The current wave of sexual abuse news is causing thoughtful people everywhere to feel disgust, sadness and rage on behalf of those victimized. But for some of us who have endured such violence, the relentless coverage and subsequent backlash are taking us to an even more disturbing place. Here, we take a look at how survivors are affected and offer insights from mental health professionals and survivors on the best ways to cope.
How Media Coverage Affects Survivors
“It’s really draining to just constantly be bombarded with it,” says Shanon Lee, a stay-at-home mother in Washington, D.C. and self-described “survivor activist” who wrote, directed, and produced the film Marital Rape Is Real.“Whether you’re opening an email newsletter, or going on Twitter or Facebook, you can’t get away from it.”
“Different individuals are experiencing this very differently,” says Beth Enterkin, a trauma therapist and clinical training specialist at Rape Victim Advocates in Chicago. Some are “glad that it’s happening but they’re also feeling overwhelmed by it and experiencing a real increase in their general level of anxiety,” she says, while others are having a much more severe reaction, including experiencing PTSD and trauma symptoms.
Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis, a Los Angeles-based psychologist, associate professor at Pepperdine University, and author of Surviving Sexual Violence is seeing something similar in her practice. “There can be a sense of empowerment, a sense of community because you realize you’re not alone and how pervasive it is, but it’s also depressing and can make people angry. And there’s a healthiness to that outrage because it is outrageous. Not only that there are predators, but that we as society support predators with our silence. And worse than the silence is the shaming, blaming and disbelief that often confirms for people their decision not to tell their story.”
Know That It’s OK to Need Help
“I tell survivors the need for self compassion is essential,” say Bryant-Davis. “And some people will be very hard on themselves and say, ‘I thought I was over it,’ but there’s an additional layer of pain in not just being reminded of it but also in seeing the lack of response that other people received.”
Whether you’ve been in therapy in the past or never gone, if sexual abuse is impacting your daily life—your state of mind, health, relationships, job or all of the above—now is the time to seek help. Yes, even if you’ve already gone through a therapeutic or healing process, or if the abuse you suffered happened many years ago. “Seeking therapy isnot a sign of weakness, says Enterkin. “There’s no timeline or expiration date on healing from trauma and nobody has to go through it alone.” Just as serious physical injuries need multiple interventions in order to ensure complete recovery, so do psychic ones. “There’s the myth that time heals all wounds,” says Bryant-Davis. “There is this assumption that you should be over it. With other forms of trauma we have more compassion, but when it’s sexualized violence or partner violence or child abuse, the response is very different.”
Also, if you’ve done counseling in the past and are wary about re-immersing in the process—plus the time commitment and the money—know that it might not be as long-term a project as you think. Bryant-Davis advises people do a “check-in” with their counselors and assess their needs from there.
Set Boundaries With Media
Modulating your intake of stories about sexual abuse is really important. “You want to be informed, but it’s also important to know what you can hold,” says Bryant-Davis. There are different ways to do this. Enterkin suggests that you set a limit on absorbing such media, maybe watching the news or reading posts on the subject for no more than an hour a day.
Lauren Appio, a New York-based psychologist and career coach who works with many adult survivors of sexual assault, says it’s important to check in with yourself before, during, and after you check your news feeds. “If you are having urges to check social media or check news sites or engage in a lot of conversations with your coworkers around this, it may be good to just check in with yourself about how helpful and effective that is for you and how that’s impacting your emotional state,” she says. “And it may be helpful for you to set some limits on that.”
Set Boundaries with Friends, Family, and Co-Workers
Everywhere we go, the topic of sexual abuse is coming up, and even in the best case scenario, when the topic is treated with respect—which is definitely not a given—survivors can find it upsetting. “There can be an anxiety moment or even panic moment: ‘Should I tell? Should I talk about it?’ It’s OK to disclose and also OK not to,” says Enterkin. “It’s important to listen to yourself.” Enterkin adds it’s also OK to excuse yourself from a conversation if things feel overwhelming. You can do this without “outing” yourself, says Appio, and you can do it in a way that works for the situation at hand and works for you.
You can try, “I’m so tired of hearing about this or talking about this,” or, “this is getting to be a little too much for me, I wonder if we could switch the subject to something a bit lighter?” It’s very possible other people are feeling the same way and will switch over to talking about something else, Appio says, “But if people say ‘No, we really want to continue this conversation,’ then you could say—depending on if you’re at work or in a social situation— ‘Okay, you know, I’m going to take a break, go get another drink or go send this email’ or whatever. And then you can take a break, do some breathing, and then you can return to the conversation. And with friends, you could say something like ‘Okay, do we have to keep talking about this?’ or just simply change the subject altogether, like, ‘Is anyone watching Stranger Things’?”
