Trauma Triggers: Sexual Assault

This has been a rough week. A rough week for anyone that has experienced sexual assault. A rough week for anyone that has experienced sexual harassment and a rough week for anyone that has had to protect themselves from these things.  It has also been rough for those who love survivors. Because you are taking the time to read this, it has likely been rough on you and it has definitely been rough on me.

Hearing stories in the news of sexual violence can trigger our own stories of these events.  It can bring up many emotions including fear, sadness and in some instances rage.  Many people are driven to tell their stories, to say #metoo.  Others are driven to donate, volunteer and find ways to help survivors.  I feel like I need to do my part.  So here are a few things that come to mind that may help you or the people in your life that are struggling with the things going on around us.

  1. You are safe now and someone will believe you. Part of the hardest part for victims of sexual assault is the issue of guilt and blame. Often this is an internal process. Survivors often second guess the events themselves.  Often they try to justify the actions of others by taking responsibility.  ” I didn’t say no.” or ” I don’t think he/she meant to go that far” or ” I think they were confused.”  It doesn’t help that society and our judicial process often reinforce these same stories.  So many survivors walk through life confused and hurt. They think that they are the ones that did something wrong. If you are supporting someone through an assault, your job is to listen and believe them.  They will have more than enough self-doubt for the both of you.
  2. Prepare for what is coming.  Hearing of other people’s trauma will reconnect you with your own. This happens regardless how much time, distance and therapy you have had to help you process the events. This means that flashbacks, nightmares, hyper-vigilance and/or uncomfortable emotions may reoccur. The trick with this is to not panic. It is a normal part of healing. It is a warning sign that you may need to shore up your coping skills and emphasize taking care of yourself for a while but it doesn’t mean that anything is wrong.
  3. You don’t have to talk, tell your story or do anything at all. While watching the news or reading stories about others who have been assaulted, victims sometimes feel guilt for keeping their stories quiet especially while others step forward. The brave people who step forward are often attacked, humiliated and re-victimized. It is okay to not want that in your life. Only you know if telling your story on a larger scale is worth it in your life. Only you can make that choice.  For some it is worth it to be heard.  It is worth it for them to fight. For others they want to move forward and leave that in the past. Either way there should be no room for judgement. Both take courage.
  4. Bear witness or not.  Some people will want to listen to the news and hear the stories of these survivors and bear witness to their bravery. It is a way to feel community and to know that you are not alone. It can be powerful for those who have remained quiet to understand that others have struggled in the way that they have. The opposite is also true.  For some it is too painful to hear. For some they need to turn off the news and ignore the whole thing. The triggers are too raw and quite frankly it isn’t emotionally safe.  Maybe they just don’t want to. Whatever you need is fine. Your job is to take care of yourself and those around you. Trust that others will take care of these women. Putting yourself in harm’s way will not change what is happening to them.
  5. Dosage is important. For me, I feel an obligation to listen to survivors that tell their story. I think this is an occupational hazard. I have to be careful not to overwhelm myself with the stories of others. Especially the stories that I have no control over. I need to limit my exposure. There comes a point when the TV needs to turn off and I need to step away from CNN. So be careful with the amount you expose yourself to.  Pay attention to your mind and body. When they are telling you that you have had enough, it is time to stop. Pushing through that boundary puts you in danger of re-traumatizing yourself.
  6. Take care of yourself. When you feel triggered often self-care is the first thing to drop off the priority list. Focus on the simple things. Breathing, eating healthy, drinking water and exercise are good things to focus on.  Also don’t underestimate the power of a good “pity party”.  Sometimes that is what we need.  Pity parties are only a problem if you can’t get out of it.  However you take care of you is okay. You are doing the best you can right now.
  7. “Look for the Helpers”.  I love this Mr. Rogers quote. It is easy to get obsessed with the details of the trauma but there are always heroes in these stories. Look for them. They can be found in small gestures, or big statements but they are always there. Stories of triumph, sacrifice and bravery deserve to be honoured. They are what brings me hope that things are changing for survivors and for women in general.
  8. Reach Out for Help.  We all get wrapped up in our own lives.  I always ask my clients, “who in your life would want to know that this is happening for you?” or “Who in your life would drop what they are doing and come to help if you needed it?”  This gives me a clue as to who to encourage them to reach out to.  This doesn’t have to be a dramatic intervention. It could be a simple phone call or text message of support that you need.  It helps to know that you aren’t alone even if you don’t want to talk.  If you do want to talk, find someone to talk to. If you don’t have someone that you trust to talk to then use the services that are out there.  I have listed a few below in the Edmonton area. There are therapists, like myself, that also work with survivors if that is something that could work for you. Only you know what you need.

We are in this together. Whether you are a survivor of assault or a supporter, I believe that there are way more of us than there are of them. If we take care of each other without pressure or judgement, healing is not only possible but probable.


Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton  – Crisis and Information Line- 780-423-4121

Distress Line of Edmonton  – If you’re in distress, call 780-482-HELP (4357). If you’re outside of the greater Edmonton region, call the Rural Distress Line at 1-800-232-7288.

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