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FEATURE - March 2019

Overcoming the Mental Barrier to Healing from Assault

By  Julia Laughlin 

Training for triathlons and healing from the trauma of sexual violence share a common struggle: overcoming the mental barrier. Perhaps one of the reasons people in their 30s often perform better in triathlons than those in their 20s is mental stamina. 

The same may to be true with healing from a sexual assault. I have read and heard a number of stories of people who have said, “I didn’t tell anyone for thirty years.” 

Consider this parallel. Four-time Ironman Triathlon World Champion Chrissie Wellington, who won her first championship at age 30, talks about the “mental roller coaster” of training and racing with physical injuries, in “Chrissie Wellington’s Mind-Over-Body Battle” ( 09/13/2012). “It’s just road rash. I can race with damaged skin. I tried to convince myself that it wasn’t that bad.” 

Minimizing and pretending, exactly the techniques Wellington used to overcome her race injuries, are also two hallmark strategies that victims of sexual assault use as we try to get on with our lives. We tell ourselves things like, “What’s the matter with you, it wasn’t that bad, stop crying, and just get over it.” But as Claire Burke Draucker, Ph.D., R.N., says, “Sexual assault creates a profound loss of control over your body.” (Shape 11/10/2017). 

That loss of control, and the search to regain it, helped fuel my interest in triathlons, which I took up in my 40s. It was something I wanted to do for myself. It didn’t matter that I had no money. It was something I could do with what I already had, and the only cost was the pool fee. It didn’t require a gym, or even a fancy bike—I rode an old mountain bike in my first race. Even more important, I didn’t have to rely on anyone or anything else. It was all under my control. And that was powerful.

"Healing from sexual violence often entails restoring one's sense of self," says Alison Rhodes, Ph.D. (Shape 11/10/2017). Though I didn’t know it at the time, when I did return to the deep work of healing, I realized that intensive training was doing just that for me: helping to restore my trust in myself, rebuild my self-esteem and confidence…and develop the mental stamina I needed not only for the race, but also for the work to heal. 


“What makes triathlons so hard is that to complete them, we must overcome not only pain and suffering, but also our natural resistance to pain and suffering,” says Matt Fitzgerald in, “Building Mental Toughness in Triathlon.” ( 08/20/2010). And it is the same with healing from rape. 

Though nobody wants to face that pain and the anguish it brings, it is the only way through, because healing requires a willingness to face our pain and uncomfortable truths. To do these things without becoming emotionally incapacitated, it is first necessary to develop the mental endurance to cope. That’s because for most of us, no matter how long and dark the night has been, we still have to get up in the morning, take care of kids, go to work, and function as if nothing is wrong. We have to continue to engage in the activity of life.

And it is activity itself that offers a path to healing. Researchers reviewing studies on combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder found that “physical activity enhances well-being in veterans by reducing symptoms and improving coping strategies”. (Psychology Today 08/10/2016).

Activity helps because it gives us something else to focus on, a physical activity that takes us out of our heads. It’s a way to free yourself from trying to think your way to healing. And is necessary because, “trauma is remembered in the body, which means that you’ll have to do more than talk it out to heal,” says CarmenLeah Ascencio ( 07/02/2015). And the more you do physical activity, the better you feel. 

In her blog, “Healing via Triathlon,” Ashley Zaccaro writes about her process of healing from rape. She says, “But simultaneously I was training for the triathlon. This gave me life. It gave me purpose. It gave me a goal I needed to put in the work to accomplish successfully.” (

Getting started is often difficult and can be a struggle. One important impetus is to create a weekly schedule. For triathlons, it is necessary to have an actual training schedule, because the race itself—going from swimming to cycling to running—is grueling. 

But having the schedule performs another important function. 

It gives you a reason to get out of yourself and into the world. On those days when I felt miserable, like the darkness was closing in, and I just wanted to stay shuttered inside, it was my training schedule that pulled me out. The schedule that said, “Today, run x 30 minutes,” took the thinking out of it. I just did it. And when I finished, I was always glad I had done it. I had to regularly remind myself that afterward, I would never regret the exercise. It was giving back to myself. As Alison says, “Survivors benefit most from practices that facilitate their abilities to take care of themselves in a gentle way and make choices for their own bodies.”

For many, participating in triathlons and doing your personal best is something you do for yourself. The accomplishment resides entirely inside you. It’s not to beat others to the finish line. Rather, it’s to cross the finish line and say to yourself, “I did it.”

As Claire puts it, “Though the road to recovery is long and difficult, and there's by no means a cure-all to such trauma, many survivors are finding solace in fitness.” (Shape 11/10/2017 )

Steps to take


  • Find a race to participate in

  • Ease into the activity, go slow and build up

  • Make a weekly training schedule (find sample schedules online with a simple search, such as “beginner triathlon schedules”)

  • Don’t beat yourself up if you fall off the schedule

  • Practice self-acceptance and self-empathy

  • Keep your eye on your goal as you work toward race day

  • And most importantly—have fun!



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Julia Laughlin is a speaker, advocate, lawyer, and author of The River and the Sea: A Story of Forgiveness, about her path to healing from sexual violence. Available for purchase on her website and local bookstores in Lawrence and Salina. Learn more at:, and email:

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