You can also ask close friends or family you’ve disclosed to to look out for you when the subject comes up in conversation in a group, says Enterkin. “You can ask them to check in with you when the subject comes up, or maybe you want them to ask them to be the one to change the subject. It’s okay to ask for that kind of allyship from someone close and supportive.”
Know What It Means to Be “Triggered”
“Being triggered has become a common and kind of maligned term,” says Appio. “But being triggered is really about when our body is detecting some kind of threat around us and then moving into the fight, flight or freeze response as a way to protect us from that threat.” As humans, we are built to respond to real threats to our safety (say, an animal or human attacking us) in the moment by fighting, running away, or freezing. But Appio and many other mental health professionals agree that certain stimuli that take place only in the mind—for example, hearing or reading about sexual abuse—can trip or trigger false alarms in the mind and body that set off those same fight/flight/freeze responses, even when the danger isn’t physically present.
“This can look slightly different for everybody,” says Appio, who cautions that the fight/flight/freeze trio of automatic responses don’t necessarily show up as literally those actions. The fight response, she says, can manifest as anger, frustration, and irritability. The flight response probably won’t cause you to actually run away, but you could feel antsy, have a sense of urgency, “that feeling of wanting to jump out of your skin and get the hell out of a meeting, like you can’t sit still.” The freeze response often looks like spacing out: you can’t pay attention in meetings or conversations. You might lose track of time and have a sense of helplessness or feeling trapped.
Regardless of what form it takes for you, being triggered feels awful. You might feel like you’re not in control, that you’re in the grip of some unstoppable, body-snatching force. You might feel that whatever you experienced in the past is running your life, and feel 100% convinced that you will feel this way forever. The good news is that none of this is true. These fears might feel absolutely true in the moment, but they’re not. And if you can learn to recognize the symptoms of being triggered—whatever they are for you—you are on your way to escaping their hold over you.
This moment of recognition brings you back into the present—I’m on the bus, looking at my phone, I’m safe—and gives you the opportunity to react to these signals differently. “You want to do this so that you don’t misinterpret those sensations you’re feeling as a sign that you are in danger, and so that you can instead decide how you want to respond in the moment.”
Don’t Feel Like You Have To #MeToo
For many people, the #metoo hashtag was a revelation. The numbers were staggering, the stories appalling. But for many others, the fact that so many people had experienced sexual harassment and assault wasn’t news at all. “There isn’t a woman alive who hasn’t been sexually harassed,” says Mary Majewski, a stay-at-home mother in Darien, Connecticut. She appreciates the camaraderie the hashtag created—“there’s a lot of strength in people speaking up and coming forward and saying ‘I was ashamed to talk about this for a long time’ and to know that it wasn’t just you”—but acknowledges that even though she suffered abuse, she’s in a privileged position. “I didn’t experience a situation where my life was at risk. With me, it was more like someone overwhelmingly acting out of power and misogyny,” she explains. “It’s not the knife to the throat; it’s just the grandiosity of being a man. None of it is great but if I had to relive nearly losing my life [every time a new story of abuse surfaces], we’d probably be having such a different conversation.”
For some who experienced more blatant violence, reading #MeToo stories can create a sense of peer pressure and stir up all sorts of painful feelings around their decision to disclose or not disclose their story.
“It’s not that I’ve definitely chosen that I’m never going to come out about what happened to me, but I’m definitely not doing it right now,” says Kendyl Coco, a 24-year-old retail worker in Philadelphia. “And I actually fear that I’m doing something wrong by staying quiet. I fear that I’m contributing to the problems in society by dealing with my problems in my own way, which is maybe the wrong way, and I feel guilty for being selfish by choosing to stay quiet.”
Resisting the social media pressure to constantly publicize the details of your life is a challenge for many of us, but when coming out about sexual abuse is held up as a political good and a disclosure campaign goes viral, the decision to share or not share can become extremely fraught for survivors. “The #MeToo campaign is so wonderful in bringing more awareness and we need awareness to bring about change,” says Enterkin. “But I think a lot of survivors of sexual violence—ranging from verbal harassment to sexual assault, rape, and trafficking—felt like they had to take part, that they have to come forward while they still live in a world that doesn’t respect or understand their experiences, a world that can make them feel blamed or shamed or disbelieved.”
“Survivors don’t owe the world their stories of survival,” says Enterkin. “The world owes them dignity and respect. They should only share what they want to share about their experiences and only when they feel safe and respected enough to share it.”
Learn How to Breathe. Yes, Learn.
