sexual assault

Exercise and meditation ease PTSD after sexual assault

A combination of meditation and aerobic exercise can help women decrease negative thoughts and enhance self-worth after sexual assault, a new study suggests.

The findings show that doing meditation and aerobic exercise for one hour twice a week for six weeks significantly reduced post-traumatic and ruminative thoughts in women with a history of sexual violence.

“Despite the undeniable connection between sexual trauma and mental illness, few interventions are tailored for women who experience sexual violence,” says Tracey Shors, professor of psychology with the Center for Collaborative Neuroscience at Rutgers University.

The small pilot study included 100 women between the ages of 18-32, with about one-third of the women having experienced sexual violence. After six weeks of a clinical intervention called MAP Training My Brain, findings indicated that trauma-related thoughts experienced by the women who were victims of sexual violence decreased significantly.

“Women who experience sexual violence, and people who experience trauma, tend to ruminate over what happened—asking themselves why it happened or if they could have done something differently,” says Shors.

“The more you think about it, the more you go over the memories, the more memories you make. MAP Training diminished those thoughts in women who experienced violence.”

As reported in Frontiers in Neuroscience, the study divided into four groups. One group did the MAP Training, which included meditation and aerobic exercise. The second group did only meditation. The third group only did the aerobic exercise. Another group did not participate in training.

Each session began with 20 minutes of sitting meditation, followed by 10 minutes of slow-walking meditation and ended with 30 minutes of aerobic exercise.

Trauma-related thoughts of women who suffered a sexual assault lessened after the combination of meditation and aerobic exercise but not after meditation or aerobic exercise alone. MAP training also enhanced the level of self-worth in all the women who participated. Meditation and exercise alone did not have the same positive effect, Shors says.

“The #MeToo movement…have provided women with an opportunity to tell their stories…It is important that we also provide them with new ways to help them recover from these experiences.”

There appears to be a synergistic effect of the two activities that specifically helps women learn to recover from the trauma of sexual violence, at least with respect to negative thoughts about stressful life events, the study shows.

“What we found is that the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts,” Shors says.

More than 25 percent of women worldwide experience sexual or physical violence in their lifetime, with similar estimates in the United States. Women are four times as likely as men to experience sexual assault and 10 times as likely to be raped.

Sexual violence may alter how the female brain works

While many women with these experiences do not have PTSD, they still have symptoms related to the memory of what happened. The data suggest that MAP Training can help in that regard.

“The #MeToo movement and other platforms have provided women with an opportunity to tell their stories of sexual harassment and assault,” Shors says. “It is important that we also provide them with new ways to help them recover from these experiences.”

Source: Rutgers University

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