By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“Our unwanted and self-destructive habits often were formed as children to help us survive. Childhood abuse, whether physical, emotional, verbal, sexual, or the covert traumas of neglect, oppression, and isolation, demands that if the child is to survive, she must create coping skills to deal with the abuse and the inherent messages about who she is. Mindfulness offers the possibility of relating differently to what’s already here by understanding that there’s nothing to get rid of and everything to accept.” – Char Wilkins
Childhood sexual abuse (CSA) is a horrific crime. The trauma created in the victim changes them forever. It changes the trusting innocence of childhood to a confused, guilt ridden, frightening, and traumatized existence. It not only produces short-term trauma which includes both psychological and physical injury, it has long-term consequences. It damages the victim’s self-esteem and creates difficulties entering into intimate relationship in adulthood. It can create post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) complete with painful flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, and uncontrollable thoughts about the event. Victims often experience depression and sometimes become suicidal. It is a heinous crime that haunts the victims for the rest of their lives.
Unfortunately, childhood sexual abuse (CSA) is shockingly common. It is estimated that 20% of girls and 10% of boys have experienced childhood sexual abuse and half of these were forcefully assaulted. Children between the ages of 7 and 13 are the most vulnerable but abuse is also prevalent in adolescence with 16% of children between 14 to 17 having been sexually victimized. Compounding the problem disclosure of sexual abuse is often delayed; children often avoid telling because they are either afraid of a negative reaction from their parents or of being harmed by the abuser. As such, they often delay disclosure until adulthood. This makes it unlikely that they’ll seek help and instead suffer in silence.
Mindfulness training has been shown to be effective in treating victims of trauma and PTSD. So, it would make sense that mindfulness training may be helpful for the treatment of adult CSA survivors. In today’s Research News article “Mindfulness Intervention for Child Abuse Survivors: A 2.5-Year Follow-Up.” See:
or below, Earley and colleagues performed a long-term (2.5 year) follow-up of adult survivors of CSA who had received treatment with an 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program. MBSR involves meditation, body scan, and yoga practices. In the original study participants reported significant decreases in levels of depression, PTSD symptoms, and anxiety at treatment’s end (8 weeks), and at follow-up (24 weeks). In the present study, the participants from this original study were invited back and re-measured two and a half years after the completion of the original study.
Earley and colleagues found that the decreases in depression, anxiety, and PTSD symptoms and the increases in mindfulness were sustained. Improvements in PTSD symptoms of re-experiencing, avoidance/numbing/, and hyperarousal were all sustained. Hence, MBSR treatment produced significant improvements in the psychological health of the CSA survivors and these benefits were still present 2.5 years later. It is very unusual for a research study to be followed up this long after completion. But, it is very important. It demonstrates that treatment effects are are not fleeting. These results conclusively demonstrate that the benefits of MBSR treatment for CSA survivors are very long lasting.
Mindfulness training is known to improve all of the key symptoms of childhood sexual abuse (CSA) including depression, anxiety, self-esteem, and PTSD symptoms. It may do so by improving emotion regulation allowing the survivors to honestly feel their emotions but respond to them in an adaptive way. It may also do so by focusing the individual on the present moment and thereby reducing the rumination about the past that is so characteristic of CSA survivors. Regardless of the mechanism, the fact that the symptom relief is so long lasting supports use of MBSR training to treat adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
So, get over sexual abuse with mindfulness.
“Each person’s healing journey, while it will partake of some common elements, will be unique. For professionals, it’s important not to force survivors into a practice that might not work for them. For survivors, it’s important to not get discouraged if we don’t find the right practice at first. There are endless ways to practice being mindful and, sooner or later, something will resonate.” – Christopher Anderson
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Earley, M. D., Chesney, M. A., Frye, J., Greene, P. A., Berman, B., & Kimbrough, E. (2014). Mindfulness Intervention for Child Abuse Survivors: A 2.5-Year Follow-Up. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 70(10), 933-941. doi:10.1002/jclp.22102.
OBJECTIVE: The present study reports on the long-term effects of a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
METHOD: Of the study participants, 73% returned to the clinic for a single-session follow-up assessment of depression, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and mindfulness at 2.5 years.
RESULTS: Repeated measures mixed regression analyses revealed significant long-term improvements in depression, PTSD, anxiety symptoms, and mindfulness scores. The magnitude of intervention effects at 128 weeks ranged from d = .5 to d = 1.1.
CONCLUSION: MBSR may be an effective long-term treatment for adults who have experienced childhood sexual abuse. Further investigation of MBSR with this population is warranted given the durability of treatment effects described here.