With the Harvey Weinstein trial underway, once again the news coverage is bound to churn up emotions for sexual assault survivors as it did during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings in 2018. During that time, many of the women around me were subdued and anxious, suffering from migraines or coming down with colds. This was not a coincidence – these are just some of the ways trauma reminders can impact us physically and emotionally.
So assuming we are going to be exposed to ongoing and
extensive reporting on the Weinstein trials for the next couple of months, how do we keep ourselves emotionally regulated and physically healthy?
For me, this trial is personal. I am one of the more than 100 women preyed upon by Harvey. It was not the first time I had been sexually assaulted – sadly, nor was it the last – but he was the only one of my abusers I could not escape. His image was plastered on newspapers and popped up on TV for more than two decades following my assault.
This constant reminder was part of the toxic stress stemming from a long trauma history which ultimately drove me to learn everything I could about trauma and resilience. It also led to our current focus at Echo, which offers training and educational resources for trauma survivors. Since knowledge is power, I want to share some tips with anyone who might need a little support getting through this time.
- “I’m fine!”
Maybe you don’t notice the stress is getting to you. I didn’t until I was about to go to a business meeting and realized I had left home wearing my slippers. Other clues for me is when my hair starts to fall out in handfuls, or I feel tired even when I’m getting enough sleep. Many of us suffer digestive problems. Maybe you’re more irritable than usual or feel a sudden lack of interest in the things that used to give you joy or motivation. This is when you talk to yourself as you would to your best friend, with compassion and lack of judgement.
- Road test yourself.
Check in with your body to feel where it is tight, where you can release. Track your thoughts as if they were clouds in the sky – let them drift in and let them drift out. My mantra when I want to quit my job or dump my boyfriend based on a whoosh of strong emotion is “It’s just a feeling, it’s just a feeling.” I’ve learned the hard way about being blown off course by feelings that seem so real and then 24 hours later feeling the complete opposite. Learning how to notice is a practice. Some people call it “mindfulness.”
Our parents and caregivers are supposed to teach us how to self-soothe – babies are not born with that capacity. Some of us got lucky: We were wrapped in a warm blanket, we were rocked, we were stroked, someone tapped gently on our back, or we were sung to. These are still good strategies for calming the nervous system. The Vagus nerve which controls the calming part of our nervous system can be stimulated at various points on the body, including the eyebrows and upper lip. Ever since I was a small child I have stroked my upper lip with my thumb and now I know it is my built-in calming response. Think about what has helped you in the past. You are the expert at regulating your own nervous system.
- Seek community.
That can be harder than it sounds, particularly if life has taught you that other human beings may not be trustworthy. I consider myself lucky to have found community with my sister survivors. It hasn’t always been plain sailing – we have all been living in a state of heightened tension over the past two years – but you can bet when any news regarding Harvey comes out, we’re on the phone to each other immediately. It’s a very strange club we belong to, but despite the circumstances that have thrown us together, we draw strength from each other, hold each other up when one of us is down, and laugh at things only people in the same shoes are allowed to laugh at. Relationships are often messy and emotional, but human beings are wired for cooperation and connection; it is how we’ve survived as a species. I encourage you to find your community, whatever that might look like. Maybe your community is online. Maybe you feel safer with other large mammals such as dogs and horses. Safe, stable, nurturing relationships are the key – and they don’t have to be with a romantic partner or family member who has lost the right to your trust.
- Celebrate resilience.
I don’t want to make it sound as if trauma survivors are forever ticking time bombs and that we have to tip-toe gently around our emotions and each other. The fact that we are still here points to the fact that we are resilient. We have survived. It’s good to recognize and celebrate our adaptations to toxic stress and trauma that have kept us alive. We should also recognize that these adaptations have the potential to derail us and no longer be life-serving once the danger is passed. So let’s celebrate that biting wit you developed to deflect verbal abuse and yet not allow it to destroy current supportive relationships. Let’s celebrate your ability to become non-threatening because drawing attention always ended badly, but also avoid erasing yourself from your own life. Do you burn with righteous indignation? Maybe anger was the only way you could counter the aggression coming your way, and yet now do you really want to use it to crush another’s soul? Being a people pleaser may have been a smart move when the abuser was bigger and more powerful than you – and perhaps now is the time to learn how to set limits with others.
- Get active.
Powerlessness reminds us of the lack of power and control experienced during the traumatic event. It is a huge trigger for trauma survivors. I think that’s why we all were so impacted by the Kavanaugh hearings. We all stood in Cristine Blasey Ford’s shoes and watched her truth be overridden by political expediency and misogyny. Whatever the outcome of the Weinstein trial, we women – not just the Weinstein survivors, but all women – are speaking our truth and shaping society so that future generations of women do not have to bear our same burdens. It’s time for us to get active, take to the streets, petition our lawmakers, educate our sons, and challenge social norms. It is a lie that we are powerless. WE ARE MIGHTY AND WE WILL PREVAIL.
An earlier version of this article was originally published on Vox.