How to Deal With the Current Information Cycle As a Victim of Sexual Assault

The current wave of news about sexual assault leaves brooding people everywhere with disgust, sadness and anger towards their victims. But for some of us who have experienced this kind of violence, the relentless coverage and subsequent backlash leads us to an even more alarming place. Here, we’ll take a look at how survivors were hurt and offer mental health professionals and survivors advice on how best to deal with it.

How media coverage affects survivors

“It’s really exhausting to just be bombarded with it all the time,” says Shannon Lee, a Washington, DC housewife who calls herself a “survivor activist” who wrote, directed and produced Marital Rape Is Real . “Regardless of whether you open the newsletter via email, go to Twitter or Facebook, you can’t get away from it.”

For some survivors, the torrent of stories is nothing but horror. But for others, there is some satisfaction in seeing the magnitude of the problem being made public, getting real proof that they are not alone, and seeing experiences that may have been underestimated, denied, or ignored in the past gain some degree of acceptance.

“Different people experience it differently,” says Beth Enterkin, a psychotherapist and clinical training specialist at Rape Victim Advocates in Chicago. Some “are glad this is happening, but they also feel depressed and experience a real increase in overall anxiety,” she says, while others have much more severe reactions, including post-traumatic stress disorder and trauma symptoms.

Dr. Tema Bryant-Davis, a Los Angeles psychologist, assistant professor at Pepperdine University and author of Surviving Sexual Abuse , sees something similar in his practice. “There can be a sense of empowerment, a sense of community, because you realize that you are not alone and how common it is, but it is also depressing and can make people angry. And there is a sanitary state of resentment in it, because it is outrageous. Not only are there predators, but we, as a society, support the predators with our silence. And worse than silence is shame, blame and mistrust, which often confirm people’s decision not to tell their story. ”

Lee adds that since much of the media coverage focuses on the cis-gender experiences of young white women, some survivors don’t feel the same sense of support and community. Instead, she says, they again feel undervalued, rejected and ignored. “There is a huge group of people who just don’t fit into the attention-grabbing storytelling, and for people who are traditionally more at risk – trans women and women of color – this is very isolating and creates another layer of harm.”

Knowing It’s OK to Need Help

“I tell survivors that the need for self-compassion is very important,” says Bryant-Davis. “And some people will be very hard on themselves and say, ‘I thought I was done already,’ but there is an additional layer of pain not only in the fact that they reminded of this, but also in the fact that they see a lack of reaction. that other people get. “

The myth of sexual assault is that it is perpetrated primarily by strangers who stab and then disappear. But, as recent coverage of events shows, Bryant-Davis says, “Most of the time, this is not the case, and most of the time the perpetrators were known to [the victims] and those around them, and those passers-by did or said nothing, which brings frustration back to the surface. and anger because they were not protected or cared for. “

Whether you’ve been in therapy in the past or never, if sexual abuse affects your daily life – your state of mind, health, relationships, work, or all of the above – now is the time to seek help. Yes, even if you have already gone through a therapy or healing process, or if the abuse you experienced happened many years ago. “Seeking therapy is not a sign of weakness,” says Enterkin. “There is no timetable or expiration date for healing from trauma, and no one has to go through it alone.” Just as serious physical injuries require multiple interventions for full recovery, so do mental injuries. “There is a myth that time heals all wounds,” says Bryant-Davis. “There is an assumption that you have to end this. We have more compassion for other forms of trauma, but when it comes to sexual abuse, partner abuse or child abuse, the response is very different. ”

Also, if you’ve consulted in the past and are wary of diving into the process again – plus time and money – know that this may not be as long-term as you think. Bryant-Davis advises people to “check” with their consultants and assess their needs from there.

Set boundaries with media

It is very important to change the number of stories about sexual assault. “You want to know, but it’s also important to know what you can hold,” says Bryant-Davis. This can be done in a number of ways. Enterkin suggests that you set a limit on the absorption of such media, for example, watching the news or reading messages on this topic for no more than an hour a day.

Lauren Appio, a New York City psychologist and career coach who works with many adult survivors of sexual abuse, says it’s important to test yourself before, during, and after watching the news feed. “If you have incentives to check social media or news sites, or engage in a lot of conversations with colleagues about this, it can be helpful to just test yourself how useful and effective it is for you and how it affects. your emotional state, ”she says. “And you might find it helpful to set some limits on that.”

