Just recently, there were three whole days when you could not watch or listen to a news bulletin without hearing a woman, Dr Christine Blasey Ford, recounting her experience of a sexual assault. This had happened to her 35 years previously, but she was obviously still very much affected by this event. This may well have triggered a lot of anxiety in people who have experienced trauma themselves, no matter how many years ago. But it is not just events on the news that can do this. It could be a friend or acquaintance using a certain word or a scene or a sound in a TV show, or in real life. So what can you do if you have experienced trauma, no matter how long ago it was, and something makes it feel alive for you again?
Here are five things to remember if your trauma gets triggered
1. It is normal for you to continue to be affected by trauma that happened a long time ago
People say “time is a great healer” but when a person has experienced trauma, time does not always make a difference to the affect of that trauma. While the passing of time can provide some healing, being caused to remember that traumatic event, no matter how many years later, can feel as real and vivid as when it first happened. There is no shame in this, and no sense in which, “You should be over this by now”. You are allowed to feel whatever you’re feeling, no matter how much time has passed.
2. There is no hierarchy in trauma
People might not understand why the thing that happened to you was so traumatic and say something like, “Well at least you weren’t raped”. However, just because someone else might have had it worse does not mean that what happened to you was not a violation or that it was okay. Violence and sexual violence of all kinds can have life-long effects and should be taken seriously.
3. Your memories of what happened to you may feel incomplete. This, too, is normal
Some people have clear, almost cinematic, memories of their trauma, but many victims of assault have incomplete memories of their trauma. There is a biological reason for this: in states of high stress or terror, our prefrontal cortex is flooded by a surge of stress chemicals which can impair the “executive functions” of our brain, and sometimes can shut down those functions. Because of this stress response, it is quite common for victims to have very sharp and clear memories of the events leading up to the trauma, and of the immediate aftermath but for memories of the central event to feel less ordered, less accessible, and a bit fragmented and “fuzzy”.
4. Being re-traumatised may make you question whether you feel you should have reported it or done more to resolve it at the time
The latest (2017) crime survey for England and Wales shows that 1 in 5 women have experienced some sort of sexual assault, and the Office for National Statistics reports that 80% of these incidents do not get reported. There are many reasons people decide not to go to the police and report a crime including the feeling they may not believed, fear of being retraumatised by an investigation, and fear of their attacker. These concerns are valid, but you are bound to question your choice not to report it when your anxiety is triggered again. If you feel this you can, like Dr Blasey Ford, report it at any later point. Or you might feel the need to get some sort of closure and there are trained health professionals who could help you to work out what that looks like for you so that you can work through the trauma you are still experiencing.
5. Consider a media detox at times when there is a particularly triggering event
The news is not compulsory viewing, you can turn it off for a bit. If there is something you find triggering log out or turn it off and talk to someone you trust. This doesn’t mean you have to tell them why you find this particular bit of the news distressing but is a way of self-caring and doing something to take your mind of a distressing thing.
6. There is no shame in needing help today. None.
When the news is hard for you, and you’re distressed, fearful or triggered, remember that there is help out there. Be kind to yourself, and use whatever self-care tactics work best for you. Contact a trusted person or reach out to a trained professional and find a safe space in which to talk, ask for help and receive support. There is no prescription for how to get over this or how to heal from trauma; it is an ongoing process and can take a long time. Having a reaction to something triggering doesn’t mean you have taken a step back. It just means you need some help and support now. And it is okay to feel whatever it is you feel right now.
If you think therapy could help you to work out how to live with the lasting effects of trauma, call 020 8673 4545 or email [email protected] to arrange a confidential appointment.