If you’ve been following the news at all lately, you’ve probably heard about a high-profile sexual assault accusation. You’ve probably also heard about how, as a result of this high-profile case, many women are faced with the unsettling experience of having to revisit their own sexual assault experiences.
I am one of those women. I don’t want to detail my personal experience here, but, having gone to school in the exact environment as the one discussed in the high-profile case (and having been assaulted by someone who went to the same high school), I’d say that this particular situation has been unusually upsetting for me. What happened to me took place over a decade ago and, while I thought I’d moved on from it, these past couple weeks have reminded me that, given the right conditions, trauma can resurface unexpectedly. Old wounds can open even if you think they’re healed.
While I’m not, by any means, a professional, a mental health expert, or a therapist, I do have some personal experience dealing with trauma and recently I’ve been through the task of figuring out ways to cope with it when it resurfaces, so I thought I’d spend a little time sharing what’s worked for me. If at all possible, seek the help of a professional when dealing with trauma because they can assess your unique needs, personality, etc. But if you want to know what’s worked for me personally, keep reading.
IDENTIFY THE TRIGGER(S)
The first step of coping with resurfacing wounds is identifying what’s bringing them up. Sometimes this is quite obvious — like, for example, the current news cycle — but a lot of the time it isn’t so clear. The strangest things can be a trigger, and these will be different for everyone, based on the traumatic situation and the individual’s personality. The key to identifying triggers is paying attention to what’s going on around you when you feel upset or unsettled. Listen to your body: Are your muscles tightening? Are you holding your breath? Are you clenching your jaw? Is your heart beating faster? These are just some of the physical cues that can alert you to the fact that something has triggered recollections of a traumatic experience. The more you practice paying attention to your body, the quicker you’ll be able to identify these responses — and the sooner you can identify them, the sooner you can address what has triggered them (and hopefully move past the difficult emotions).
NOTICE TO YOUR RESPONSES
After figuring out what the trigger is, it’s important to pay attention to how you’re responding. (Yes, this is similar to the first part, but it’s not linear path. Identifying triggers and responses goes hand-in-hand and sometimes you can figure out one before the other.) Taking notice of your physical and emotional responses can help you in two very important ways: (1) it will allow you to address your reactions directly and (2) knowing your responses can be useful in the future to help you quickly assess how you’re feeling and what you’re experiencing. Knowing your personal responses can alert you to distress, giving you an opportunity to address the distress earlier. Trauma Pages has a useful list of potential physical and emotional responses, but there are many possible experiences and a professional is essential for helping you identify yours. Here are a few of the ones I’ve experienced recently, but these can vary greatly from person to person.
- Changes in appetite (not eating or overeating)
- Sleep changes (not sleeping or sleeping too much)
- Stomach troubles (mind and gut are connected!)
- Increased anxiety and/or panic attacks
- Restlessness and irritability
- Emotional mood swings
- Feelings of helplessness
- Detachment or disassociation
REMOVE THE TRIGGER (IF POSSIBLE)
This bit of advice might seem obvious. Like, of course you should remove the trigger if it’s upsetting you! But it’s not always that easy to do. For example, I knew as soon as this high-profile assault case came to the mainstream media that I should stop looking at the news. It was obviously the direct cause of my distress. But there was also a part of me that didn’t want to look away, that wanted to see what was going to happen, that didn’t want to be out of the loop. Closing the apps, not clicking links, was harder than I’d thought it would be, but, overall, I’ve done the best I can to keep my focus on what’s best for me. Avoiding difficult things is usually not good advice, but there’s a difference between being informed and being impacted to the point of distress. You do what’s right for you, and do whatever you can to put your mind at ease.
SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP
If at all possible, I highly recommend seeking professional help when a past trauma resurfaces. The right therapist can, quite literally, be a lifesaver. If therapy isn’t possible (or if, like me, you can’t afford it), you can revisit and use tools taught to you by a professional in the past. I went back to my old notes on therapy sessions and reminded myself of techniques that my therapist taught me and put them to use over the past few weeks. If you haven’t been in therapy, I’m guessing you can find techniques and tips online (but do your research and make sure you’re getting good advice from a professional — don’t just try any random thing that some blogger wrote!). You might think you can do it on your own — I know I like to think that — but the objective, professional guidance of an expert is essential for making sure that you’re not doing more harm than good.