“I just started blocking words on Twitter ,” Lee says, including “sexual assault” and “any names of criminals – Spacey, Weinstein – anything that will constantly bring up these stories in my timeline and on Facebook, I blocked popular stories from my tape. “

Set boundaries with friends, family and colleagues

Wherever we go, the topic of sexual violence comes up, and even at its best, when the topic is treated with respect – which is definitely not a given – survivors can get upset. “Maybe a moment of anxiety or even a moment of panic:“ Say? Should I talk about this? You don’t have to disclose it, ”says Enterkin. “It’s important to listen to yourself.” Enterkin adds that you can also apologize from the conversation if something seems unbearable. You can do this without “going outside,” says Appio, and you can do it in a way that works for the current situation and works for you.

You can try, “I’m so tired of hearing about this or talking about it” or “This is getting a little too much for me, I wonder if we could switch the topic to something a little easier?” It is very possible that other people think the same and switch to talking about something else, says Appio: “But if people say, ‘No, we really want to continue this conversation,’ then you can say – depending on if you “at work or in a social situation -” Okay, you know, I’m going to take a break, I’ll go get another drink or send this email “or something like that. And then you can take a break, breathe a little, and then you can return to the conversation. And with friends, you could say something like, “Okay, should we keep talking about this?” or just change the subject altogether, like, “Is anyone watching Stranger Things ?”

You can also ask close friends or family you told to look after you when the topic comes up in a group conversation, Enterkin says. “You can ask them to contact you when this topic comes up, or maybe you want them to ask them to change the topic. It’s okay to ask this kind of alliance from someone close and supportive. “

Know what it means to be “worked”

“Trigger has become a common and maligned term,” says Appio. “But actually, when a trigger goes off, it means our body detects some kind of threat around us and then starts fighting, fleeing, or freezing to protect us from that threat.” As humans, we are designed to respond to real threats to our safety (such as an animal or human attack on us) the moment we fight, flee, or freeze. But Appio and many other mental health professionals agree that certain mental-only stimuli – like hearing or reading about sexual assault – can trigger false alarms in the mind and body that trigger the same fight / flight / freeze. answers, even if there is no physical danger.

“It might look a little different for everyone,” says Appio, who cautions that the trio of automatic fight / flight / freeze responses does not necessarily manifest literally as these actions. According to her, the reaction of struggle can manifest itself in the form of anger, frustration and irritability. The flight response probably won’t actually make you run away, but you may feel anxiety, a sense of urgency, “this feeling of wanting to jump out of your skin and run to hell from the meeting like you can” not sit still. “The freeze response is often simple: you can’t pay attention in meetings or conversations. You can lose track of time and feel helpless or trapped.

Survivors who are anxious may notice muscle tension or body aches, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, and jumpy thoughts, Appio says. “People who feel depressed may notice a feeling of heaviness or numbness in their body and a decrease in energy along with a bad mood.” The current wave of media coverage can also cause people to “be preoccupied with thoughts of their own experiences of abuse, or play out scenarios in their minds of how they would react if faced with future abuse. All of these factors can lead to sleep and concentration problems. “

No matter what shape it takes for you, being a trigger is terrible. It may seem to you that you are not in control of the situation, that you are at the mercy of some irrepressible, exciting force. You can feel that everything that you have experienced in the past is in control of your life, and you will be 100% sure that you will always feel it. The good news is that none of this is true. At the moment, these fears may seem completely true, but they are not. And if you can learn to recognize the symptoms of a trigger – whatever they may be to you – you are well on your way to breaking free of their hold on you.

“As you become more familiar with the patterns of thoughts, feelings and sensations that arise in these moments, you can notice it, you can take a step back and think,“ Okay, this is happening. I know that this is my answer, and it may be related to what happened in the past, ”says Appio.

This moment of recognition brings you back to the present – I’m on the bus, looking at my phone, I’m safe – and gives you the ability to respond differently to these signals. “You want to do this so that you don’t misinterpret these sensations as a sign that you are in danger, and so that you can instead decide how you want to react at the moment.”

