By Priya Ahluwalia
Priya is a 22-year-old clinical psychology student at Tata Institute of Social Sciences – Mumbai. She is passionate about mental health, photography and writing. She is currently conducting a research on the individual experience of Khatna and its effects. Read her other articles in this series – Khatna Research in Mumbai.
As human beings we are trained to react immediately, lessen the magnitude of pain when injured, manage our emotions when overwhelmed. We always initiate a response, however not all actions can be immediately responded to, especially when they are extremely distressing or traumatic. Often they are hidden away by our minds to prevent any major upheaval for us. However, even when hidden, they tend to seep through the cracks, leading to subtle effects such as difficulty falling asleep, distrustfulness, self doubt, among others. But sometimes, a small object, event or even a word can widen the crack, leading to a dam of emotions running out. This process is called re-traumatization. Perhaps the best description of the same would be an object, event or situation which leads to re-experiencing the emotions and physical symptoms that are associated with the initial episode of trauma.
It is essential to acknowledge that all individuals give a similar physical response to trauma, but the psychological response is never the same. For example, we are biologically programmed to give a physical response to pain, such as crying when injured. However, we are culturally conditioned to suppress the psychological pain caused by the injury, which is essentially the case with women who have undergone FGC/Khatna. Although the pain is suppressed, it cannot be avoided because it begins to manifest indirectly. For example, one of the participants, I interviewed for my research reported that although she does not remember anything from the day of her Khatna, she has been terrified of blades ever since then. This is a clear example of unaddressed psychological distress. Thus, irrespective of whether the response to trauma is immediate, delayed, drastic or subtle, all individuals must gain access to resources for assistance.
Therefore, while delving into a topic such as Khatna, which is emotionally charged and traumatic, it is the researcher’s responsibility to ensure that the effect of re-traumatization is minimized. As cliché as it sounds, listening is perhaps the best therapeutic tool to minimize re-traumatization. Case studies have shown that when victims of trauma are unheard they are more likely to indulge in self-destructive behaviour. Besides listening, providing an open and safe environment, choices, lists of resources and being available post the interview are also known to help. However, it is essential that a sense of independence be encouraged. Therefore survivors must be trained to look out for signs on their own and have a some set of immediate resources be available for themselves.
Some of the signs to look out for:
- Sudden and recurring thoughts of an unpleasant event, that may be difficult to control.
- Change in sleeping habits: an increase or decrease in the need for sleep, as compared to before the interview with the researcher.
- Change in eating habits: an increase or decrease in appetite as compared to before the interview with the researcher.
- Difficulty paying attention to an activity at hand, inability to remember information.
- Easily irritated.
- Not interested in participating in activities which were earlier enjoyable.
- Frequent crying spells.
- Using negative statements (“I am bad”) while addressing oneself.
- Having extremely negative view of the world (“everyone in the world is bad”).
- Regular thoughts of death or harming oneself.
- Distrust and suspiciousness of those around oneself.
- Sense of powerlessness
- Increased feeling of fear
Things to do:
- Seek out a trusted confidante and talk to them, it will allow you an emotional release as well as provide the support to overcome the current distress you feel.
- Arrange your day in a way that allows for at least 1 or 2 activities, such as painting or dancing among others, which give you positive emotions such as happiness. These activities could last from anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour, preferably not consecutively organised.
- Seek out support in organizations – research has shown that women who choose to speak out about their trauma by joining organizations working against the trauma that they survived are more adept with dealing with their emotions as they are able to gather wider support of individuals with similar experiences.
- Perform physical activity which would allow your body to release positive hormones which would assist in overcoming some of the negative emotions you may currently feel.
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation:
Progressive muscle relaxation is a two-step process in which you systematically tense and relax different muscle groups in the body. With regular practice, it gives you an intimate familiarity with what tension—as well as complete relaxation—feels like in different parts of the body. This can help you to you react to the first signs of the muscular tension that accompanies stress. And as your body relaxes, so will your mind.
- Start at your feet and work your way up to your face, trying to only tense those muscles intended.
- Loosen clothing, take off your shoes, and get comfortable.
- Take a few minutes to breathe in and out in slow, deep breaths.
- When you’re ready, shift your attention to your right foot. Take a moment to focus on the way it feels.
- Slowly tense the muscles in your right foot, squeezing as tightly as you can. Hold for a count of 10.
- Relax your foot. Focus on the tension flowing away and how your foot feels as it becomes limp and loose.
- Stay in this relaxed state for a moment, breathing deeply and slowly.
- Shift your attention to your left foot. Follow the same sequence of muscle tension and release.
- Move slowly up through your body, contracting and relaxing the different muscle groups.
- It may take some practice at first, but try not to tense muscles other than those intended.
6. Mindfulness Meditation:
Rather than worrying about the future or dwelling on the past, mindfulness meditation switches the focus to what’s happening right now, enabling you to be fully engaged in the present moment and thereby reduce our anxiety.
- Sit on a straight-backed chair or cross-legged on the floor.
- Focus on an aspect of your breathing, such as the sensation of air flowing into your nostrils and out of your mouth, or your belly rising and falling.
- Once you’ve narrowed your concentration in this way, begin to widen your focus. Become aware of sounds, sensations, and thoughts.
- Embrace and consider each thought or sensation without judging it good or bad. If your mind starts to race, return your focus to your breathing. Then expand your awareness again.