A new study shows that back-to-back meditation and exercise can help women who have experienced sexual violence begin to put the trauma behind them.

By Rachael Schultz
Updated: May 01, 2018
Photo: Shutterstock/javi_indy

Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement, recently told an audience at Rutgers University that the real work of the movement is in helping victims of sexual assault begin to heal. And while speaking out has certainly been therapeutic for many, the estimated 321,500 annual victims need more ongoing ways to process their trauma-and begin to put it behind them.

"Rape is the most likely of all traumas to induce PTSD [an estimated 94 percent of women who are raped experience symptoms of the disorder], and, with or without the official diagnosis, women who have a history of sexual violence report more symptoms of depression, anxiety, and trauma-related thoughts compared to women who don't have this kind of history," says Tracey Shors, Ph.D., professor of behavioral and systems neuroscience at Rutgers University.

Now, a new study from Shors might be able to help. Published last week in Frontiers in Neuroscience, her research reveals that women with a history of sexual violence against them can significantly reduce trauma-related thoughts by practicing 30 minutes of meditation followed by 30 minutes of exercise just twice a week-and this back-to-back method was more effective than meditation or exercise alone.

What's more, this routine also helped increase feelings of self-worth. "After six weeks, women rated themselves as closer to their best selves and did so more than participants who only exercised or only meditated," adds Shors. (Many women are also turning to fitness as a means of reclaiming their bodies as their own and expressing self-care, as we reported in "How Sexual Assault Survivors Are Using Fitness As Part of Their Recovery".)

How Meditation and Exercise Can Help

The back-to-back practice, called MAP Training My Brain, is key because it harnesses the collective strength of meditation and exercise in reprogramming mental associations.

The idea is this: During meditation, your breathing and heartbeat slow and your body goes into a calmer, low-stress state. Your mind wanders across memories, which for victims will at some point include trauma. Normally, the presence of these agonizing memories is physically and mentally stressful, but because your body is in this less activated state, the memory doesn't arouse as strong a stress response as normal, explains Shors.

Theoretically, the more you experience this, the more that traumatic memory will become associated with this low-stress state, a process referred to as "extinction" or "exposure" because of how you're reprogramming the memory, she says.

Working up a sweat, meanwhile, sends a flood of blood and oxygen to the brain, revving it up to work, so the idea is that exercising right after practicing exposure will help rewire that association further. (Related: Ballet Helped Me Reconnect with My Body After Being Raped)

Although this study focused on sexual assault victims, Shors adds that MAP Training would likely help someone heal from any type of trauma. A previous study from her team found that homeless women, many of whom had experienced violence, felt less anxious and depressed after following the same meditation and exercise program, while another forthcoming paper reports the program helped medical students ruminate less and feel a higher quality of life.

How Can You Get Started?

The gist of the practice is simple: Sit, walk, sweat. You can do any type of exercise, but Shors' recommends the meditation be broken into 20 minutes of sitting and 10 minutes of walking, which provides a good transition into aerobic exercise and makes it easier for beginners to make it through the whole 30 minutes of silence.

You can find a detailed guide to the MAP Training My Brain protocol on her website, but, in essence, you want to spend the first 20 minutes in a sitting meditation with your focus on your breath. Then, stand up and begin to walk very slowly back and forth across the room, bringing your attention from your breath into your feet. After 10 minutes, start sweating. Try running, cycling, dancing, rowing-any exercise that bumps your heart rate up to 60 to 80 percent of your max will work to get your blood flowing and those memories consolidated, adds Shors.

Spend an hour doing this twice a week. You'll likely see benefits early on but stick with the program for at least six weeks to solidify that exposure, she says. After this benchmark, keep the process up if you feel like it's helping-trauma definitely isn't going to be solved in under two months and you'll only see more benefits from meditation the longer you do it.

And don't forget that talking with someone can help, too. Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at (800) 656-HOPE for confidential support from a trained staff member any time, regardless of how long ago your assault occurred, or consider finding a therapist who specializes in sexual assault who can also help you work through the trauma. (Think you can't afford therapy? Check this out: How to Go to Therapy When You're Broke AF)

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