- Aly Raisman held an ice cube, a technique to shock the body when it’s experiencing trauma symptoms.
- Surviving sexual assualt can manifest in physical ways long after the abuse.
- The strategy, shown in her special “Darkness to Light,” is a dialectical behavioral therapy tool.
In her new Lifetime documentary “Darkness to Light,” retired gymnast Aly Raisman often describes how surviving trauma takes a physical toll. The two-time Olympian was abused by former USA gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, and has been a sexual assault awareness advocate since opening up about it in 2017.
In the special, Raisman said she often feels like she’s going to throw up after media interviews about sexual assault. “It literally feels like I just finished a training session,” the former USA Gymnastics team captain said.
Even when there’s not an obvious trigger, Raisman said she can experience physical symptoms of trauma. “I’d be at a dinner and I felt like my throat was closing up,” she said in the show.
But during a meeting with another sexual assault survivor and advocate, Ericka Dixon, Raisman learned a trick for regaining control when the body misperceives threat: put an ice cube in your hand.
“If you’re really activated or in crisis, it shocks your body,” Dixon, also a disabilities advocate, said. “The goal is really to return to your body, to calm down enough so that then you can be in a better head space to figure out what to do next.”
Dixon said some people put the ice cube on the back of their neck, their wrists, or even put their whole face in a bowl of ice. Raisman tried holding one cube in her hand. “It actually feels better than I thought it would,” she said.
The ice trick is one of several distress tolerance strategies in dialectical behavior therapy
Dixon said she learned the technique in dialectical behavior therapy, a type of cognitive behavior therapy that aims to help people stay in the moment, develop healthy coping mechanisms, regulate emotions, and improve relationships, according to Verywell Mind.
It was developed in the 1980s for patients for whom CBT fell short, and focuses on self-acceptance and positive change. In addition to holding an ice cube, other “distress tolerance” exercises include running up and down stairs or moving from indoors to outdoors in order to distract yourself and let your body, not mind, lead in moments of perceived crisis.
“We are finding more therapeutic approaches, we’re understanding more and more how trauma is affecting the mind and body, and how we can teach our patients how to take control over these symptoms,” neuroscientist Dr. Diana Martinez said in the special.