6 Coping Tools for Sexual Assault Survivors

When high-profile cases get coverage, it's common to feel retraumatized.

Posted Sep 30, 2018

This has been a difficult week for many people who have been sexually abused or assaulted. The Senate Judiciary Committee hearings for the potential confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court have involved a horrifying account by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford about an alleged assault by Kavanaugh when they were in high school. Seeing so viscerally how much the experience has continued to affect her, decades later, along with hearing the details of a terror-inducing violation itself, has brought up many emotions in those who watched. I have heard from those survivors who were made further raw by Kavanaugh's testimony itself, feeling like they saw anger and defensiveness that they recognized in their own assailants, and making them all too easily visualize the explosive combustion of alcohol, entitlement, and rage.

For those hurting—and there are a lot of you (calls to the National Sexual Assault Hotline surged 147 percent the day of Dr. Ford's testimony, compared to a typical weekday)—you may find yourself feeling alone. But you are anything but. It is crucial that you know that there are others who are equipped to listen, and there is help in many forms. Choosing to give yourself extra care during this challenging time is important, and courageous. Here are some ways to do so.

And again, please keep in mind this resource: RAINN, The National Sexual Assault Hotline.

1. Build an oasis.

With front-page national headlines, social media, and perhaps your friends, family, and coworkers discussing a case—often in a way that can feel insensitive or downright invalidating to those who are barely holding it together through what can feel like such a dark time in our culture—it can feel impossible to escape the constant barrage. To take care of yourself, though, you must be active in seeking out space when you need it. It's hard to stay away from your usual channels of news and communication—especially when something affects you so strongly—and yet it can be crucial if you find yourself feeling more and more upset. After paying attention to how exposure to different settings makes you feel, set some boundaries accordingly. People can do that in many different ways. Turn off your phone—and your scrolling—at a certain point long before bed. Unfollow (even if temporarily) those whose voices are insensitive or incendiary. Have a TV-news-embargo after one cycle of commentary each evening. Choose to change the subject in the office breakroom when you feel yourself getting pulled in in a way that doesn't serve you. Providing yourself a break of quiet among the upsetting noise is not only your right, but when it comes to your mental health it can make the crucial difference in your healing.

2. Connect, when trust is there.

Take time to be with those who nurture you, people who have your back and make you feel supported. Even if they don't know the details of your story, their presence can help you feel less alone and remind you the power of human connection. We know that strong social support—and even just the perception of it—can help guard against certain symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The reverse is also true, of course: those people who make you uncomfortable, or whom you don't trust, may only make you feel more shaky when you are already feeling vulnerable. Be mindful about the people you will choose to actively connect with during this time. You deserve as much.

3. Nurture your body.

When someone has experienced a sexual assault, they often carry the trauma around in very significant ways, and in fact, the very nature of the violation can affect someone's ability to feel comfortable and safe in their own skin. Revisiting a trauma, even vicariously by hearing the details of someone else's, can send you into fight-or-flight-or-freeze all over again: you become hypervigilant to threat and startle easily; your heart starts pounding; your breathing gets more shallow; and as stress hormone levels raise in your bloodstream you can feel that you are in danger all over again. Take time to listen to your body this week. What makes you feel safe and soothed? Yoga, meditation, weighted blankets, music, aromatherapy, massage, a hot bath, or progressive muscle relaxation are just a few examples of ways that people have found effective in diminishing their physical anxiety and lowering their stress response. And this can get the cycle moving in the right direction, as a soothed body can lower the likelihood of an anxious negative thought spiral.

4. Take action in ways that feel motivating.

Turning angst into action can be empowering. Just as calls for help can increase during high-profile cases, so too can calls to action. And this can take many forms, from sending a check to signing a petition to speaking out with one's own story to making a more long-term volunteer commitment. It can even be more subtle but still bring a significant mental health benefit, like choosing to do an act of kindness for a single other person or making yourself available to someone else in need. Feeling helpless and paralyzed with hopelessness can be a hallmark of post-traumatic symptomology, and many survivors find that taking action can help combat those feelings. That said, if it feels too exhausting or overwhelming, allow yourself to just be. Don't put another demand on yourself during this fraught time if it doesn't feel comfortable to you. There is no "right" way to be a sexual assault survivor.

5. Validate your feelings.

You deserve to own your feelings: they are yours and yours alone. And just as there is no "right" way to be a sexual assault survivor, there is no "right" way to feel. I have seen many reactions this week-- from grief to rage to fear to sadness to numbness to hope, to just wanting to turn away. It is okay. Many people find it helpful, especially when their feelings threaten to be overwhelming, to write out their feelings or share them with a trusted friend. Some people find power not only in sharing their stories, but in unapologetically expressing their emotions-- and how the assault or abuse has affected them. Even if you were to write a letter that you never end up sending, giving words to your emotional reality can help strengthen your voice and your sense of autonomy. Of course, a professional therapist is an additional option that can be helpful as well.

6. Look for small moments of beauty.

When people are going through their darkest hours, it is not uncommon to hear how significant it can be to take heart in the simplest, most subtle forms of beauty, love and kindness that the world has to offer. Some people seek this out in nature, marveling at the imperfectly perfect form of plant growing in their garden (or on their windowsill.) Others may even find this in humor—that even in darkness, laughter can provide a release, however momentary. Still others find this in being mindful of the everyday moments that sustain them: the sizzle of garlic in a pan, the wag of their dog's tail when they come home, the first rays of sunshine breaking through the clouds. If you can find gratitude for these in even a simple way, all the better. And though they may feel insignificant in a larger context of sadness or fear, they can add up quite well to make experiencing the day still worth it.

Have you found special ways to cope during this time? Let me know in the comments, or in my weekly anonymous online chat.