Think about the reaction and then the adjustments you make after hearing a fire alarm followed by a clear announcement. When the alarm goes off, you react instinctively: you jump, your heart pounds, you look for a way out. But as soon as you receive a complete clear signal or find out that it is a false alarm, you can catch your breath, re-calibrate and go about your business knowing that you are safe.

Don’t think you need #MeToo

For many, the #metoo hashtag was a revelation. The numbers were overwhelming, the stories terrifying. But for many others, the fact that so many people were sexually harassed and assaulted was not news at all. “There is not a single woman in the world who is not sexually harassed,” says Mary Majewski, a housekeeper in Darien, Connecticut. She appreciates the camaraderie created by the hashtag – “There is a lot of strength in people who talk, come forward and say, ‘I was ashamed to talk about this for a long time’ and know it wasn’t just you,” but admits. that despite being mistreated, she is in a privileged position. “I have not faced a situation where my life was in danger. “With me, it was more like a person who overwhelmingly acts out of power and misogyny,” she explains. “This is not a throat knife; it’s just the grandeur of a man. Nothing good about it, but if I had to relive the almost loss of my life [every time a new story of abuse comes up], we would probably have such a different conversation. “

For those who have experienced more egregious violence, reading #MeToo stories can generate feelings of peer pressure and trigger all sorts of painful feelings about their decision to reveal or not reveal their story.

“It’s not that I definitely decided that I would never talk about what happened to me, but I definitely won’t do it right now,” says Kendil Coco, a 24-year-old retailer from Philadelphia. … “And I am really afraid that I am doing something wrong, I am silent. I am afraid that I am contributing to problems in society by solving my problems in my own way, which may be the wrong way, and I feel guilty for being selfish by choosing to remain silent. “

Resisting the pressures of social media to constantly publish details of our lives is a challenge for many of us, but when the revelation of sexual abuse is viewed as a political boon and a disclosure campaign goes viral, the decision to share or not share becomes extremely dangerous for survivors. “The #MeToo campaign is so good at raising awareness, and we need awareness to drive change,” says Enterkin. “But I think that many survivors of sexual assault – from verbal abuse to sexual assault, rape and human trafficking – felt they needed to get involved, that they needed to speak out while they still live in a world that doesn’t respect or understand them. an experience, a world that can make them feel guilty, ashamed or unhappy. “

Pressure to reveal can also come from family and friends. Coco recently wrote a letter to her mother. “I very vaguely told her about what happened and how I worked for a year and a half to recover from it, and she said:“ I can’t believe you didn’t tell me this, but now I feel like I have no right to know, “and I thought,” Yes, nobody knows – you have no right. ” I don’t feel like I have to say anything. “

“Survivors don’t owe the world their survival stories,” says Enterkin. “The world owes them dignity and respect. They should only share what they want to tell about their experience, and only when they feel safe and respected enough to share it. ”

Learn to breathe. Yes, study.

When it’s hard for you, they often say to breathe or “just take a breath.” And if you can do that, if you can take a few deep, slow breaths, you can feel yourself beginning to calm down as you return to your body and present. But sometimes it doesn’t work. Sometimes just taking a breath – this simple, elementary, life-sustaining thing – seems impossible. You’re too angry, too scared, too upset, too tested. Or maybe you try to do it, but you can’t, and then you get even more upset: it’s bad. I am really confused. Something is wrong with me. I will never get over it. Why didn’t I overdo it? This is clearly useless. Which is the best option? Take ten minutes – preferably at a time when you are not upset – to learn how to relax with deep breathing, and from that point on, you have a surprisingly powerful (and free) tool that you can take with you and use everywhere. whenever you feel increasing stress.

  • Why learn to breathe? When you practice deep breathing — especially when you breathe in and out for a certain number of seconds — you activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which “inhibits the fight or flight response,” Appio says, or in other words, immediately calms you down. … Yogis have known and practiced this for centuries; Western researchers are just beginning to catch up.
  • How to do it: The Internet is full of all kinds of information about this practice, variously called coherent breathing, controlled breathing, resonant breathing, etc., as well as many educational videos with a variety of not very relaxing music and graphics; alternatively we recommendthis one (you can also learn the same method – with some modifications – from Dr. Andrew Weil ). Try to learn this practice before you need it. You don’t have to figure out how to swim after being thrown into the ocean. “I always recommend that people practice this on a daily basis when they are not under stress, so that it’s a habitual and natural response to stress,” says Appio.

