For the millions of sexual assault survivors in the United States, current events can be rough terrain. In an age when a constant stream of thoughts, information and pictures is available at our fingertips, it can be difficult to avoid stories and imagery of sexual assault and abuse. “Sometimes, the news is just too much,” said Megan, a 46-year-old teacher in West Virginia who said she was victimized as a minor and requested that The Washington Post not publish her last name. “I’ll be watching movies or TV or even the news, and there are sometimes where I’m just like, ‘Nope, can’t do this today, not even going to attempt it.’ ”
Megan experiences a wide variety of reactions when she’s reminded of sexual violence. Sometimes she gets angry, fueled by feelings of powerlessness. Other times she’ll feel nothing — or, conversely, like she’s being traumatized all over again.
When a sexual assault occurs, the victim remembers the experience differently from a non-traumatic experience, explains Elizabeth Jeglic, a psychology professor at John Jay College who has written three books on preventing sexual violence. When that memory is triggered, “the individual may feel as if they are back in the situation and their fight-or-flight response may be activated,” Jeglic said. This can result in an increased heart rate, panic, freezing up, difficulty focusing, disassociation, headache, nausea, or other symptoms.
With so many land mines out there, one might wonder how to follow the news without stress or the risk of retraumatization. This is why experts say self-care is essential. Here are a few tips:
Feel your feelings and find a way to express them
“Many survivors find it helpful to identify healthy ways to express their feelings about things that remind them of their assault without pushing the feelings away,” said Emily Dworkin, a psychology professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine who studies the use of social support among trauma victims.
Healthy ways to express your feelings include talking to a trusted friend or family member, seeking a professional’s help, or expressing your thoughts in the form of journaling, music or poetry. Dance and yoga also help release the distress activated in the body when one is triggered, according to Thema Bryant-Davis, a psychology professor at Pepperdine University who studies coping strategies for trauma survivors.
Whatever you choose to do, don’t isolate yourself, even if interacting with another person seems daunting, Dworkin advised. And don’t use drugs or alcohol to numb negative emotions.
“Self-care is all about making sure you’re still practicing healthy coping and doing the things that are important for you to do, even (or especially) when it feels really hard,” Dworkin wrote in an email. “Pushing emotions away or bottling them up can backfire. They tend to come back in some form,” she said. “Usually, when you feel your negative emotions in a healthy way, they go away on their own.”
There are also many support groups for victims of sexual violence online and throughout the country. (Here’s a link to finding groups in your area.)
Practice mindfulness and self-compassion
Mindfulness can be extremely healing for trauma survivors. There is an enormous amount of research supporting its effectiveness in boosting psychological and physical well-being.
Practicing mindfulness, which has its roots in Buddhism, involves experiencing one’s current thoughts, feelings and sensations calmly and without judgment. It might consist of a few rounds of a deep breaths, sitting down to meditate, or being more aware of your body and its sensations for a few moments.
“When someone who has experienced a trauma is triggered and the traumatic thoughts and feelings come,” Jeglic explained, mindfulness can help them “recognize that these are byproducts of their brain reacting to the trigger and not proof that they are actually in danger.”
Victims frequently judge their own thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations harshly (“I am broken” or “I will never get over what happened to me”). If you find yourself experiencing feelings of shame or negative thoughts related to your own experience of trauma, “try to take a step back and on the one hand, recognize that these are normal responses, and on the other, critically evaluate whether they are accurate,” advised Sarah Lowe, a psychologist and Yale professor whose research focuses on the long-term mental health effects of trauma. In every instance, she says, “think about what you might say to a friend who was having the same thoughts and feelings.”
Take a break from what doesn't serve you
The media can be a great tool for increasing awareness about sexual assault. News headlines have brought down some of the most powerful, egregious perpetrators of sexual abuse. The #MeToo movement has empowered a large number of women to publicly share their experiences on social media.
But certain media can be very challenging to some survivors. “There is an often-subtle difference between being aware of current events and unnecessarily exposing oneself to aversive details about them,” Lowe said.
That’s why it’s important to sometimes tune out the news and social media in favor of activities that are both pleasurable and restorative. Lowe suggests going outside, taking a bath, having dinner with a friend, exercising, listening to or watching something funny.
Watching portrayals of sexual violence can also provoke a wide range of reactions associated with trauma. Megan avoids any scenes of sexual violence on television, and has to limit her exposure to certain news stories. “I’m not following the Harvey Weinstein trial,” she said.
Experts across the board say it’s important to limit your exposure to information that intensifies distress. Remember that you are in primary control of what you see. If that scene on TV disturbs you, turn it off or leave the room and make no apologies. If your social network tends to post triggering news articles, sign off or filter your results. There’s nothing wrong with muting friends.
Here’s a helpful guide from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network to remind survivors to tune out when they need to.
Help other victims
Every time sexual assault makes the headlines, Megan finds herself wanting to donate to RAINN, the national anti-sexual violence organization, or check up on her local women’s shelter to see if it needs supplies. “I feel like my anger is only as useful as what it helps you find the energy to do,” she said.
Indeed, many survivors find solace in being of service to other survivors. “Not in the immediate moment of being triggered, but later in recovery, many survivors find it empowering to engage in advocacy for victims of violence or to volunteer with agencies that serve survivors,” Bryant-Davis wrote in an email.
“When survivors have positive experiences with activism and volunteerism, it is associated with decreased depression, isolation, and powerlessness,” she added. “It also improves sleep quality, connection with others, and empowerment or sense that one can make a difference.”
Some activists and volunteers, however, end up experiencing burnout. “So, support and balance are needed,” Bryant-Davis said.
Know you're not alone
Sexual assault is disturbingly common. Every 73 seconds, a person is sexually assaulted in the United States, according to RAINN. And 1 in 6 women in the United States will experience either an attempted or completed sexual assault.
Whenever sexual assault makes the headlines, there’s an uptick in the number of calls to sexual assault support service centers. RAINN reported an increase in the volume of calls to its National Sexual Assault Hotline during the Kavanaugh hearings, for example. If you need immediate help, you can call a trained staff member in your area. The number is 1-800-656-4673.
Deborah Bloom is a multimedia journalist in Portland, Ore. who covers mental health, women’s issues and the environment.