ALLOW YOURSELF TO FEEL HOW YOU FEEL
One of challenges with unexpected triggers is that you’re taken by surprised. Unlike right after an incident has happened, when you might feel as if it’s alright to be upset, there can be a tendency, when triggered, to have thoughts like: That was a long time ago; why am I upset now? I should be over this by now. I’m just making it worse by thinking about it again. Stop being so dramatic. Pushing away your feelings never goes well. Sure, it’s not a good idea to ruminate on them obsessively, but it’s not helpful to discredit them or tell yourself you should feel differently than you do. You’re allowed to feel how you feel. You don’t always have to act on your feelings, but it is helpful to acknowledge them, allow yourself to experience them, and do what you can to move toward a more positive mindset.
REALIZE NOT EVERYONE WILL UNDERSTAND
People who haven’t been through what you’ve been through, even if they’re empathetic, aren’t necessarily going to understand how you’re feeling or why you’re feeling it. As a result, they might say or do the “wrong” things. They might not realize that the smallest thing — someone I love saying, “I really don’t think he did it” about the high-profile case, for example — can be devastating. You can do your best to communicate how you feel, but, even when you do, people might not understand (or respect your requests not to bring up certain topics). This leads you to choose one of two options: (1) avoid those people or (2) accept that you can’t control others and know that, even if they aren’t malicious, their words might hurt you, but the benefits of your relationship outweigh the pain caused. The choice you make here is going to depend a lot on the relationship and situation, but you can counteract these negative interactions by also spending time with those who understand and empathize.
EXPLORE EMOTIONS CREATIVELY
Creativity is my personal lifesaver. Without it, I don’t know how I would survive. I know a lot of people don’t think they’re creative or don’t understand how creativity could help with mental distress, but, from decades of experience, I know that it works. The benefits of creativity are multitudinous, and they are worth considering when an old wound has resurfaced and old traumatic events feel like they’re happening all over again. Creating something can bring you back to the present, can serve as an outlet for exploring your emotions, and can even lead you to knew insights about yourself and the situation. Whether it’s writing, drawing, painting, cooking, or any other creative activity you can engage in, doing something creative can be really helpful when coping with trauma.
PRACTICE SOOTHING SELF-CARE
“Self-care” is such a buzzword these days, and I personally think its use can be a bit problematic at times. Taking a bubble bath isn’t going to fix deep-rooted mental health issues. “Treat yourself” isn’t going to heal emotional wounds. That being said, I think self-care can be a nice addition to the rest of the advice listed above, particularly when you’re having a difficult day. One of the tricky things about self-care is that it’s very personal. What soothes me might not sound at all soothing to you. Here are some self-care practices that work for me (but if these don’t appeal to you, just think about things that make you feel calm, happy, loved, or relaxed and do those things):
- Creating something (writing or drawing)
- Taking a bath with an absorbing book
- Watching funny films, shows, or videos
- Playing with my pup, Barkley
- Talking with an empathetic friend
- Having a dance party with happy tunes
- Writing in my gratitude journal
- Practicing some yoga with Adriene
Everyone has a different definition of “soothing.” For extroverts, surrounding yourself with people and noise and stimulation might be useful. For introverts, alone time, reflection, and quiet might be preferable. The key is to do what feels right for you, not what falls under the mainstream notion of “self-care.”
AIM FOR FORGIVENESS
Forgiveness is a tricky topic because so many people equate forgiving with condoning. You might think that if you forgive someone for doing something awful to you that they get let off the hook. You might associate forgiveness with giving something to someone else, but it’s actually much more about you than it is about him/her. Forgiveness is something you give yourself. As Tian Dayton wrote,
We forgive, if we are wise, not for the other person, but for ourselves. We forgive, not to erase a wrong, but to relieve the residue of the wrong that is alive within us. We forgive because it is less painful than holding on to resentment. We forgive because without it we condemn ourselves to repeating endlessly the very trauma or situation that hurt us so. We forgive because ultimately it is the smartest action to take on our own behalf. We forgive because it restores to us a sense of inner balance.