Ground yourself

Appio also recommends a practice called grounding in which you “use your senses to anchor your attention in the present moment.” When you feel aroused, you can gain a sense of stability by “truly focusing all your attention, such as feeling the floor under your feet or the chair you are sitting on. You can also look around the room and mentally name the objects you see and what color they are, or by listening carefully to the person who is talking to you. It’s just a way of saying, “I am here and I am safe here.”

Like deep breathing, grounding is rooted in ancient contemplative practices and can be practiced anywhere in the middle of what you are doing. All you have to do is focus on the physical sensations, whatever they are at the moment. Start from the bottom: see if you can feel the sole of your foot inside the shoe or the pressure and point of contact between the ground (or the floor, or the accelerator in your car) on your feet.

Take a moment to do this. It sounds absurd, but most of us are rarely aware of what is happening in our body. Concentrate on your hands. Where are they? What are they up to? Are they clenched into fists? Are you gripping your phone, holding a plug, controlling your mouse? Are they hot? Cold? Sweaty? Dry? Itchy? Tingley? You do not need to judge any of these sensations – none of them is better or worse than the others. This practice is not about that. This practice is simply meant to return to the present here and now, to give up repeating things that happened in the past, or worrying about a million things that will probably never happen in the future.

For many people, getting back into their body – whether it is something active like running, exercising, or playing sports – or something subdued like just moving around, dancing alone in their bedroom, getting up and stretching, or taking a light walk can be very help. But sometimes the body can seem dangerous or out of reach. At such moments, Appio suggests practicing grounding based on the senses of hearing and sight – naming objects, listening carefully to another person or sounds around you as they come and go, not touch. All of this works to bring you into the present moment.

“We know that depression and anxiety live in thinking about the past and worrying about the future,” says Appio. “If you can enter the present moment, this moment, you can move a little away from all this.” Take the time to learn both of these practices. It’s unlikely that you will feel 100% better in the first thirty seconds of doing them, but trust them, stick to them, come back to them. These practices have helped countless people.

Know what “taking care of yourself” means to you and practice it

Self-care is about defining what feeds you, says Bryant-Davis. “For you, this could mean doing yoga; for some, this could mean attending a prayer meeting or meeting. Sometimes, when we get caught up in emotion, we forget what worked for us in the past. ”

The opposite of this is that you shouldn’t feel obligated to try a new strategy. If your friends are trying to talk you into taking a yoga class, but you are feeling tender and not sure you can handle the yoga teacher’s conversation about “feeling the pelvis” or the sit bones, perhaps suggest another activity. “People shouldn’t feel pressured to do things that only energize them,” says Appio. “There is a time and place to practice other strategies. Do what works. Be sure to do what lowers the risk first. ”

“I meditate almost every day and it feels good,” says Coco. “And I’ll be back to therapy soon. I do both to cope with the world as a whole, and not just with this. ” And although she says she has moments of guilt for not doing anything in terms of being active, “I figure out what worries me and what I want to do about it, and how to use that energy in action.”

For Bryant-Davis, this deliberate process makes sense. “I warn you that sometimes people turn to activism and they haven’t done any internal work, but activism is not a substitute for working out their own things,” she says. “It can be very inspiring to complement the inner work for your healing. But just letting go of yourself and saying, “I will protect others” is not a good idea. If we are in the service, while we are still very broken, we can hurt ourselves and often harm other people. ” “To be honest, I don’t know if I can handle it,” Coco says. “Scrolling faster? Because that’s what I do. I go through information thoughtlessly for five minutes — I’m not reading anything else — and then I turn off my phone and feel sick. This is really bad. But I did it. I read books and read stories — Peter Levin’s Tiger Awakening , Rupee Kaur ’s Milk and Honey , Jessica Valenti ’s Sex Object , Aspen Mathis ’s Girl in the Woods — and I listen to podcasts about it, and I love it. great! This Heart podcast is great. Just hearing other people’s stories about it in different ways and realizing that I’m not alone, it helps. “


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