Coping Resources and Support for MST Survivors
Military Sexual Trauma
Coping Resources and Support for MST Survivors
For some people, the experience of military sexual trauma (MST) may continue to affect them in significant ways, even many years later. If you are feeling increased stress or anxiety related to MST, the coping ideas on this page may help.
Many coping and support resources are also available in Beyond MST. Beyond MST is a free, secure and private self-help mobile app created specifically to support the health and well-being of survivors of MST. Any personal information entered in the app is not shared with anyone, including VA.
Survivors of trauma may experience particularly distressing emotions at certain times or because of current events. For example, public discussion and media coverage related to sexual assault, harassment, physical violence and other issues may bring up painful memories and feelings for MST survivors. Increasingly, many Veterans and Service members have been speaking out about their experiences. Discussion and sharing about the reality of these experiences is important; and, it is often still emotionally painful to hear.
Harassment and discrimination related to race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender can also affect healing from MST. For some survivors, learning about violence and harassment motivated by sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia or other hatred can lead to distressing thoughts like, “It could have been me,” or images of their own unwanted sexual experiences or experiences of harassment or discrimination.
The multiple impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic can also be especially difficult for those who have experienced MST or other forms of trauma.
During stressful times, you may notice more sudden, strong emotions; trouble concentrating; poor sleep or nightmares; feeling helpless, anxious, or depressed; or other changes. If you are feeling increased distress, please take your reactions seriously.
Here are some coping strategies that may help:
- Remind yourself it is okay to feel upset. Your reactions are normal, and it does not mean there is something wrong with you or you’ve had a setback in your healing.
- Do what works for you. Try safe, healthy things that have helped you cope during difficult times in the past. Know that you may need to try more than one thing, and it may take more energy or effort than usual.
- Pace yourself. If you notice fatigue, irritability, poor focus, more anxiety or other signs you may be feeling stressed or overwhelmed, try to slow down, simplify or take a break.
- Connect with your communities. Connect with supportive people in your life and community. Even if you do not tell others about your own experiences, it can still help to connect with them. Some people may also choose to engage in local advocacy efforts or provide support to others with similar experiences.
- Limit exposure to media. Notice how the news or social media posts are affecting you, and if need be, limit how much you look at them. You can also focus on reading stories that give you hope or make you feel supported or less alone.
- Inspire yourself. Recalling past successes can be an effective way of reminding yourself of your strength. It may also help to view inspiring quotes or stories about others who have experienced similar difficulties, like those available on the VA websites Make the Connection and AboutFace.
- Be kind to yourself. Practice being compassionate toward yourself, like how you might treat a friend or loved one. One way to do this is to ask yourself what gives you joy or meaning, and to do more of those activities.
- Try breathing, relaxation and meditation activities. Mindful breathing, guided imagery and meditation can reduce stress, improve sleep, reduce pain, generate confidence and enhance focus. VA’s Whole Health Library offers many educational materials and relaxation exercises.
- Maintain healthy habits as much as you can. As stress increases, your healthy habits may understandably decrease. It may take more effort to eat healthy meals, avoid substance misuse, prioritize exercise and get some sunlight each day, but these actions can be especially important during stressful times.
- Get rest. Strive for seven or more hours of sleep each night. Less sleep than that can make you tired and less able to manage stress.
- Increase mindful movement. Physical activity is vital for stress reduction. It doesn’t have to be extreme activity, either. Activities that help you mindfully reconnect to your body in a safe way, like yoga and tai chi, may help you feel particularly strong and steady.
- Get support. Spend time with people whose company you enjoy. You do not need tell them you’re feeling distressed, or about your MST experience, but you can if it helps. You can also just say, “I’m having a rough time right now,” without sharing details if that feels right. Or, you can spend time with someone without telling them how you are doing.
- Remind yourself healing is a journey. You will have ups and downs, and there will be some times that are harder than others. Please remember that over time, you can move forward.
Please know you are not alone in what you have been through or in your healing. VA is here to help. Visit Take the Next Step to learn how to connect with a VHA MST Coordinator and access MST-related services at your local VA healthcare facility. VA also offers specific support services for women Veterans, LGBTQ+ Veterans, minority Veterans, and transitioning Service members.
If you’re in crisis or need immediate assistance, please contact the free, confidential Veterans Crisis Line, available 24/7. Call 988 and Press 1, text to 838255, or chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat.