Spiritual fitness: One path to reclaiming your life after sexual assault

Military sexual trauma (MST) can happen to anyone: It isn’t limited to a particular gender or sexual orientation. If you’ve experienced MST, you might feel alone and isolated. Still, it’s important to seek ways to reclaim your life and people who can help. One possible way to start healing after MST is through spiritual fitness—using your core beliefs to cope with challenges and build resilience.

In 2014, 11,000 men and nearly 10,000 women reported MSTs. Sexual harassment and assault directly oppose the military ideals of unit cohesion, camaraderie, and service to country. MST also threatens these ideals and can do great harm to Military Service Members, which can impact mission-readiness and performance.

Spiritual fitness and post-traumatic growth

Finding ways to grow and thrive after someone else uses their power to hurt you is a challenge. It’s hard—and unfair—to be victimized by your assailant and then have to struggle to survive and recover. However, it can be encouraging to know that healing and rebuilding can happen after sexual trauma. You can recover. It’s possible to find hope and enjoy life again as well. Healing might take time, and there are many paths you can follow.

Building your spiritual fitness is one path to encourage post-traumatic growth (PTG) or positive change during times of trauma and stress. PTG looks different for each person, but you can work towards it by learning about and embracing your spiritual fitness.

Here are 4 ways you can use your spiritual fitness to help find your own way to recovery and growth after MST.

  • Understand and exercise your core beliefs. Sexual trauma can undermine your core belief that everyone deserves to be safe from sexual harassment or assault. For example, you might think, “I did something to deserve this.” This is never true because no one “deserves” sexual trauma. Your spiritual fitness can help you recognize this as harmful to your well-being and find a core belief that optimizes your PTG. Here are some examples of core beliefs:
    • “I deserve to be safe from sexual assault and harassment.”
    • “Friends don’t hurt their friends.”
    • “Good leaders listen and help.”
    • “Getting help means I’m strong enough to ask for it.”
  • Recognize and ignore victim blaming. After MST, it’s natural to think about what you could have done differently or even question yourself. And it’s normal to experience some self-blame. However, you also might feel blame from others around you. Statements such as “You weren’t modest enough” or “You were assaulted because you sinned” are never correct by any standard of belief. What’s more, MST is a reportable offense, so you can report it through your chain of command.
  • Reclaim your sense of belonging. Feeling as though you belong is a critical piece of healthy spiritual fitness. Sexual trauma can steal your sense that you belong, and you might feel as if you have to hide or there’s no one you can trust. For a victim of MST, finding social groups that support and believe you, instead of shame and doubt you, can be a vital piece of PTG.
  • Acknowledge your emotions. It’s normal to experience a range of feelings after MST. Whatever your emotions are, it’s okay to feel them—even if it’s depression, guilt, shame, anger at your god or gods or the universe, or disconnect from friends or your religious community. What matters is working through your feelings. How you cope is mainly up to you—unless you’re having trouble and feel stuck. Or if you just need someone to listen or help figuring out what your pace is, there are people who can help. Some of these people are chaplains, pastoral counselors, and religious leaders. If you want help figuring out what your beliefs, values, or spirituality look like after MST, they could be especially valuable resources.

A path to recovery

Sexual assault or harassment is traumatic. It can happen to anyone, and it happens in the military. There is hope for growth and life after military sexual trauma, but it might take time. Keep in mind it can become part of your story, but not the story. Post-traumatic growth takes work and time, and spiritual fitness is one path you can follow to healing, resilience, and readiness. If you’re ready to seek help or learn more, consider the following resources.

 

Resources

Ahrens, C. E., Abeling, S., Ahmad, S., & Hinman, J. (2009). Spirituality and well-being: The relationship between religious coping and recovery from sexual assault. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 25(7), 1242–1263. doi:10.1177/0886260509340533

Janoff-Bulman, R. (1992). Shattered Assumptions (Towards a New Psychology of Trauma). New York, NY: The Free Press.

Park, C. L., Currier, J. M., Harris, J. I., & Slattery, J. M. (2017). Trauma, Meaning, and Spirituality: Translating Research into Clinical Practice. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Rosenstein, J. E. (2015). Military sexual assault prevention and male rape myth acceptance. Military Behavioral Health, 3(4), 207–211. doi:10.1080/21635781.2015.1038404