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10 Tips To Heal After An Abusive Relationship

Couple intimidation

Last week I shared how two years after I left a harmful relationship, I still struggled with wearing shorts because of unwanted sexual coercion. At times I was anxious and stressed.

When these feelings rose to a point that felt on the verge of consuming me, I tried to pause and think of something that would help. The only thing that came to mind was a walk – which I didn’t have time for. So, to distract myself, I turned on TV while I worked on a project and later opted for a glass of wine. I knew neither of those would help me long-term and was frustrated with myself for trying to cope this way.

Two days later, after a good night's sleep, I was feeling better and took some time to think through the afternoon when my stress level had been high. If similar feelings arose in the future, I wanted to be better prepared and turn to healthier strategies that would help me more in the long run. I realized that in the height of anxiety, I had forgotten several things that had helped me in the past. I realized that in stressful times, I’m not able to think as clearly and that a list I could refer to would be helpful. 

Below are several tools I’ve found to be helpful. Each of us heals and manages stress differently so it’s important to find what works best for you.

Deep breathing: Previously I listened to two different podcasts about deep breathing. One mentioned breathing in to the count of four, then out to the count of four. The other one mentioned breathing in as you say part of a Bible verse and out as you say the rest. I’ve found breathing in while saying, ‘I can do all things”, and out while saying, “through Christ who strengthens me” is helpful. That verse is from Philippians 4:13

Bible verses: In one of the books by Katie Davis Majors, she mentions that during a difficult time, she wrote Bible verses on Post-its and stuck them in places she would see, read, and remember the messages. If I recall correctly, she taped them to her walls, the windowsill in her kitchen, etc. When I read her story, I chuckled a little thinking of a hallway lined with Post-its. But it can be so helpful! Sometimes I use index cards to write Bible verses that remind me of whose I am or that give me strength. I set them on my desk, tape them to the wall, or tuck them in my purse to read during the day.

Remind yourself you are safe. You’re healing from the side effects of emotional, verbal, physical, sexual, or financial abuse. Even after you’re away from the abusive person, you can feel threatened. For me, it was as I pulled on a pair of shorts, and would be reminded of hands being placed inside my shorts when I didn’t want them to be. But I was no longer with or around that person. Reminding myself I was safe, and it wouldn’t happen helped me relax.

Practice 5 4 3  2 1 – In the Mayo Clinic’s article about taking control of anxiety, they recommend practicing the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 exercise – noticing 5 things you can see, 4 things you can physically feel, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste. I’ve read different variations of this exercise. Find what works best for you, maybe it’s picking three of the items to focus on, i.e, see, feel, hear. The important thing is to take a break from difficult thoughts and focus on something else.

Journal – Writing how you feel, what you’re thinking, and what happened can help you process and work through your feelings. When we write, our thoughts move slower than we’re just thinking. It helps us see things differently and process our thoughts.

Give Yourself Grace: When we struggle with hard feelings and memories, it can be easy to blame ourselves. (I.e. I should have known better, I should have left sooner, I should have…). But that doesn’t help us heal. We need to remember what we have done that’s been helpful. For more on moving past shame, see this post.

Exercise – stress can drain us and deplete our energy. But getting exercise, any exercise will help. Sometimes when I have a lot going on and my energy level is down, I remind myself it doesn’t have to be a workout. I can just put one foot in front of the other and go on a walk. The pace doesn’t matter.

Laugh – Find something that makes you laugh. Whether it’s hanging out with friends or watching a show you find funny, laughter releases stress and helps us feel better.

Ask for help – Think of a friend or family member that you trust and feel safe with, then let them know that you’re hurting. It’s hard to share our vulnerable feelings and experiences, but they care about you and want to help. It can be helpful to talk about it with someone.

Consider a counselor – decide if counseling is right for you. It can be very beneficial to talk with a counselor and they can help you work through the side-effects of the relationship.

As you work through the pain, it’s important to:

Acknowledge what happened and how it made you feel. We don’t like to feel bad and can be tempted to push the painful memories or feelings aside. But if we just try to bury the feelings or move past the emotions, we don’t heal, and the difficult emotions will likely pop up in the future.

Remember it’s not your fault – our society tends to victim blame (I.e. They shouldn’t have been wearing that, been alone with, etc.) But it’s not the victim’s fault. An abuser is manipulative, intentional, and deceitful. Harming you was their choice.

Give yourself time – On top of healing, we have lots of responsibilities during the day. Whether it’s school, sports, work, taking care of kids, or all of the above, we have a lot to get done each day. This can be good – as it would be difficult to only sit and think about our experience, how to let go, heal, and move forward. But it’s also important to acknowledge healing takes time and working on it comes in doses as we fit in it with the rest of our lives. We all want to feel better and to have the hard parts behind us. Acknowledging that it will take time and not rushing to put it behind us gives us space to heal.

Discover your triggers - In my case, it was feeling my shorts brush the back of my leg. I bought a pair of longer shorts but I was also upset that something someone else did made me question the way I dressed. At first, I felt awkward wearing the longer shorts but then I thought back on other changes I’ve made in my life – moving to listening to Christian music and watching less TV or turning away from shows with violence or sex. In each case, it felt different, but as I got used to it, I found that I liked it more and it brought peace and calm to my life. When I acknowledged my trigger and that I was choosing a change that made me feel safe, I relaxed wearing the longer shorts. Changing was worth it.

Other things that can be helpful as you heal:

Eat Healthy – as a life-long chocoholic, it’s taken me a long time to learn this one. But good foods really can make you feel better while sugary and processed food can negatively impact your mood and energy. Now that I’m eating healthier, I’ve noticed the difference. For example, I have more energy and feel positive after eating a cup of Greek yogurt with walnuts. But when I snack on chocolate during the day, I lose energy and focus. In Ben Alldis’s book, Raising the Bar, he suggests creating a mood food diary by listing what you ate and how you felt. He goes on to recommend choosing the foods that love you back.

Self care – difficult emotions and experiences can drain our energy. It can be easy to let small things go like washing your face or brushing your teeth before bed. But taking care of yourself will help you feel better about yourself.

Rest – While it’s important to exercise, it’s also important to know when you need rest. In our on-demand lifestyle where we can always be plugged in, it can be hard to get the rest we need. In the book, It Doesn’t Start with a Punch, I share how rest is different than sleep and that doing something restful during the day can help you sleep better at night. Restful things can include going for a walk, sitting outside, painting, reading, light cleaning, etc. Find what is restful to you.

Limit ways to numb - We may be tempted to binge-watch a show or have a drink to relax, but both are ways to numb, rather than heal. They can be helpful in small doses. If we overdo either, afterward we may feel regret over other things we didn’t get done and the painful emotions are still there. Monitor how often you’re checking out vs. healing and moving forward.

Sleep  - when we’re sleep deprived it’s harder to manage our emotions. Building good sleep hygiene or an evening routine that helps us wind down can lead to falling asleep better. (I.e. limiting technology for at least an hour before bed, doing something relaxing, having a dark bedroom, etc.) It’s important to get at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night.

Connection and support can be a significant part of recovery. The process of finding what works for you may be trial and error. The best thing to do is to try new practices until you find one that fits you.


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