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For victims of sexual violence, the flood of #MeToo sexual harassment stories may stir a mix of emotions. In many ways it can be validating to know you’re not alone. But the stories can also spark old memories and uncomfortable physical reactions.
“What’s happening right now has been a big trigger," says San Francisco resident Jane Johnstone.
The many tales of male sexual misconduct have ended careers in numerous workplaces, including NPR. Initially Johnstone was relieved to see a national conversation unfolding about a subject painfully close to her heart, but it wasn't long before all the headlines sent her into a tailspin.
"I just felt all of the things that I hadn't felt in so long," Johnstone, says. She's also been hit by waves of pain and sadness.
"There's still so much shame."
The Body Stores the Memories
So much shame, for something that happened nearly 50 years in the past. When Johnstone was about eight years old, she was sexually abused by her best friend’s father. At first she was too young to fully understand his actions as wrong. But experts say her brain instinctively knew.
“When a child is abused, the innate alarm system may be activated. And this can cause distress under the level of conscious awareness," says Ruth Lanius, a psychiatrist at the University of Western Ontario who specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder.
That alarm system, located deep in the brain stem, will activate a region that helps a person detach, Lanius says.
“People can go into an emotional shutdown response where they actually don't perceive sensory information anymore," Lanius says. "They essentially become very disconnected from their own body.”
Trauma Can Rewire the Nervous System
Johnstone endured the abuse silently for several years. As an adult, she remained emotionally withdrawn.
“I couldn’t get close to people," she says. "I was afraid to open up and have really intimate relationships.”
That response makes complete sense to Laurie Richer, a psychiatrist at UC San Francisco and the director of the Trauma Recovery Center.
“So right away she developed a sense that not everybody's safe," Richer says. "In general, especially when we're talking about sexual harassment, sexual assault, or sexual abuse, individuals tend to feel less safe in all relationships and especially in intimate relationships."
Women are more than twice as likely as men to develop PTSD, and survivors of sexual violence are particularly at risk. Richer says a traumatic experience can literally rewire the nervous system and alter the body’s coping mechanisms. Victims who develop PTSD may struggle with symptoms, such as hyperarousal, for their entire lives.
The visceral nature of flashbacks is a unique symptom. In most people, a memory lights up the thinking part of the brain. In people with PTSD, a memory lights up the sensory area, so that the past is not just recalled, but rather relived.
“So people will see exactly what they saw at the time of the trauma. They may hear what they heard at the time of the trauma," Lanius says.
It All Comes Rushing Back
In her mid-40s, Johnstone finally sought therapy. Eventually she told her family what had happened to her, and she pressed charges against her abuser. He wasn’t arrested, but she says thefact that he was confronted by authorities was enough to help put the past behind her.
Nearly a decade passed, and Johnstone thought she had successfully overcome her childhood trauma. But the steady drumbeat of #MeToo stories reignited her PTSD symptoms. Suddenly she was anxious and irritable. She couldn't sleep. She feared another slide into depression.
What to Do
Psychiatrists recommend self-talk during these episodes, to calm the nervous system. “You can say to yourself, 'It’s 2018,' says Lanius. 'I’m in the present. I’m safe.' ”
Johnstone called her therapist for a check-in. She says talking to someone in a safe space has been very helpful in quieting her emotions. The night after our interview, she cried hard, she says. For Johnstone, getting dragged back to the past is painful. Yet, she's also hopeful that a lot of healing is taking place.
“I think it’s very empowering to see all these women come forward and tell their stories and stand up," Johnstone says. She says the #MeToo voices are softening the internalized shame that kept both herself and so many women silent for too long.
If you’re experiencing sexual harassment or assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673). The call is free and anything you share is confidential. A trained staff member will help you find local resources like counseling and support groups, and will answer questions about medical concerns. You can also get information about local harassment laws.
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