy socks from time to time. I bought colourful, soft socks for my feet, which helped me be aware of this part of my body with affection. Over time, as I have reclaimed most of my body, things like warm baths, lotions and massages have become body care, as have healthy food. 

Lately I’ve been eating a healthy dinner from a recipe my cousin, who is a very good cook, gave me. It consists of freshly cooked brown rice, still warm, with grated carrots and beets on top, slivered almonds, and chopped baby spinach. Then there is a dressing (I’ll find and add the recipe for it to the comments) that goes over top. The dressing is, frankly, what makes it taste good. He calls it “hippy  crack”. What I like about eating it is that my body seems to like it. After I eat it I notice my body feels ‘happy’ for lack of a better word, with all the nutrients. You might want to try this, eating something healthy, like a freshly squeezed juice, and see how your body feels in response. This was something I’ve only been able to notice in the last ten years or so, so don’t worry if you don’t feel anything at all.

Lastly, if you are very dissociated from your body, it is for good reason. Your mind and body will let you know the full back-story when it is safe to, in time, but you don’t need it to start to reclaim your connection to your body. Don’t judge yourself for being numb, spacey or ungrounded. Let other people’s judgement slide off you if you can. They have no clue. With people who know my history, sometimes I’ll say – “This behaviour is a caused by some very extreme experiences and I’m doing the best I can to overcome it. You haven’t been in my shoes. Cut me some slack.”

I’d love to hear what you think about this post, or if you have any strategies or experiences around connecting with your body to share in the comments.

0 thoughts on “What I Learned about Grounding and Sexual Abuse Survivors”

  1. Hi – I haven’t been very nice to my body lately, since my self-hate has grown a lot. When I’ll be able to overcome the bad feelings, I’ll try your techniques. I wish you the best for 2011.

  2. Hi.

    My name is Meredith, and I found your blog! Reading this post was exciting and affirming because I’ve also been practicing mindfulness to reknit my mind and body through yoga. Your post was affirming and great inspiration to find a touchstone before heading for the mat today.

    Thanks!

    P.S. I love your socks! Great mindfulness tool for the tired mind.

    ~meredith~

    1. Hi Meredith,
      Thanks for the comment. I checked out your blog and it looks like you and I have some body stuff in common for sure. I look forward to reading what you write about it. I’m not doing yoga right now, I find exercising in classes in public places with people who don’t know I’m a survivor and might get emotional too stressful to start with. I can do dancing though, so I dance, and walk and have a treadmill at home to walk on. I also do my grounding meditations and work on reminding myself to pay attention to my body daily.

      Nice to meet you.

      SDW

  3. I feel kind of strange just posting to ask this, but do you happen to remember the recipe for the dressing? Because that sounds really good.

    (To add: thank you for this blog. I’m not a survivor of CSA, but I am of other things I don’t particularly feel comfortable sharing [cowardly, I know, but I don’t know you? Sorry. :/]. I don’t think it compares at all, really, but I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve recognized here, and at butterfly’s blog as I’ve run across both this evening; I feel awkward saying I empathize, because I don’t want to appropriate an experience that’s not my own, but — it’s a relief to see that other people, eloquent and expressive and self-aware and older than me [that last might seem silly but I’m 21 and it’s a relief to see life keep going], are still approaching life as it comes. Thank you.)

    1. Nice to meet you, Greenlily. I think all survivors of trauma of whatever kind have more in common than not – PTSD is PTSD. I’m glad you like the blog. And yes, things do get better.

      Here’s the recipe for “hippy crack” dressing. Note: it’s good stuff, but I don’t use a lot of dressing so I’ve never been able to finish a whole batch before it goes bad, so you might want to half the recipe.:

      1/2 cup nutritional yeast flakes
      1/3 cup water
      1/3 cup braggs soy (or tamari soy sauce would do as a substitute if you don’t have brags)
      1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
      2 cloves of garlic, crushed
      1/2 cup of veggie oil
      2 TBSP tahini paste (tahini is ground sesame seeds)

      Serving suggestion:
      Cook brown rice and put in bottom of bowl, add shredded carrots, beets and spinach (raw) and toasted almond slices, then the dressing. Yummy.

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