Squyres: Current political climate can be triggering for sexual assault victims; protect yourself (column)
Last week’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony are affecting just about everyone who’s paying attention. However, survivors of sexual abuse, assault or harassment are likely to be affected in a way that those who’ve never been through it may have a hard time comprehending.
While the actual statistics about sexual victimization vary, there seems to be a consensus that at least one in four women have been affected in some way. This means that all of us are regularly interacting with women who may be profoundly distressed by what’s happening.
While some survivors may feel validated and empowered because people are finally talking about this, others are feeling triggered and overwhelmed. As they see news coverage and social media posts confirming their worst fears about shaming and disbelief, their trauma symptoms escalate.
If you or someone you care about is struggling, encourage them to seek help. Feeling isolated and alienated only makes things worse. Psychotherapy, support groups or online forums can provide a sense of community and teach valuable coping skills. Recovery from trauma is possible, and no one should feel like they need to suffer alone in silence.
Setting boundaries on news exposure is critically important. Avoid the news if it’s highly disturbing to you. Reading articles or short summaries may be easier to handle than watching live coverage or video updates. Take care with your social media exposure.
You may want to pare down your friends list. If someone on your feed is sharing posts that are upsetting, consider clicking the unfriend button. Alternatively, you unfollow their posts without actually blocking them. Establish a rule on your own feed that negative or incendiary comments will be deleted as soon as you see them. It’s your page, and realizing you have control over what populates it can be powerful.
If you are struggling, be compassionate toward yourself. Feeling bad about bad things that have happened to you is actually reasonable and healthy. It’s not a sign of weakness. Feeling triggered means that you are hijacked by a flood of fear and panic, intense negative emotions and a loss of the sense of your current time and place.
While you may not experience a full-on flashback, the sense of feeling overwhelmed and out of control can be hard to manage. If this happens to you, bring yourself back to the present moment. Take deep breaths, focus on something in the physical world, feel your feet against the floor or the wind in your hair, observe the leaves on the trees or play with your pet. Hop on your bike or go for a hike. Listen to uplifting or inspiring music.
Use as many of your senses as you can to ground yourself. Deep breaths and a mindful focus on the world outside your head can stop the cascade of fear and panic and help you reset. Your goal is to remind yourself that you are not stuck in the past and that you are safe. Reach out to compassionate friends and family. Don’t turn to alcohol and drugs to manage your reactions because while they may seem like a short-term fix, they make things worse in the long run.
Reading MeToo posts can create internal pressure to disclose your abuse or harassment history. While there is comfort and strength in community, don’t feel compelled to share your story if doing so makes you uncomfortable. It’s OK to let other’s take the lead if you’re not ready to participate.
On the other hand, hearing others’ MeToo stories or experiencing outrage about what you’re seeing onscreen can be a galvanizing force that motivates you to disclose your story. Do whatever feels right to you, and be OK with it. Whatever you choose, don’t let guilt and shame define you. You are so much more than your worst experiences.
Whether you have been a victim of sexual harassment or assault, or love someone who has been victimized, take this opportunity to think long and hard about what we want from our relationships, our country and our leaders. Any positive or constructive effort you make is a step in the right direction. Don’t sit back waiting for someone else to be the change you want to see in the world. And if you only do one thing, remember that your vote counts, so get out and cast your ballot on Election Day.
Jill Squyres, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in practice in Eagle and board member of SpeakUp ReachOut, The Suicide Prevention Coalition of Eagle Valley. She can be reached at 970-306-6986 and firstname.lastname@example.org.