A therapist explains ‘compounded trauma’ after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said the insurrection compounded her grief from sexual assault

Feb 4 · 3 min read

Compounded trauma, called complex trauma by therapists, is a build-up of traumatic incidents. It can be more traumatic than the events individually.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images/Pool

By Canela López

In an Instagram Live about the Capitol attacks on Monday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said she was a survivor of sexual assault.

Ocasio-Cortez had tears in her eyes as she discussed how she felt the trauma of both events building on each other, and how she’s learned that that’s a common experience.

“Whether you had a negligent parent, or whether you had someone who was verbally abusive to you, whether you are a survivor of abuse, whether you experience any sort of trauma in your life, small to large,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “These episodes can compound on each other.”

Ocasio-Cortez is not alone. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, an estimated 90% of adults in the United States have had at least one traumatic event happen to them in their life.

While the data is thin on how many people experience multiple traumas, any therapist will tell you that it’s incredibly common.

Take 2020 as an example. In the past year, the world has been gripped by traumatic incident after traumatic incident, with the stress and devastation of the pandemic, the hypervisibility of violent systemic racism, and months of isolation all at the same time.

Read More: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez reveals she is a survivor of sexual assault and compares Republicans to abusers for urging Americans to move on from the insurrection

What is complex trauma?

Dr. Karol Darsa, trauma expert and founder and executive director of Reconnect Integrative Trauma Treatment Centers, told Insider complex trauma can mean many things.

Typically it means a person experiencing multiple traumatic incidents in their life. It can also refer to multiple traumatic incidents happening at once.

“Complex trauma is an exposure to prolonged, repeated traumatic experiences in which the person feels powerless and severely threatened, or abused,” Darsa said. “When it is one traumatic event after another, such as interpersonal, relational trauma on top of sexual or physical abuse that lasts for years it becomes complex trauma.”

Because complex trauma can affect a person’s development, it can impact how they develop healthy relationships and make them more susceptible to abuse and other forms of trauma that can all compound.

How can it be treated?

According to Darsa, complex trauma is typically treated through intensive therapy that helps a person advocate for themself and come up with strategies to aid with moments of disassociation.

“Persistent complex trauma can create a sense of disconnect from one’s own body and self, therefore the trauma therapy has to gently target this internal disconnect and help the person to connect back to themself,” Darsa said.

If you don’t have access to therapy or mental health resources, Darsa said one of the first steps to recovery could be acknowledging how these traumas have hurt you and saying it’s ok to be upset.

“Also, mindfulness practices that help the person to be more present in here and now are very helpful,” Darsa said.

If you are a survivor of sexual assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or visit their website to receive confidential support.

For more great stories, visit Insider’s homepage.



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