It’s so common to be told to breathe or “just take a breath” when you’re having a hard time. And if you can do this, if you can take a few deep, slow breaths, you might feel yourself start to calm down, to come back into your body and into the present. But sometimes you can’t. Sometimes just taking a breath—this one simple, basic, life-sustaining thing—feels impossible. You’re too angry, too scared, too upset, too checked out. Or maybe you try to do it and you can’t and then you get even more upset: This is bad. I’m really messed up. There’s something wrong with me. I’m never going to get over this. Why aren’t I over this? This, clearly, is not helpful. What’s a better option? Take ten minutes—preferably during a moment when you’re not upset—to learn how to relax yourself with deep breathing and from that moment forward you’ll have an amazingly powerful (and free) tool that you can take with you everywhere and use whenever you feel stress building.
- Why learn how to breathe? When you practice deep breathing—specifically when you inhale and exhale for a specific number of seconds—you activate the parasympathetic nervous system which “puts the brakes on a fight or flight response,” says Appio or, in other words, chills you out immediately. Yogis have known and practiced this for eons; Western researchers are just starting to catch up.
- How to do it: The internet is filled with all kinds of info on this practice, called variously Coherent Breathing, Controlled Breathing, Resonant Breathing, etc. and tons of and how-to videos featuring a variety of not-so-relaxing music and graphics; as an alternative, we recommend this one(you can also learn the exact same method—with a few modifications—from Dr. Andrew Weil). Try to learn this practice before you need it. You don’t want to have to figure out how to swim after you’ve been tossed in the ocean. “I always recommend that people practice this daily when they are not stressed so that when they are stressed it’s a familiar, natural response,” says Appio.
Appio also recommends a practice called grounding where you “use your senses to anchor your attention to the present moment.” When you feel yourself being triggered you can gain a feeling of stability by “really throwing all of your attention into—for example—feeling the floor beneath your feet or the chair you’re sitting on. You can also look around the room and in your mind name the objects you see and what color they are or by really listening intently to the person who is talking to you. It’s just a way to say ‘I am here and I am safe here.’”
Take a moment to do this. It sounds absurd, but most of us are rarely aware of what’s going on in this body of ours. Shift your focus to your hands. Where are they? What are they up to? Are they curled into fists? Gripping your phone, holding a fork, steering a mouse? Are they hot? Cold? Sweaty? Dry? Itchy? Tingly? You don’t have to judge any of these sensations—none of them are better or worse than any others. This practice isn’t about that. This practice is just about getting yourself back into the here and now, away from going over and over things that have happened in the past or worrying about a million things that are probably never going to happen in the future.
For a lot of people, getting back into their body—whether it’s something active like running, working out, or playing a sport—or something low-key like just moving, dancing by yourself in your bedroom, getting up and stretching, or taking an easy stroll, can help immensely. But sometimes the body can feel perilous or out of reach. In these moments, Appio suggests practicing grounding that’s rooted in the senses of hearing and seeing—naming objects, listening intently to another person or the sounds around you as they come and go—rather than touch. All of these things work to bring you into the present moment.
Know What “Self Care” Means For You, And Practice It
“‘Self care’ is about defining for yourself what nourishes you,” Bryant-Davis says. “For you that could mean going to yoga; for someone else it could mean going to a prayer meeting or going to a rally. Sometimes when we’re caught up in emotion we forget what’s worked for us in the past.”
“I have been meditating almost every day which is nice,” says Coco. “And I’m going back to therapy soon. These are both things I’m doing to cope with the world in general, not just this thing.” And though she says she has moments of guilt for not “doing anything” in terms of activism, “I’m figuring out what I care about and what I want to do about it and how to put that energy into action.”
For Bryant-Davis, this deliberate process makes sense. “I will give a caution that sometimes people skip to activism and they haven’t done any interior work, but activism is not a replacement for working through your stuff,” she says. “It can be very empowering in addition to doing the internal work for your healing. But to just skip over yourself and say ‘I’m going to advocate for others’ is not a good idea. If we’re in service while we’re still very broken we can harm ourselves and often do harm to other people.”
“I don’t know if I’m coping, honestly,” Coco says. “Is scrolling faster coping? Because that’s what I do. I mindlessly scroll through things for five minutes—I don’t read things any more—and then I turn my phone off and feel like I want to vomit. It’s really bad. But I have been coping. I’m reading books and reading stories—Waking the Tiger by Peter Levine, Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur, Sex Object by Jessica Valenti, Girl in the Woods by Aspen Matis—and listening to podcasts about this and I’m like this is great! This podcast The Heart is great. Just hearing other people’s stories about it in different ways and realizing I’m not alone, that helps.”