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Power Trip

What to Do When the News Cycle Triggers Your PTSD

For sexual assault survivors, it can feel impossible to stay informed without compromising your mental health

Credit: d3sign/Moment/Getty

LLet me get this part out of the way: When I was 17, a relative sexually assaulted me, creating a deep chasm in my family that still exists 13 years later and leaving me with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I won’t go into detail here, partly because I’m tired of spilling my guts on the internet and partly because I don’t want to cause my parents more pain.

But it goes without saying that the news cycle of late, sparked by allegations of sexual assault against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, has been difficult at best and unbearable at worst. Watching Dr. Christine Blasey Ford recount an assault so similar to my own (in front of a panel of hostile men, no less) was painful. Realizing how many people don’t believe survivors was even more painful. Over the past few weeks, and especially the past several days, I’ve felt stuck in a cycle of rage, hopelessness, and paralyzing anxiety — and thanks to the PTSD, which I was finally diagnosed with five years ago, my fight-or-flight response is in such overdrive that even leaving the house feels exhausting.

Post-traumatic stress — which can include agitation, hypervigilance, insomnia, social isolation, flashbacks, detachment or lack of interest, and increased anxiety — is a common response to sexual assault. In one study, 94 percent of female assault victims surveyed experienced PTSD symptoms two weeks after their assault; according to the National Center for PTSD, 30 percent report still having symptoms nine months later.

Those symptoms can last for years, lying dormant for lengths of time, only to emerge during especially triggering news events and national conversations. “[PTSD symptoms] can last indefinitely in some cases,” says David Woo, a psychiatrist at Madison Avenue TMS and Psychiatry. “PTSD can flare up years later and feel fresh as though [the event] happened just yesterday.”

Thousands of sexual assault survivors have revealed their traumas online under the #StopKavanaugh and #WhyIDidntReport movements. Assault survivors are currently walking a tightrope: We want to be informed and engaged citizens, but we also want to protect our mental well-being. And right now, doing both feels impossible — I’d love to turn off the TV and delete my social media accounts, but as a journalist and simply as a human, I know I need to understand what’s going on in the world.

So what can you to do when you can’t escape from the news cycle that triggers your PTSD? I talked to mental health experts to find out.

Separate Real Life from Online Life

You don’t need to totally disconnect, but try to be more intentional about when you consume news. I get it: We live in a hyperfast, hyperconnected time, and scrolling through Twitter can feel as mindless as breathing. But the more you absorb, the more overwhelming it feels, especially when reading about sexual assault can make you feel like you’re reliving your own trauma. To combat this, Nicole Cooper, a licensed clinical psychologist at Union Square Practice and assistant professor in the psychiatry department at the NYU School of Medicine, recommends that you “set personal boundaries to protect yourself.”

“Tell friends and co-workers that you don’t want to talk about it,” Cooper says. “Share that you’re taking a break, or exit a conversation that’s making you uncomfortable. Designate a trusted friend to inform you of any news that’s relevant so you can unplug.” She also suggests listening to “a meditation or inspiring or educational podcast” before bed and when you wake up, instead of news or social media.

I’ve tried to follow this advice, scheduling a strict “no news” hour before sleep and deleting the Twitter app to prevent myself from robotically scrolling in bed. And while I used to keep TV news on all day while I worked from home, I’m more thoughtful about it now, tuning in only when I need to. I also leave my phone at home when I run errands or walk my dogs. Creating some enforced physical separation from your news feed, even in small increments, can feel cathartic.

Do Something for Yourself

“Self-care” is a buzzword that gets thrown around a lot, but all it means is deliberately setting time aside to do something for yourself, be it a walk, a bath, a home-cooked meal, or a home improvement project. (I recommend scheduling your self-care time to overlap with your no-screen time.) Woo says “mindfulness exercises like yoga, meditative breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation” are helpful. Cooper suggests doing something to give back, like volunteering at a local shelter or being a nonjudgmental listener for a friend. (She also warns against overusing substances — a glass of wine might be part of your self-care regimen, but be mindful of how much you’re consuming.)

The most effective activity will vary from person to person, but the key is to do whatever makes you feel safe and in control. “Recognize that the events in the media are reminders of your own traumatic event but that you are safe in the here and now,” Cooper says. “It’s not actually happening to you — what happened to you is in the past.”

Lean on Your Support Network

“By far, the most valuable resource is other safe people,” says Matt Lundquist, LCSW, a psychotherapist at Tribeca Therapy. “To share these experiences with friends and partners is vital in changing how they sit with you emotionally.” It took me years to tell anyone outside of my immediate family about my assault, so the shame I felt after it happened compounded into an isolating, burdensome silence.

It wasn’t until I opened up to my partner, my friends, and an online community of other assault survivors that the shame started to dissipate. “There is power in recognizing that it is an experience shared by other people,” Lundquist says. If the people close to you don’t feel safe to share with, the confidential National Sexual Assault Hotline is open 24 hours a day at 1-800-656-4673, and providers can connect you with local support. RAINN also has an online chat option, as well as a comprehensive list of other resources. Even if you aren’t ready to share publicly (you might never be, and that’s okay), try exploring the #WhyIDidntReport hashtag.

Get Professional Help

If the news cycle is making you feel out of control, isolated, or like you can’t function, or if you’re self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, it’s time for professional help. The good news is that “[mental health care] is more accessible now than ever before,” Cooper says. “Look for low-cost programs at major hospitals and universities in your area. Check if you qualify for Medicaid or if your insurance has mental health benefits. Mental health [service] at hospitals and clinics has improved greatly.” You can correspond with a therapist via text with apps like Talkspace. It can be hard to seek help when you’re barely functioning, but that’s where your support network comes in: Ask a friend or family member if they’ll help research your options or go with you to the appointment.

Most important, know that you can and will feel better, even if everything around you suggests otherwise. “Many who continue to struggle with the emotional consequences of an assault have a sense of pessimism or hopelessness, the idea that they might simply have to live with the effects of trauma,” Lundquist says. “Not so. There is good help out there. If you’ve tried to get help and it didn’t work, find better help. See 10 therapists until you find the one you really believe is right, and then stick it out.”

my book “sick forever” coming 2021 via henry holt / writing at ny times / curating at medium / past lives at the daily beast, lifehacker, wired

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