“I have learned how to reconnect with my mind and body, which have been working out of harmony.”
“Sharing experiences about working through panic attacks helped.”
“I really love the people that are a part of this community, I have not been able to connect with other survivors until now.”
“I learned that I was not alone and that I had people to lean on.”
These are the sentiments of participants in 2013-2014 Los Angeles Fellow for Life Sara Abdelhalim’s holistic healing program for survivors of sexual violence, which utilizes trauma-sensitive yoga within an established safe space. Aiming to help survivors regain self-efficacy while encouraging them to maintain healthy mental and physical lifestyles, Abdelhalim, a recent graduate of the University of Southern California Master of Public Health Program, worked in partnership with the USC Center for Women and Men.
Abdelhalim implemented the program out of concern that discussions between providers and survivors of sexual violence about self-care are largely non-existent. “We often underestimate the importance of these conversations as well as the impact that a traumatic experience can have on one’s mental and physical health,” she says.
Abdelhalim has also done a great deal of study related to the power and potential of holistic healing services and its use as an alternative to prescription medication. “In a society where there is a heavy reliance on pharmaceutical aid,” she says, “I think it’s important to look for alternative and more effective sources of healing that can leave the individual healthier and independent, without a reliance on medication.”
Among the benefits of trauma-sensitive yoga for survivors of sexual violence is the opportunity to become reacquainted with their bodies and learn to better control their reactions to stress, which is often heightened in victims of trauma.
“One in three women will be sexually abused during her lifetime,”
points out. “Left unprocessed, these traumatic experiences can cause lasting, harmful changes to the body’s physiology, nervous system, and brain chemistry. Healing from trauma takes on many forms and is unique to each individual and their personal experience. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatrist who has extensively studied trauma and various avenues of recovery, has found that trauma-sensitive yoga helps regulate emotional and physiological states and allows the body to regain its natural movement, while teaching the individual the critical use of breath for self-regulation.”
“Additionally, traumatic experiences will often resurface in survivors because of environmental stressors, activating alarmingly high levels of pain and fear stored in their bodies, says Abdelhalim, which can be detrimental to their health.
She is hopeful her program has empowered the survivors with whom she worked to take control of their lives, encouraged them to maintain a healthy mental and physical lifestyle—hopefully without the use of pharmaceuticals—by engaging in acts of self-care, empowered them to seek the support services they require, and created a community of women who can find support in each other.
The power of community played a bigger role in the healing process for Abdelhalim’s program participants than she originally thought it would, particularly when participants shared a part of their personal story with the group each week.
“As a student of science, I am constantly being exposed to data, numbers, and study designs. I have recognized that most scientists and health care providers believe in things that can be measured, calculated, and replicated,” says Abdelhalim. “What I have come to learn through my experiences as an Albert Schweitzer Fellow is that not everything that is ‘significant’ can be counted. Stories are also meaningful and, although they may have several confounding variables and are nonreplicable, our world and communities are composed of stories. Through storytelling, we can connect and build community. The stories we share and the community we create can heal at a deeper level and drive improvement as we seek wisdom from within ourselves and others.”
Though Abdelhalim was surprised by the amount of unexpected boulders that landed in her path as she planned her project, she is appreciative of the “unique, real world learning opportunities” they offered her. Overall, says Abdelhalim, the Fellowship allowed her to grow personally and professionally. “The fellowship gave me an opportunity to get to know myself better: my strengths, my weaknesses, my passions, and my goals,” she says. “By designing and implementing a project regarding a public health issue I am passionate about, I was able to increase my self-awareness and refine skills such as how to be creative, innovative, and flexible. Professionally, the Fellowship gave me the chance to become a better public health leader. It also allowed me to learn how to develop clear program goals and objectives, how to be a more effective communicator, and how to effectively deal with challenges that arise.”
Now, as a newly-minted Fellow for Life, Abdelhalim looks forward to connecting with, and learning from, a new peer group. “I view the Fellow for Life network as a resource of expansive potential because it’s an avenue for organizing and collaborative work among individuals with a variety of backgrounds and experiences that can bring about real positive change.”