A self-care plan for survivors of sexual assault and harassment

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There’s a lot of buzz about “self-care” these days, but it can be hard to figure out what it actually means. While the media can make self-care seem like an endless parade of bubble baths and massages, self-care is really any deliberate behavior that helps us maintain our health and improve our overall well-being.

“Self-care is really important for everyone, even those who haven’t experienced a serious trauma. But for those who have, like sexual assault survivors, self-care can be a way to cope after trauma or heal,” says Megan Thomas, a communications specialist at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center in Pennsylvania. If you have experienced sexual assault or harassment, here are some strategies for making a self-care plan that works for you.

Tools for self-care

1. Remember that your experience is your own

Everyone responds to an experience of sexual assault or harassment differently. There’s no “right way” to feel. You may feel angry, sad, exhausted, indifferent, anxious, or a combination of feelings—and how you feel may change day by day or hour by hour. What you’ll need in terms of self-care will probably look different at different times. For example, some days you may find it useful to talk at length with a friend, while other days you may prefer to get cozy in your room with a good book.

2. Talk to a professional

Finding a source of support is an essential element of self-care. A campus counseling center, Title IX coordinator, dean, mental health counselor, or other professional can provide you with support and help you connect to other resources. “For self-care, I have regular check-ins with a counselor,” says a fourth-year undergraduate student at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada.

3. Ask friends for support

Your friends are a great support resource. While it can feel hard to ask for help, remember that people like helping others, and your friends want to be there for you.

Let your trusted friends know what kind of support is most helpful to you. Try saying phrases like:

  • “I’m having trouble working up the courage to go to the campus counseling center. Would you be willing to walk me there?”
  • “It would be helpful to take my mind off of things for a while. Could we maybe watch a movie together?”
  • “Can I tell you about what happened the other night and how it made me feel?”

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If you’re struggling with a specific aspect of self-care, such as getting enough sleep, for example, ask a friend to help you out. In this case, your friend could check in with you about how you’re sleeping, send you gentle reminders to head to bed, and help you make a plan for dealing with insomnia. Similarly, you and a friend could sign up to take a yoga class together and hold each other accountable for carving out time to recharge.

“I reached out to friends to talk about [whether] it was my fault because it felt like it was. They helped me see that I am not at fault and that I deserve better,” says a fourth-year undergraduate student at Ithaca College in New York.

4. Unplug from the media

“One helpful thing to do, if possible, [is] step away from the news and social media if all of the coverage is feeling like too much to handle,” says Thomas. When stories about sexual assault and harassment are in the media, consider taking a break from watching or reading the news. This doesn’t mean that you’re uninformed or that you don’t care—it just means that you take your self-care seriously. Remember, you get to decide what media you consume.

“Practicing self-care has been essential in recovering from my trauma, as many media outlets and news stories can be triggering and remind me of my assault and cause me to have panic attacks. Relaxation techniques are important,” says a fourth-year undergraduate student at Portland State University in Oregon.

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That said, while taking a temporary break can be helpful, it’s important not to ignore the topic altogether. Consider within what contexts and with what people you’re comfortable discussing it.

5. Invest time in things you love

During a difficult time, you might feel like you don’t want to do the activities you once enjoyed. However, staying connected to people and activities that you care about can help. Whether you’re playing soccer, attending a religious service, or rereading The Chronicles of Narnia for the 11th time, remember the things that bring you joy and embrace them.

“My self-care post-sexual assault included meditation, getting a massage, doing face masks; activities that helped me feel comfortable in my own body. I also did axe throwing, which helped me feel powerful.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate student, Minneapolis College of Art and Design, Minnesota

“I was intentional about making time to work out because that always makes me happy.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate student, Boise State University, Iowa

“I volunteer at a sexual assault center and provide advocacy and support to survivors while helping out with community projects that bring awareness to sexual violence. Being involved in such ways is my self-care.”
—Third-year graduate student, University of New Brunswick, Canada

“I run and bike to get the stress out and help myself grow stronger.”
—Fourth-year undergraduate student, Albertus Magnus College, New Haven, Connecticut

“I practice many self-care techniques, such as keeping a positivity journal, meditating, and volunteering. Helping others helps me feel like I have a purpose, which eases my anxiety.”
—Fifth-year online student, Ventura College, California

“Some of the best self-care routines for me are meditation, healthy eating, and exercise. “
—Second-year undergraduate student, Kwantlen Polytechnic University, British Columbia, Canada