How Do Survivors Of Child Abuse Cope?
There are two main types of coping mechanisms:
1) Those which are helpful in the short-term, but unhealthy in the long-term.
2) Those which are useful in the long-term (but can take more effort and discipline).
Examples of the first include: drinking too much, use of illicit drugs, gambling, over-eating and taking anger out on others (and, almost always, later regretting it).
Examples of the second are: going for a walk, talking things over with a friend, having a relaxing bath or listening to music.
It should be pointed out that the strategies in the first category tend to leave the person with a lower sense of self-worth over time whereas the opposite tends to be the case with the kinds of strategies mentioned in the second category.
The key is to gradually reduce the use of the coping strategies in category one and gradually increase the use of the coping strategies in category two. This can take time.
Another coping strategy is very simple but very effective (when I first learned this one I was dubious that something so simple could help and was surprised when it did) is to learn ‘controlled breathing’.
Under stress, we tend to HYPERVENTILATE (this refers to the type of breathing which is rapid and shallow) which has the physiological (and indeed psychological) effect of making us feel much more anxious. CONTROLLED BREATHING, on the other hand (breathing DEEPLY, GENTLY and EVENLY THROUGH THE NOSE) has the physiological (and, again, psychological) effect of calming us down. It is recommended by experts that with controlled breathing we should take 8-10 breaths per minute (breathing in AND out equates to ONE breath). With practice, this skill can become automatic.
FORMING SUPPORTIVE RELATIONSHIPS:
Survivors of childhood trauma often find it difficult to form lasting relationships in adulthood (sometimes related to anger-management issues, volatility, inability to trust others and other problems). However, those who can form such relationships tend to have a much better outcome.
Overcoming Relationship Difficulties Caused by Childhood Trauma:
We have already seen that as survivors of childhood trauma we often find it very difficult to trust others. We may avoid close relationships in order to avoid the possibility of being hurt.
Whilst this can allow us to feel safe from harm, it can also lead to extreme loneliness.
Research shows that without good social support the childhood trauma survivor is much more likely to suffer emotional problems. Having just one person to confide in, though, can help to SIGNIFICANTLY ALLEVIATE emotional distress.
Because of our negative experiences in childhood, we might often have NEGATIVE BIASES in our thinking when it comes to considering relationships. These are sometimes based on FEAR.
Below are some examples of negative biases we might have when thinking about relationships.
1) everyone has always hurt me, therefore this person will too; I won’t try to form a close relationship with him/her.
2) he/she has let me down. That means he/she will always let me down and is completely untrustworthy.
3) there’s no way I’m going to the party – they’ll be lots of people I don’t know and it’s certain they’ll all hate me.
HOWEVER, in all three examples, it is likely our beliefs are erroneous and based on a negative thinking bias caused by our childhood experiences. Below are some ways it would be reasonable for us to mentally challenge our beliefs held in the three above examples.
1) I am OVERGENERALIZING. My past experiences don’t mean everyone in the future is bound to always hurt me.
2) He/she is usually good to me; therefore there might be a perfectly reasonable explanation why he/she seems to have let me down on this particular occasion.
3) I’m being far too harsh on myself – I may be lacking some confidence at the moment but this does not mean people will hate me. Anyway, I can work on ways to gradually rebuild my confidence.
Cognitive behavioural therapy can help people to get into the habit of challenging their habitual, unhelpful, negative thinking patterns in a similar way to how I’ve illustrated above.
DEVELOPING SOCIAL SKILLS:
One way to do this is to observe others who already possess good social skills – the type of things they do may include:
-smiling reasonably often
-using a reasonable amount of eye contact
-giving genuine compliments (but not overdoing it)
-using the other person’s name when talking to them (but, again, not overdoing it)
Others that can be observed to help develop social skills may include friends, strangers or even characters from TV or cinema. It can be of particular benefit to observe how others deal with difficult situations.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that when developing social skills, it is best to build up gradually, rather than to throw ourselves immediately into an especially challenging social event.
You may also wish to read my article: CHILDHOOD TRAUMA LEADING TO PSYCHOTIC AND IMMATURE DEFENSE MECHANISMS.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).