Why Survivors of Childhood Abuse Can Have Problematic Reactions to Guided Imagery

Hi Belleruth,

I was wondering if you ever considered doing a guided imagery specifically for women survivors of childhood sexual abuse. As a survivor, and now someone who works with women survivors, there have been times guided imagery has been helpful, but it takes a long time for the person to start to try to relax into it.

Many of them stop soon after the GI starts, because they begin to have flashbacks, feel trapped or just become completely overwhelmed that something bad is going to happen. The other issue is that some of the good GIs are done by men (such as Peter Levine). No matter how skilled the man is in helping with trauma or GI, just by virtue of the fact they are men, the survivor gets triggered and instantly stops. I’ll admit, I’m one of those people (and I LOVE Peter Levine’s work & books).

I know through my healing journey that GI is very helpful, but it took me a long time (years) to be able to settle myself enough to start to add it to my tool belt. Forcing me to be still and just listen was too overwhelming. A lot of my abuse happened in a dark room, so that is where my mind would go immediately and I’d have to stop the GI. Many of us were abused in the dark, and I’ve found this is a common challenge when trying to introduce GI.

Just thinking maybe if there was one specific to CSA that opened up with helping the woman to feel safe and protected, and not using a man’s voice, it could benefit as women begin their healing journeys. I’d love to have something like that not only for myself, but also to share with the women I work with.

Just a thought...

Thank you,

Hello, V.

A lot of survivors of childhood sexual abuse and other forms of PTS choose to listen to guided imagery with their eyes half open (works fine), and many choose to listen while walking; or standing, leaning against a wall; or while doing the alternate knee tapping or cross-armed ‘butterfly’ tapping of EMDR. It helps with the reactions you describe.

They are not uncommon and you are in good company in that respect. (I describe this and more options in my book, Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma and How They Heal - https://www.healthjourneys.com/invisible-heroes-survivors-of-trauma-and-how-they-heal-paperback/)

Actually the greatest number of benefiters from our Healing Trauma imagery (https://www.healthjourneys.com/guided-imagery-for-posttraumatic-stress/) are survivors of childhood sexual abuse – many are able to work with this imagery right away, and listen frequently right off the bat – there are strong therapeutic gains, generally speaking.

But many need to ‘dose’ it in small segments first, or like to work up to it with some more neutral, less emotionally evocative, self-soothing imagery first. It’s never a bad idea to move slowly, respecting your own readiness and timing for going deeper. And for some, just the self-soothing imagery alone is enough.

For those who wish to carefully move toward deeper levels of healing by first setting a firm groundwork of self-calming skills solidly in place, we do have our set of audios called Guided Imagery for the Three Stages of Healing Trauma: Nine Meditations for Healing Posttraumatic Stress here: https://www.healthjourneys.com/guided-imagery-for-the-three-stages-of-healing-trauma/

But if that’s more imagery than you can imagine ever wanting to listen to, you can do what many others do, including survivors of military sexual trauma: just listen to Relaxation & Wellness (https://www.healthjourneys.com/a-meditation-for-relaxation-wellness/) first for several weeks, and then move on to the Healing Trauma imagery.

If working with imagery is simply a non-starter, creating too much stress and triggering, there is always progressive muscle relaxation, simple breath work, biofeedback, various movement meditations, biofield energy work, such as Reiki, and your go-to, yoga Nidra – so plenty of options, fortunately.