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.
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?”
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.
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 Harry Potter 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
These tools are also useful if you’re supporting a friend who has experienced sexual assault or harassment. A 2014 study of 1,863 survivors of sexual assault published in the Journal of Community Psychology found that those who received more social support experienced fewer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
If a friend chooses to share an experience of harassment or assault with you, do your best to listen with an open mind. Allow your friend to lead the conversation. Avoid asking questions that sound blaming, such as, “Were you drinking?”
A lot of supporting a friend “comes down to just being there for them,” says Thomas. “Listening to them if they want to talk, asking what the survivors needs or wants, and then helping to deliver that.”
“I tried giving them reassurance and support instead of shame, guilt, or advice,” says a third-year graduate student at the University of New Brunswick in Canada.
Focus on your friend’s feelings
When you hear about a friend’s experience, it’s normal to feel a wide range of emotions, including shock, anger, fear, and sadness. You may be tempted to tell them exactly what you think they should do next and feel upset if they disagree. What’s most important at this moment is to keep the focus on your friend’s feelings, even if they are different from yours.
“What you, as the friend, may think is the best option may not be what the survivor wants or needs, and the survivor has already had their power taken away from them during the assault. Listening to their needs and focusing on their emotions is one way to help return some of that power back,” says Thomas.
Help connect your friend to support resources
In a supportive and nonjudgmental way, offer to connect your friend to resources on campus or in the community, such as a campus counseling center, a Title IX coordinator, or a local survivor support organization. You can also provide them with the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673.
Remember that, ultimately, it’s up to your friend to choose how they want to proceed after an assault or harassment. Part of what makes sexual assault so difficult and potentially traumatic is that it takes power away from people. By letting your friend decide what they want to do next, you help to give them back their autonomy. The exception is if you are concerned about your friend’s immediate safety. If you think that your friend is at risk of further sexual assault or harassment, or if your friend talks about wanting to hurt themselves or others, then reach out to a support resource such as the campus counseling center on their behalf.
“I encouraged them to seek whatever help they need and take whatever steps (such as reporting the assault) they felt most comfortable with,” says a third-year undergraduate student at Northwestern State University in Louisiana.
Offer to join your friend for self-care
Remember that your friend is still the same person they were before they shared this experience with you. When they’re ready, help them find ways to get back to doing the things you know they enjoy. This can also be a way to help your friend maintain a self-care plan while also maintaining your friendship. Offer to share a meal, exercise together, go to a meditation class, or join them for any of their usual favorite activities.
Seek support yourself
Supporting a friend can be challenging and emotionally draining. Talk to a campus counselor, Title IX coordinator, or dean to make a plan for your own self-care while you support your friend.
“Many survivor advocacy groups offer secondary survivor therapies or support groups for loved ones of survivors. These can be fantastic resources and can aid in the healing process for survivors and those closest to them,” says Jolene Cardenas, director of communications and development at the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault in Denver.
Jolene Cardenas, director of communications and development at Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Denver, Colorado.
Megan Thomas, communications specialist, National Sexual Violence Resource Center, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Dworkin, E. R., Ullman, S. E., Stappenbeck, C., Brill, C. D., et al. (2018). Proximal relationships between social support and PTSD symptom severity: A daily diary study of sexual assault survivors. Depression and Anxiety, 35(1), 43–49.
Hébert, M., Lavoie, F., & Blais, M. (2014). Post traumatic stress disorder/PTSD in adolescent victims of sexual abuse: Resilience and social support as protection factors. Ciencia & Saude Coletiva, 19, 685–694.
Orchowski, L. M., Untied, A. S., & Gidycz, C. A. (2013). Social reactions to disclosure of sexual victimization and adjustment among survivors of sexual assault. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 28(10), 2005–2023.
Ullman, S. E., & Peter‐Hagene, L. (2014). Social reactions to sexual assault disclosure, coping, perceived control, and PTSD symptoms in sexual assault victims. Journal of Community Psychology, 42(4), 495–508.