Compassion therapy a focus for survivors of sexual abuse

4 Dec 2017
distressed woman
The impacts of sexual abuse include a range of long-term psychological, interpersonal, and health-related difficulties.

Psychotherapy that encourages self-compassion may help treat survivors of sexual abuse, University of Queensland researchers have found.

The School of Psychology study reviewed the alignment between some of the common issues associated with experiences of sexual abuse with the underlying principles of compassion-focused therapy (CFT).

Researcher Dr Stan Steindl, an Adjunct Associate Professor at UQ's School of Psychology, said some of the negative impacts for survivors of sexual abuse could be targeted with CFT.

“CFT is used to treat people who experience high levels of shame and self-criticism, helping them understand and respond to their distress from the perspective of a compassionate mind,” Dr Steindl said.

“People who have been subjected to sexual abuse express feelings of self-blame and shame, have difficulties in regulating their emotions and forming healthy personal relationships; and often use dysfunctional coping strategies, such as the misuse of drugs and alcohol.

“Treatments need to specifically target these problems and offer alternative strategies for understanding and responding to the trauma-based symptoms.

“That’s where CFT comes in – it can help to reduce feelings of shame, strengthen personal relationships, and promote healthy coping strategies.”

Approximately eight per cent of men and 19 per cent of women have experienced some form of sexual abuse prior to the age of 18, but experts believe the rates are much higher as sexual abuse is often underreported.

The impacts of sexual abuse include a range of long-term psychological, interpersonal, and health-related difficulties.

Sexually abused females experience higher rates of depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, behavioural problems, substance misuse, obesity, learning difficulties and other physical health concerns, than non-abused females.

CFT is currently used to treat eating disorders, personality disorders, anxiety, depression, and psychosis.

Dr Steindl is confident CFT can be adapted to assist survivors of sexual abuse.

“CFT provides an alternative and positive approach for regulating emotions and reducing self-criticism and avoidance in response to trauma symptoms.

The study, in collaboration with UQ researchers Ms Lisa McLean and Dr Matthew Bambling, is published in the Journal of Child Sexual Abuse.

Media: Dr Stan Steindl,; Dani Nash, UQ Communications,, +61 7 3346 3035.