Book Review: Healing Sexual Trauma Workbook

Book cover: Healing Sexual Trauma Workbook by Erika Shershun

The Healing Sexual Trauma Workbook by Erika Shershun draws on somatic psychotherapy to help survivors of sexual assault/abuse work through their trauma and find healing. The author herself is a sexual assault survivor. The book isn’t specifically oriented towards either isolated traumatic incidents or complex trauma, but seems like it could speak to both. It’s set up as a workbook with questions and exercises for the reader, and illustrations are incorporated to demonstrate some of the exercises.

The author explains that trauma isn’t cognitive, it’s biological. Polyvagal theory is heavily drawn upon as the main basis for describing how trauma affects the mind and body. Interestingly (or at least, interesting to me) was that the amygdala didn’t get a single mention. Aspects of the trauma response, such as tonic immobility as part of the freeze response, are described to help survivors understand why they responded the way they did. The brain’s way of handling trauma memories is also discussed.

The book also covers topics like safety, self-compassion, boundaries, and dealing with difficult emotions like anger, guilt, and shame. Mindfulness was presented as a way of creating new neural pathways, and embodiment was described as the antidote to dissociation.

There were some New Age-y bits that were described as though they were literal rather than metaphorical. The author writes that after a serious trauma, “your energy is pulled upwards.” She adds that loss of grounding occurs on a broader scale because “Our culture reveres the brain, so generally our energy is focused higher in the body.” She then tied these metaphorical/spiritual ideas that aren’t literally true into creating an imbalance in the autonomic nervous system. When you mix metaphorical/spiritual with the literal/physiological, you can end up being left with nonsense.

The nonsense continues: “Although not usually the case when healing from sexual trauma, it’s possible to be overgrounded, where your energy is not flowing upward from Earth’s magnetic field.” If that works spiritually, that’s fantastic, but in a book that’s also emphasizing physiology, there needs to be some distinction made.

The author describes ideas about the heart’s electromagnetic fields, rhythms, coherence, and entrainment, all of which seems to come from the company HeartMath, which sounds a bit dubious. She recommends readers get their heart rate variability sensor, which retails on their website for USD 159.

Parts of the book are drawn verbatim from posts on the author’s blog. There’s no mention of this in the book, but I happened to stumble across it while looking to see if the author had any connection to HeartMath.

I reached the end of this book thinking huh, this wasn’t really what I expected. Will some survivors find it helpful? Sure. Will you know from reading the book description whether it will be your thing? Quite possibly not. I think that if people have some familiarity with polyvagal theory and it speaks to them or interests them, this book will probably be appealing. If it doesn’t do much for you, this book probably won’t either.

The Healing Sexual Trauma Workbook is available on Amazon (affiliate link).

I received a reviewer copy from the publisher through Netgalley.

You can find my other reviews on the MH@H book review index or on Goodreads.

12 thoughts on “Book Review: Healing Sexual Trauma Workbook”

  1. We clicked your link to their heart monitor, and found their pitch is to transform unpleasant states like stress and anxiety into pleasant states like gratitude and ease.

    They claim to have 300 studies related to the product, but that doesn’t mean the studies prove or validate their methods or promised outcomes. In fact, the one study they reference that we looked at says in its abstract that the expected increase in psychophysiological coherence (stemming from reduced anxiety) was not present.

    Presenting pseudoscience as fact in the book seems dangerous without an introductory orientation or disclaimer. We are open to the intermingling of them to some extent but this book doesn’t sound like it meets our needs for trust, effectiveness, and integrity. Thanks for the review

    1. One of the people on their scientific advisory board is a “planetary healer.” Some planetary healing would be nice, but somehow a scientific advisory board doesn’t seem like quite the right fit for it…

  2. I’m interested in polyvagal theory but not hokey pseudoscience butchering things, and a “recommendation” for what looks to be an overpriced heart monitor.

    Plenty of free and okayish smartphone apps, my government just gave every household an oximeter that also measures pulse per minute.

    1. The heart monitor is different from your basic heart rate monitor in that it measures heart rate variability, which polyvagal theory says is important, but the idea of monitoring your HRV just because seems pretty fringe-y. What makes me a bit dubious about polyvagal theory, especially the finer point of it, is that the research is pretty much all Stephen Porges all the time, and without more independent confirmation, the specifics probably shouldn’t be considered as gospel, although this author seems to do just that.

      1. Ooohhh, I see about the heart monitor.

        Good point on how most of polyvagal theory is Stephen Porges. He’s probably going to be considered/maybe is already a giant like Bessel van de Kolk, but yeah, independent confirmation from a variety of high quality research is really important to prove it’s indeed a sound theory.

        1. His theory has certainly taken off, and the bigger picture seems to fit very well with what survivors experience, but in terms of the physiological nitty gritty details being solid, I don’t think those can be accepted as a given without more independent confirmation. For example, if heart rate variability is so critically tied into the whole thing, how has that piece not been extensively built upon by a whole pile other researchers? I also question it a bit when people who have no reason to have a background in the physiological nitty gritty, like this book’s author, lean really hard into that aspect of polyvagal theory, as it gives the impression of spouting off what they’ve been taught without knowing quite enough to critically evaluate it. And given the pseudoscience bits, I’m pretty confident the author doesn’t know quite enough.

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