Trigger warning: this article deals with the topic of sexual assault.
Four women have accused a then-Liberal party staffer of alleged sexual assault. One of the two million Australian adults who have experienced sexual assault since the age of 15 may have found this news, and the continued news cycle surrounding it, to be triggering — or may be suffering from news fatigue. First-responders who respond to these traumatic events may also find the news triggering.
For many, the effects of sexual assault can be wide-ranging and lifelong. This can include physical injuries, long-term mental health effects — including stress, anxiety and depression — as well as disruption to everyday activities.
57% of women who experienced sexual assault by a male perpetrator in the last 10 years experienced anxiety or fear in the 12 months after the incident. 14% who were working at the time of their most recent incident took time off.
What is trauma?
“[It’s] when you’re negatively affected by something outside of yourself,” explained Russo. “It leaves you feeling violated, causing fear and stress.”
Often in the reporting of sexual assault cases, the people who come forward often say they haven’t felt the same since the event, or are not the same person they used to be.
According to Russo, this is because “trauma can cause you to lose spiritual parts of yourself or ‘soul fragments’.”
What is a trigger?
When talking about triggers, Russo specified this is “when someone or something reminds you of your trauma.”
Although this may be irrational or unwarranted, it feels very real for the person experiencing it. “It causes them to feel unsafe, and can activate memories or feelings of a past trauma,” she said.
As to why people are triggered? “When negative emotions are suppressed, you will get triggered by outside situations.” Russo says it causes people to stay on “high alert”, as the trauma is not dealt with.
One way people can diminish the triggers of trauma is to “restore peace to their consciousness/psyche.”
How can someone address their trauma?
One of the ways trauma can be addressed is through the person’s feelings being acknowledged and understood.
“Acknowledgement that a grave injustice was done to you is a part of the process. This can include a genuine apology from the perpetrator, justice system or from your support network.”
According to Russo, just six powerful words can help heal a wounded soul: “I am sorry for your pain.”
When a traumatised person can express their pain, they’ll feel relief. Russo says she helps her students release anger in a role play, as it allows them to, “Express their pain from a person who has hurt them, leaving them feeling relieved of heavy burdens.”
This can be done by hitting pillows, writing down their feelings, or expressing their pain in other ways.
What are the best coping mechanisms for triggers?
One thing a person with triggers must do is “to understand what triggers them and why.”
Russo provided a three-step plan for what one should do when they experience a trigger. Starting with acknowledgment, she says to “acknowledge the trigger and join the dots on how it relates to past traumatic experiences.”
From this, people should “instil a proactive plan that overrides reactive behaviour when being triggered.” Lastly, “apply daily calming techniques such as meditation, healing and positive mantras.”
Wondering what a proactive plan should consist of? Start with “removing yourself from the trigger.” This should be followed by concentrating on taking slow deep breaths. Repeat statements like “I choose to feel safe and protected” and “I choose to regain my power”, as Russo says this “creates new neural pathways in the brain.”
Go-to visualisations and images of someone or something that evokes happiness, peace, and joy is another suggestion, as it “will help transform the trigger.”
Over time, “the practice of refocusing thoughts and feelings help diminish the reactions to triggers,” said Russo.
As for trigger warnings (like the one included at the beginning of this article), Russo agrees that people need to be forewarned or alerted to content that may trigger them.
“We are spiritual and emotional beings. Watching or reading something that is traumatic affects a person’s consciousness – people should be given the choice before viewing or reading negative or shocking content.”
If you or someone you know needs help, please contact BeyondBlue on 1300 224 636 or Lifeline on 13 11 14. If you or someone you know has been the victim of a sexual assault, please contact the Sexual Assault & Domestic Violence National Help Line on 1800 Respect (1800 737 732) or head to The Australian Human Rights Commission for a list of state by state resources.