Coping Strategies
Sunday, Feb 6, 2011 5:46 pm
Women who have experienced violence, and may be suffering from PTSD, use a variety of strategies to help them cope with its after-effects.
These strategies may seem self-destructive, but for the women who use them they are often the only way to control overwhelming feelings of horror, fear and pain.
We can divide them into Mental Coping Mechanisms and Physical Coping Mechanisms .

Mental Coping Mechanisms

A survivor may use these mental defences to block out physical details of the traumatic event, or the feelings that accompanied their experience.
They include:
Repression: suppressing the memories of particular aspects of or feelings about the traumatic event
Denial: Events may be recalled, but the survivor won’t admit to their significance
Minimisation: Diminishing the significance or impacts of what happened
Rationalisation: Explaining away what happened—perhaps by blaming herself or by excusing the abuser
Dissociation: Separation from memories of the trauma by entering a detached state of mind. For some survivors, food, alcohol, drugs or self-harm can create the same sense of calm (see below).
Distraction: Repetitive behaviours such as compulsive counting, or anxiety states, such as agoraphobia, can be used to block painful memories
Splitting: Often found among survivors of childhood abuse—the experience is so horrendous that the child’s psyche splits, forming alternative personalities. These will play different protective roles—for example, one may experience the abuse for her; another may emerge in situations of danger to protect her.
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External Coping Mechanisms


Although it can seem very disturbing and can become very destructive, self-harming behaviour is not a sign of sickness or insanity. Many women self-harm as a way to cope with a situation or with feelings that they find unbearable.
Self-harm takes different forms, including eating or not-eating; burning or cutting one’s body; addictions to drugs or alcohol.
Every woman who self-harms will have her own unique set of reasons for developing this pattern of behaviour, but there are some common aspects: we explore some of these below.

Eating or Not Eating

Food is of vital significance to all humans, and to be able to control what, how and when you eat is very empowering.
Eating disorders—such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa or compulsive eating—are common coping strategies for survivors of violence.
Anorexia Nervosa

Women with anorexia nervosa exercise strict control over what they eat. They often have a distorted body image, believing that they are obese, when in fact they are dramatically underweight.
Some anorexics will only eat certain foods—of which they know the calorific value. Others try to stop eating altogether.
Common reasons why women become anorexic include:
Demonstrating the pain inside—the thinner a woman becomes, the more visible her inner pain
Self-empowerment—regulating the intake of food is a way of taking back the control lost during her experiences of violence
Self-hatred—she may feel that her body made her vulnerable to being attacked and want to punish it
Safety—to make herself less attractive, and therefore less vulnerable to experiences of violence
Young women or girl children who have been abused may choose not to eat because they are unwilling or afraid to become an adult and let their bodies show signs of sexual maturity. Alternatively, they may feel that abuse denied them a childhood, and be trying to recapture this by not eating.
Bulimia Nervosa

Women with bulimia nervosa binge on certain foods, often in secret. Although this does temporarily alter her mood, a sense of disgust and recrimination often follow. This is relieved by purging—often by vomiting, or using laxatives or diuretics.
Sometimes bulimia develops in response to certain therapeutic regimes used to treat anorexia. A woman who has been made to eat may reassert her control over her body by purging.
There are strong links between childhood sexual abuse and oral rape: a woman who has been orally raped may develop bulimia as a way of regaining control over what enters her body.
Every woman will have her own reasons for developing this pattern of behaviour, but common motivations include:
Self-empowerment—taking back lost control
Self-hatred—punishing the body that she thinks let her down and made her vulnerable to abuse
Compulsive Eating

Food can bring a sense of comfort or act as a substitute for feeding other needs. Over-eating can numb or block painful feelings.
For some women, gaining weight may help them to feel bigger and more powerful. For others, it may help them to become invisible—in a society where fat is often equivalent to unattractive.
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Burning and Cutting

Women choose to cut or burn their bodies for many different reasons. These may include:
As a reaction to feelings of self-loathing, shame or guilt about what has happened. A woman may feels she hates her body for getting her into trouble, and want to punish it.
As a non-verbal way to express the pain or the memories of an experience for which a woman has no words. She may use self-harm to send out signals to others that something is wrong.
To produce endorphins—natural painkillers—that help reduce feelings of distress and anxiety, or give an energy rush.

Addictions to Drugs or Alcohol

Addiction to drugs and alcohol has a similar role to other coping mechanisms, in terms of trying to avoid and minimise overwhelming and painful feelings which result from traumatic experiences. Survivors have described how they have turned to alcohol and drugs as a relief from the pain, fear, sadness, anger, guilt, shame, isolation and guilty feelings. Others have referred to how drug and alcohol has been forced upon them by a violent partner as a form of control. Survivors have also referred to the use of drugs and alcohol to cope with the violence their experience.