The Ripple Effect
News of new sexual harassment allegation can trigger PTSD victims, again.
Posted Nov 07, 2019
As recent reports of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s third allegation of sexual misconduct bombard the airwaves, a ripple effect occurs once again across the nation: Sexual assault victims who follow the media may find themselves suffering from flashbacks, unwanted thoughts, or nightmares about their experiences. Most of us are familiar with the old adage, “sex sells," and in our current upside-down society, unfortunately this includes detailed reports of sexual assault. But good can come of evil, which we witnessed a couple of years ago during the Harvey Weinstein case when numerous female celebrities publicly shared their accounts of sexual abuse and the MeToo movement was born. But before Weinstein there was Donald Trump, when, three years ago, the media covered the now 19 women who came forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against the then-presidential candidate.
This unhealthy ripple effect — being triggered when we see or read about a traumatic experience similar to our own — can cause hours if not days of reflection and depression. But why do we re-experience trauma symptoms when we’re triggered by negative cues of our past experiences? What happens in our brain when we see or read something like a media story of sexual abuse? We hope our following answers help explain this phenomenon.
Your brain and trauma
Traumatic experiences involve most or all of the senses — sight, hearing, smell, and sometimes taste — and physical pain. Every one of these sensations are recorded and stored in various parts of the brain and may leave deep psychological scars. After experiencing a traumatic event, it’s not unusual for people to suffer from varying degrees of stress, depression, and anxiety. Nightmares, flashbacks, isolation, and sleep disturbances including an inability to fall asleep and insomnia, are enduring effects of our traumatic experiences. Social isolation and avoidance of others are also common indicators of post-trauma. If these symptoms no longer bother the traumatized person after a month, then they likely suffered from acute stress disorder. But if the symptoms continue or increase after a month, they are probably suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Studies indicate that about 8% of the US population currently have PTSD. That means more than 6 million Americans are living with PTSD.
Women and trauma
Half of all women have experienced a life-altering traumatic event, perhaps a natural disaster like a hurricane, tornado, flood or earthquake, or a human-made disaster such as a car accident or terror attack. And 1 in 3 women will experience sexual assault in their lifetime. (This number is probably much higher because these statistics are based only on reported cases.)
As mentioned above, such traumas can leave deep psychological scars. When we have a physical wound—say, we have a deep cut on our arm and know we need stitches, but we decide to take care of it ourselves—we can bandage it up as best we can but risk infection, and as the wound heals, it may form a thick keloid scar. When we undergo a serious trauma it becomes a deep wound in our psyche; it’s burned into our memory. We can try to ignore it and cope as best we can but our coping techniques may not be healthy. We may fall into unwanted, unhealthy routines such as drinking, drug abuse, and anger. Or we can assist the healing process by seeking help or self-help and learning healthy coping techniques.
Why sexual assault is different
Women are more likely to experience sexual abuse and/or assault than men, and sexual abuse and/or assault is more likely to cause PTSD than many other traumatic experiences. Why? Because sexual assault is different from other types of assault such as being mugged. While sexual assault may not be “personal” to the assailant, it is nothing but “personal” to the victim. Sexual experiences are supposed to be intimate, not violent. In sexual assault or sexual abuse, something the woman has to offer in an act of intimacy is taken from her—usually with violence. It’s an unwarranted punishment that leaves permanent psychological scars.
Why women blame themselves
Women are more likely to blame themselves for a traumatic event than men. Why? It’s complicated. Partly this may be due to societal pressure—to a degree, we may have bought into the objectification of women and that comes with a lot of baggage. But a larger, significant cause is likely due to hormones and the way the female brain works. Studies conducted at Emory and University of Vermont by Kerry Ressler indicate that PACAP (pituitary adenylate cyclase-activating polypeptide) can change the estrogen response in traumatized women and cause them to experience symptoms associated with PTSD, and that these symptoms (depression, anxiety, stress, etc.) have a myriad of secondary offshoot symptoms. Interestingly, men suffering from stress and PTSD do not produce this hormone; only women do.
Contrary to the centuries-or millennia-old misconception, women are not the “weaker sex." Women are strong and resilient. Historically in our society men have been taught to guard their emotions and feelings. While women, whether due to biological or social reasons or a combination of both, tend to appear more in touch with their feelings and more likely to seek help to overcome trauma.
Our Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory data indicate that most men have strong present-centered hedonistic tendencies. They seek pleasure and live for the moment. Women without children also display these same tendencies. However, women with children are more future-oriented. Applied to the above, it makes sense that women are more likely to seek help. They have a need to put the past behind and move on for the good of the family. (However, both women and men can be PTSD-triggered when reading, seeing, or hearing about similar traumatic experiences.)
This information should not be construed as “man-bashing”; it's simply applying current research. But there is good news: There are strong indications that men are undergoing a major shift. In young couples, we see men taking on more household and child-rearing responsibilities, which is good for everybody, especially the children.
During difficult times or when we’re triggered by a person or event, we learn about ourselves—how we act and react to people and situations. And we learn about others as well. But what we forget is that we have choices. Every day we make hundreds if not thousands of choices: what to wear, what to eat, how we speak and the tone of voice we use. We make choices about what we think about and how we think about it. We can choose to harvest happiness, or sadness and sorrow. The latter may get us some attention for a while, which might make us feel good temporarily—but this attention might also be negative. And do we need more negativity in our lives? In a word, no.
If you’re suffering from PTSD or the ripple effect
The treatment we’ve developed, TPT, has proven to be a fast and effective way to decrease depression, anxiety, stress—the symptoms of PTSD—as well as a way to help after grief and loss, couple and family problems, situational difficulties, and more. The following symptoms are revealed to be time-related:
- Depression—based on past experiences
- Anxiety—anticipating negative future experiences
- Stress—can be based on both past and future
- ... and all are experienced—individually or in any combination—in the present.
In a nutshell, here’s how TPT works:
- Replace negative thoughts of the past with past positive experiences
- Plan for and work towards a brighter and better future
- Take time to enjoy yourself in the present; find beauty, joy and laughter
- Socialize: connect with family, friends, people you work with or who have common interests
We invite you to check out our 4-week PTSD track using our time perspective therapy technique. Or take the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory to find out if you’re past, present, or future oriented; or check out our TPT-based iOS apps.
Cypers-Kayman, L. (2015). Women & Trauma. Los Angeles, CA: Harvesting Happiness Podcast.
Eastman, Q. (2011). Study: Stress hormone linked to PTSD found in women only. Atlanta, GA: Emory Report.
NIMH (2019). Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. Bethesda, MA: National Institute of Mental Health.
Norris, J. (2012). Differences in PTSD risk may be due to heightened fear conditioning in women. San Francisco, CA: UCSF News.
Vogt, D. (2019). Research on women, trauma, and PTSD. Washington, DC: VA.gov.