Secondary Trauma and #metoo

This article was written for those who are in caring positions: friends, family, mental health providers, pastors, etc., of those who have experienced sexual harassment and assault. If you have experienced sexual assault and are looking for support, I have written an article with resources for you. I hope that you find it helpful.

In February I was driving to work listening to NPR. They were playing a piece of investigative journalism by Ronan Farrow on Harvey Weinstien, the film mongol who’s misogyny and sexual harassment of women was being exposed after decades of inappropriate and predatory behavior. A reality women, myself included, face across the globe was finally being brought into the light. Part of me wanted to leap for joy while another part of me, my heart, was broken in a way I did not fully understand.

In the months since this news broke, brave men and women have shown up on social media, unearthing a sickness in our world that has existed for far too long: #metoo rolled across the world like waves across the sea.

As I listened to the radio, read the newspaper, opened Facebook, and sat with friends, I felt my continued heart break. How was it possible that so many people experienced sexual harassment and assault every single day? I began struggling to keep cynicism at bay and felt the temptation to look at people differently, to be more weary and cautious. I felt the need to protect my family and change the way I parent to make sure they were safe. Anxiety and frustration became a regular part of my days as I joined with others in their stories of painful, terrorizing, and life altering events. I would process what I was hearing on the radio with my husband and through our conversations I realized I was experiencing secondary trauma.

Secondary traumatic stress is emotional distress that is a result of hearing or reading the firsthand traumatic experiences of others. People who are experiencing secondary traumatic stress have similar symptoms to PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder): anger, cynicism, sleeplessness, fear, hyper-vigilance, just to name a few. Other’s experiences become apart of our own hearts and stories, color the way we see the world, and increase our personal levels of anxiety and depression. A great resource for learning about the impact of trauma/secondary trauma on the brain and why we respond with increase vigilance and emotion is the book Trauma is Really Strange.

If you are close to those who have been harassed, abused, and oppressed, secondary trauma may be part of your life. As you read above, did you notice any of the same symptoms in yourself? If so and you’re hoping to build resiliency toward secondary trauma, here are a couple things to implement in your own life that can help guard you from the impact of secondary trauma and be more present for those whom you journey with.

An empty lantern provides no light. Self-care is the fuel that allows your light to shine brightly. – Unknown

Taking Care of You: The foundation of self-care is self-awareness. How do we take care of ourselves and meet our own needs without knowing we are in need in the first place? Developing self-awareness starts with slowing down and taking time to do some of the following: meditate, yoga, and journal: activities that ask you to reflect, breathe, and pay attention to the physical and emotional landscape of your body. Another aspect of self-care is knowing what you need and making it important. This is hard. Making yourself a priority can be difficult especially when those you love are hurting. I’ve also written an article titled Just Do the Dishes: Self-Awareness  with more specific practices and questions to ask yourself when beginning your self-awareness journey.

You do better at the gym with a trainer; you don’t figure out how to cook without a recipe. Therapy is not something to be embarrassed about. – Kristen Bell

Seeing a Therapist: As a caregiver and helper, there have been times when it’s been hard for me to acknowledge I need help. Being honest, however, about my own ability to manage my life as well as the pain of others is very important. As much as I’d like to think that I can shoulder the weight of the world, I am only one person with a limited capacity. Therapy is a place for you, where you are known, cared for, and have specific time and space to work on your heartache, anger, and pain. Ultimately, therapy can help you process your feelings and experiences and minimize the impact of secondary trauma. Therapy is also a place to identify the resiliency we have established in our daily lives already as well as identify activities and practices to implement that will help increase your capacity.

I believe that people need each other and that the wounds inflicted on us throughout life are best healed in the beauty and peace of safe relationship. In order for us to be the most helpful to those in our lives, taking care of ourselves and finding helpful support, like therapy, meditation, and yoga, will increase our ability to support and help heal those that we dearly love.

My final thought is this: thank you for loving those in your life who have been impacted by sexual abuse and assault. You are giving people space to share their “real” and honoring the things in their lives that have impacted how they see the world. What you do matters.

Was this post impactful for you? Do you find that self-care and therapy have been beneficial to you in your journey with those impacted by sexual abuse and assault? I would love to hear your story; feel free to comment if you are comfortable. Please note that I reserve the right to delete comments that are disrespectful, uncaring, and detrimental to other commentors. This policy is outlined in the Terms and Conditions of using this site.

Photo by Gianandrea Villa on Unsplash

Published by Ashley Barrett, MS, SMFT

Ashley Barrett, MS, SMFT is a Marriage and Family Therapist in the Kansas City area. Having a passion for people and writing, she began this blog as a way to connect people with material that has been impactful to her and her clients on their individual journey. She is a wife, mother, knitter, and gardener.

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