Sometimes survivors of child sexual abuse experience a difficult relationship with their physical self. For example, they might struggle to feel connected with their body because it can be a reminder of the trauma they experienced. Their body may still carry the lingering effects of trauma, which might manifest as physical symptoms such as chronic pain, nausea, panic attacks, or muscle tension. Or a survivor may cope with their trauma by resorting to a detached numbness in order to protect themselves from further pain. Such numbness can make it more difficult to be in tune with the physical sensations and needs their body is experiencing. For these reasons and more, it is common for survivors to struggle with seeing the positive aspects of their body.
This is where body kindness can help. Body kindness is about redirecting feelings of shame or judgment about your body towards acceptance and self-compassion. One way you can begin this shift is by noticing all the ways your body serves you. Even though it may be difficult, taking the time to appreciate all the parts of your body, even the parts you may not usually have positive thoughts about, can help strengthen your body kindness.
This type of appreciation can be small—as small as, “Today my skin helped me feel the warm sunlight,” or "My neck helped me to look up at the sky this morning."
In this activity, you can practice observing how your body serves you with a relaxation technique called Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR).
What Is Progressive Muscle Relaxation?
Progressive Muscle Relaxation is a relaxation exercise that centers around tensing and releasing your major muscle groups in order to learn how to notice, appreciate, and relax those muscles.1 Not only can this exercise help relieve tension and improve your ability to relax, it can also help draw your attention to parts of the body that may generally go unnoticed. Studies have also shown PMR to be useful in helping to treat stress-related symptoms such as tension headaches, anxiety, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome, and more.2,3,4
How Do I Practice Progressive Muscle Relaxation?
You can get the most out of PMR by practicing it 10 minutes a day, but if all you have is three minutes at your desk or while sitting in your parked car, you can still take time to contract, relax, and appreciate your body.
So let’s get started!
Combine PMR With Another Strategy
Combining PMR with other types of stress-management strategies can help stretch the benefits of this exercise. To push these benefits further, try pairing PMR with activities that match your main concern. For example, if your main concern is muscle-based (like tension headaches or stiff posture), you might consider pairing PMR with yoga or stretching exercises. If the concern has more to do with autonomic or nervous system functioning (like hypertension or migraine headaches), consider pairing PMR with nervous system-related activities like breathing exercises. And finally, if your concerns are primarily about your emotional experience, consider pairing PMR with meditation, guided imagery, or therapy. Again, be sure to consult with your medical provider for medical advice or concerns.
Create Your Own PMR Script
After becoming familiar with this exercise, you may want to personalize it to focus on areas of your body you feel are most important to you in this moment. Perhaps you want to focus on more general areas of your body (e.g., legs and feet). Or maybe you want to focus on more specific areas (e.g., right thigh muscle). For more ideas, below are three different muscle groupings that can help you get more broad or specific with the muscles you tense.1
- Arms and hands
- Face, neck, and shoulders
- Chest, back, and belly
- Legs and feet
- Right hand and arm
- Left hand and arm
- Shoulders and neck
- Chest, back, and belly
- Right leg
- Left leg
- Dominant hand and forearm
- Dominant biceps
- Nondominant hand and forearm
- Nondominant biceps
- Upper cheeks and nose
- Lower cheeks and jaws
- Neck and throat
- Chest, shoulders, and upper back
- Abdominal or stomach region
- Hips and lower back
- Dominant quad muscles
- Dominant calf
- Dominant foot
- Nondominant quad muscles
- Nondominant calf
- Nondominant foot
You Know Your Body Best
The ultimate goal of PMR is to connect you with you. If PMR doesn’t feel good for you, it’s okay to listen to your body and try something else. If you feel you don’t really know your body, PMR can help you develop a stronger relationship, connection, and appreciation for all your body does to serve you. It can also help you practice:
- Acknowledgement by noting what areas of the body you may struggle to connect with.
- Mindfulness by drawing your attention to the present moment and the sensations the various areas of your body are experiencing.
- Aspiration by having an intention in mind as you go through each exercise, such as building focus, reconnecting with your body, or simply relaxing.