The public revelations about Harvey Weinstein last fall and the subsequent rise of the #MeToo movement brought the little-talked-about and rarely prosecuted systemic culture of sexual harassment, abuse and assault by powerful men fully into the open. Women and men from all walks of life have been empowered to speak up and share their stories of violation, and let others in similar circumstances know, perhaps for the first time, that they are not alone.
But for some, empowerment may not be the only outcome.
The huge social media presence of #MeToo, as well as the ongoing media coverage of public figures being accused of some degree of sexual misconduct, can be an emotional trigger for survivors of this type of trauma. Even posting “#MeToo” can trigger unanticipated feelings or symptoms brought on by responses to the post.
A trigger can be anything that brings up a memory and essentially transports you back to the original trauma as though it is happening in the present moment. You may experience both physical and emotional symptoms that are connected to one or more of the senses. (Sexual Assault Centre, 2016)
“Emotional triggers can bring up past traumas that have been buried, sometimes for years,” says Maria Droste therapist Lisa Ranford, LPC, CAC II. “The fact that this is in the news is the trigger, but one can also be triggered by sights, smells, sounds and places – anything that is a reminder of the trauma.”
Ransford explains that common symptoms include re-experiencing the trauma frequently through flashbacks or nightmares; avoidance behaviors such as addiction that allows one to numb one’s emotions; and hyper-arousal or being easily startled, feelings of anxiety or difficulty sleeping.
The state of hyper-arousal comes from being on guard and being reminded of the trauma on a subconscious level. The trigger causes you to react as if you are actually experiencing the trauma, not just remembering it. However, this state of high anxiety may occur without you even knowing the connection between what you are feeling and the trauma itself.
Steps to manage immediate symptoms when triggered
The symptoms that manifest as a result of being triggered can be intense and may interfere with day-to-day life. Some people may turn to the use of drugs or alcohol as a way to decrease symptoms, but the relief is only temporary and doing so may only compound the problem.
Ransford suggests that a more effective approach is taking immediate steps to shift the focus from the amygdala, located in the rear of the brain, to the prefrontal cortex or the front of the brain. “When you are triggered, your reptilian brain takes charge. It causes you to feel the emotions that you felt during or after the trauma, including fear, anxiety, anger or horror. A physical action, something as simple as splashing cold water on your face, can snap you out that state,” she explains.
Grounding techniques are actions you can take to bring your awareness back to the present. “When you are triggered and your body responds as if the trauma is happening in the moment, grounding can bring you back to the present, where you are safe. The goal of grounding is to help you activate the prefrontal cortex, the thinking part of your brain, by helping to keep you in — or return you to — the present day. In doing so, grounding reduces the feelings of fear, anxiety or anger,” Ransford says.
The idea behind grounding is to do something that makes you THINK. Here are a few examples:
- Look around the room and find five things that are red, then five blue, five green, five yellow and five grey (or any five colors).
- Alphabetize your favorite bands or the 50 states, or list out, in your head or on paper, all the presidents.
- Go through the multiplication tables, starting with 1 x 1.
“It’s not so easy to do this and stay focused initially, but it gets easier with practice,” Ransford notes.
Dealing with the original trauma takes time
While these strategies and techniques can help in the moment, resolving the impact of the original trauma may require a long-term solution. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a clinical treatment that has been proven to be helpful for trauma survivors. EMDR incorporates bilateral movement into the process of safely recalling the trauma and gaining new understanding of the event(s) and the physical and emotional responses to those event(s). (Psych Central, 2016)
“EMDR helps to process the trauma, thereby reducing the intensity of emotion and allowing one to move forward. The memory of the experience will still be there, but there is relief in the feelings that occur as a result. The length of time in treatment depends on many factors. A consultation with a therapist who is skilled in treating trauma is a good first step,” says Ransford, who offers EMDR.
If you are dealing with a trauma, are experiencing negative effects of a past trauma, wish to learn more about EMDR, or would simply like to speak to a therapist, contact Maria Droste Access Center at 303-867-4600.
***Thank you to Maria Droste therapist, Lisa Ransford, LPC, CACII, for contributions to this blog.***
Sexual Assault Centre, U. (2016). What is a Trigger? Psych Central. Retrieved on February 21, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/what-is-a-trigger/
Psych Central. (2016). Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 21, 2018, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/eye-movement-desensitization-and-reprocessing/