A method to ease the nightmare of sexual trauma - opinion

For so many women who have experienced sexual assault, it is a living nightmare, a horrific dream from which they cannot awaken.

 ARTICIPANTS WEAR shirts that read ‘Stronger together,’ at last year’s Life Run, in Tel Aviv. Running is a therapeutic tool.  (photo credit: AVIV HOFI)
ARTICIPANTS WEAR shirts that read ‘Stronger together,’ at last year’s Life Run, in Tel Aviv. Running is a therapeutic tool.
(photo credit: AVIV HOFI)

May you never know. May you never know what sexual trauma is. May you never experience a person assaulting your body. May you never experience the helplessness, the vulnerability, the feeling of desecration.

For so many – too many – women who have experienced sexual assault, it is a living nightmare. It is a horrific dream from which they cannot awaken. A day-to-day reality that is hard to live with. Particularly outside, and particularly alone. And all the more so in a park. In the dark.

But if, heaven forbid, you have experienced this, or if you know someone else who has and who is still dealing with these demons, we can tell you about a method that has succeeded in easing this day-to-day difficulty. 

Just running

This is not a new invention or a new method. It does not require a registration fee or any special purchases. The “method” is here, right outside the door of each and every one of you. The “method” is running. Just like that. Running.

We should state at the outset that the instructors of this group are not suggesting that women suffering from post-trauma should go out running in an unsupervised manner, and certainly not in a park at night. Because any encounter with an uncontrolled environment could arouse and bring out anxieties.

 Running (credit: INGIMAGE) Running (credit: INGIMAGE)

But after five years of leading the running therapy group at the Hasharon Assistance Center, the instructors of the group can recommend running as another therapeutic measure that, with professional guidance, has often managed to be an effective tool for dealing with the physical and emotional symptoms characteristic of post-trauma, against the backdrop of sexual assault.

Let’s take a few steps back. Sexual assault, the scars of which are imprinted in the body, harms the mind deeply as well. In many cases, the body remembers experiences that the mind has managed to repress. Many women experience physical pain and suffer from diseases such as fibromyalgia, which cause pain in muscles and connecting tissue. Others deal with eating disorders, insomnia and many other physical implications that greatly impede routine living. 

In many cases, they develop alienation, which leads to a disconnect between the woman and her body, between her mind and her physical existence. This disconnection numbs the harsh sensations of the assault and its implications. 

And yet, the connection that a woman has with her body throughout her life, and certainly after an assault, is vital and affects the quality of her life. This connection is a painful, yet unavoidable part of the rehabilitation process, the purpose of which is to enable a renewed experience of control of the body and connection to positive bodily experiences. 

Running, which requires women to listen to their bodies, to be aware of their breathing, their muscles, and their pain, can activate serious and painful triggers. But with professional guidance, it is possible to experience this as a healing connection in which the runner controls the pace, speed and level of exposure to the pain. In this way, running might, with time, be a method of healing and an empowering experience.

Running to revitalize the mind

THE GROUP was set up five years ago. As long-distance running enthusiasts, the instructors are aware of the fact that this popular sport is known to “revitalize the mind” (and every running enthusiast who is familiar with the “runner’s high” at the end of a run will agree with this).

The two instructors, with their experience as running therapists and therapists for victims of sexual assault, set up the first group in 2018. They were armed with research from overseas, showing that long, slow running, which combines heart-lung endurance, has therapeutic qualities for the treatment of depression, anxiety and post-trauma.

A lot of women have participated since then. Each had their own concerns, difficulties and challenges to deal with. Each of them had their own successes and achievements.

The achievements are many. Merely turning up to training is an achievement. Merely leaving the house in the evening is an achievement. Wearing sports clothes is an achievement. Running in a non-sterile space is an achievement.

Anyone who has, along with the participants, experienced how, with running as a therapeutic tool (the intention being “supervised running” with professional guidance), women’s ability to retake control of themselves develops gradually; anyone who has seen how their bodies become less alert and succeed in experiencing the here-and-now as less dangerous, can understand the magnitude of this achievement.

The group instructors and the participants have been witnesses, over the years, to the friendships that have arisen within the group, which enabled women to help one another and experience capabilities and ambitions together. Young women with older women, married women with unmarried women, religious women with non-religious women.

We are currently setting up a new group in the Sharon region and hope to open more groups around the country. On May 4, women from the Assistance Center will assemble at the largest women’s race in Israel, the Life Run, sponsored by Super-Pharm and the Tel Aviv Municipality. 

For some of them, this won’t be the first time either. They still enjoy running together with friends – partners in trauma, in pain, and in their ability to help each other on their way to rehabilitation and recovery. 

Dr. Ruth Barzilai-Lumbroso, MSW, is a sexual trauma therapist at the Hasharon Assistance Center and at the Hila Center for the Treatment of Victims of Sexual Trauma. Rachel Reingewirtz, MA, is an art therapist and running therapist.