Sexual Assault Stories Flood The Internet: 5 Steps That Help Heal Trauma

Sharing on Twitter or Facebook can be cathartic. Healing trauma requires more than catharsis however. It requires a reliable method for calming the nervous system. And often, it requires a systematic exploration of the attitudes that preceded and then were created by the experience of sexual assault.

Donald Trump’s bragging about sexual assault has provoked waves of public sharing of sexual assault stories. They are flooding Twitter with the hashtag #notokay, started by author Kelly Oxford who told her story to her followers. The hashtag got responses at a rate of 50 tweets per minute from others who shared their own assault stories.

Many, who had never before spoken out, have found a voice. Their stories are evidence of the prevalence of the “rape culture” that historically blames and silences victims. Psychotherapists like me wonder about the impact this collective sharing of trauma stories has on the sharers and readers of these stories of protracted pain and suffering.

While the brave outpouring of trauma experience has empowered many, it also activates the nervous system of those who associate what they hear with their own similar experiences. When traumatic memories are reactivated, the human nervous system often fails to distinguish between past and current danger. This leads us to feel we are not simply remembering a difficult experience, we re-live it if it has not been processed. This is when getting help becomes essential.

When we experience trauma, our prefrontal cortex — which is responsible for reasoning and complex thought — -goes “offline.” When this happens a fight, flight or freeze response, generated from within the limbic system, takes over — the sympathetic nervous system swings into full-activity mode. As a result of trauma we can become hyper-vigilant, we anticipate the worst and constantly monitor our situation to see if we can detect threats to our safety. Alternately we can develop patterns of acting out aggressively (fighting) or retreating into ourselves by doing things like staying in bed all day (freezing.)

New York City Council Speaker Melissa Viverito is one of the many who has gone public with her history of childhood abuse after hearing about sexual assault in the news.

In therapy, many re-learn how to feel safe in the present moment rather than live in the confusion of reliving traumatic memory. Others, who go through life wondering why they feel unsafe, anxious or terribly depressed for no “current reason” can find relief.

Without help, it is difficult to heal the irrational but most common belief caused by trauma: that those who have experienced it are to blame for what happened to them. Many need the help of a caring therapist to come to terms with this comforting but elusive truth.

Healing from trauma is possible. Below are 5 Steps That Help Heal Trauma

  1. The first step is finding a safe space to tell your story.
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Usually this is with a trusted friend, support group or professional. The outpouring of trauma stories on social media made it, for many, a virtual “safe place” to share their story. However, it’s still the internet and some were met with nasty comments, which could reinforce traumatic symptoms. Finding a truly safe space to fully process individual trauma is only the first step to actually healing. For many, being alone with the traumatic event can be burdensome, so safely being with others around the trauma story can be the start of a healing journey.

2. Calming the nervous system

Using tools that calm the nervous system allows you to form a new relationship to the traumatic event and your recollection of it. Calming your nervous system prior to working on your trauma story can allow you to experience the event differently and open up the potential of true empowerment. Many of the most successful trauma approaches are based on this premise.

Read the rest on Psychology Today.

For help managing intense emotions related to trauma click here.