How to cope if you’re triggered by the latest sexual abuse news

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Photo by Mihai Surdu/Unsplash

Every day, it feels like we’re captivated by yet another news story involving sexual abuse.

Currently, many of us are preoccupied with two recent documentaries involving high-profile performers and child sex abuse. Last month, we learned that more 380 people involved with the Southern Baptist church have faced allegations of sexual misconduct. Last fall, we followed reports covering the local rape trial of the younger brother of a star Panthers player. We also listened to a California professor testify that a Supreme Court judge nominee had groped her when they were in high school.

Sexual assault and harassment touch just about every corner of our society. Research shows that one in three women and nearly one in six men experience contact sexual violence at some point in their lives. According to U.S. Census data, there are approximately 430,000 women living in Charlotte — that means more than 141,000 local women have or will have experienced sexual violence.

[Related: White men, sexual assault is our problem and it’s time to acknowledge it]

It’s pretty depressing. And trying to escape that reality, especially when we’re always connected to social media, seems next to impossible. There, with the ease of a “Share” button, the fire that carries many of these stories far and wide is ignited.

Retraumatization defined

For survivors of sexual abuse, the endless barrage of triggering headlines can be more than just depressing — they may find themselves dealing with many of the same feelings they had when they were abused.

This is called retraumatization, explained Kim Dupuis, clinical director of survivor-led advocacy organization Brave Step. It’s basically anything that “reopens the wound of somebody’s trauma,” thus resurfacing feelings of guilt, shame or even feeling like no one believes your story.

“You really can’t get away from it,” Dupuis said. “You turn on the TV, you look at your phone, you turn on the radio — it’s being discussed everywhere. It’s an extremely challenging time for someone who may feel like they’re miles and miles away from their trauma and have done their healing — this definitely can resurface a lot of emotions around the initial trauma.”

No, you can’t get away from it. Not with the traction the #metoo movement has made in recent years, bringing these issues to light. But there are things you can do as a survivor to cope when you’re feeling triggered by the news cycle.  

One of the first things you should do is to acknowledge what you’re feeling is real, Dupuis said. “This is retraumatization. This is secondary trauma. And there is a very real psychological and physical response to it. Acknowledging that and recognizing it are key to seeking out help in healing from it.”

Cori Goldstein, the deputy chief operating officer at Safe Alliance (a nonprofit that offers clinical and victim services), said that when people call their 24/7 support hotline seeking help after feeling triggered because of something they’ve seen in the news, advocates often offer “grounding techniques” to help them return to the present moment.

“What we’ve found works the best is focusing on the five senses,” Goldstein said, adding that this conversation is individualized based on the survivor and their experience. For example, an advocate may suggest a survivor take a whiff of a strong scent, such as peppermint or lavender, to help them step away from their traumatic memories.

“Sometimes, we use sight,” Goldstein continued. “We’ll say, ‘Wherever you’re sitting right now, name all of the colors in the room. Name the colors that are around you.’ So they’ll look at something and start naming the color, and that’s telling them they’re not in the past. They’re present where they are in that moment.”

“If they are safe, we encourage them to tell themselves, ‘I am safe in this moment. I am not in that experience anymore.’ If they’re not safe, then we evaluate safety and work toward getting them safe.”

Another way to deal with the never-ending public conversations surrounding abuse is to talk about them with the people you trust the most, whether that’s a personal support system of family and friends, or a trained professional.

Dupuis also suggested simply unplugging from TV, social media and phone notifications and spending time on activities that lower your stress levels, such as meditation or yoga. “Insulate [yourself] from hearing and seeing it daily,” she said.

[Related: Ramona Holloway on sexual assault survival, R. Kelly and a system that supports abusers]

Both Dupuis and Goldstein also noted that one benefit to these ongoing conversations around abuse, consent and healthy relationships is that they raise more awareness of the prevalence of this terrible behavior. That, in turn, may help to address some of the misconceptions surrounding abuse, thus pushing for systemic change.

Last year, with the popularity of WFAE’s investigative podcast She Says — which followed the journey of one sexual assault survivor in Mecklenburg County — Goldstein said Brave Step saw an increase in referrals, including more people seeking services and those wanting to offer their support.

“If we get people listening and talking and having these conversations, it’s always going to make an impact,” Dupuis said.

If you or someone you know is a victim of sexual assault, abuse, or harassment, you can call Safe Alliance’s 24/7 Greater Charlotte Hope Line at 980-771-HOPE (4673). You can also find more information from Brave Step and the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault, or join a local support group.

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