Survivors of childhood sexual abuse commonly report lingering feelings of being contaminated. This effect can lead to problems with self-esteem and body image, relationship trouble, and behavioral issues such as obsessive washing. Now a study in the January 2012 issue of Behavior Modification finds that a treatment that appeals to both logic and emotion,(cortical and subcortical parts of the brain) via mental imagery, can help relieve these intrusive feelings.

Psychologists at Goethe University Frankfurt in Germany tested a brief treatment consisting of one session and a follow-up session. First, therapists and participants discussed the details of their contamination thoughts—what it feels like, when and where it occurs, and how it affects daily life. Then participants were instructed to research on the Internet how often human skin cells are rebuilt. They also calculated how many times the cells in their trauma-related body regions have been replaced since their last contact with their abusers. (Skin cells rebuild every four to six weeks; mucous membranes more often.) The subjects discussed with the therapists what these facts mean—for instance, “not one of the dermal cells that cover my body now has been in contact with my abuser.” Finally, they performed an exercise in which they imagined shedding their contaminated skin.

The results found this treatment sig­nificantly decreased feelings of being con­taminated and also overall post-traumatic distress scores. The combination of factual information with mental imagery is key, because the information affects the neocortex which is the thinking brain while the imagery reduces the activation in the limbic system which is the emotional brain.

Source: January 2012 issue of Behavior Modification