Content warning: this article mentions the Wayne Couzens/Sarah Everard trial, the upcoming BBC Jimmy Savile drama, as well as discussing trauma triggers for survivors. 

I have experienced or witnessed something traumatic

Editors note: In this article we use the word 'survivor' as a describer for those who have experienced and survived sexual abuse and violence. This won't always feel right for everyone but is currently the most commonly used and accepted descriptor. 

From the two day trial of Wayne Couzens, the news of the murder of Sabina Nessa at the hands of a man, BBC’s recent ‘Catching a Predator’ documentary coverage on Reynhard Sinaga and an announcement from BBC on upcoming miniseries, ‘The Reckoning’ that will focus on Jimmy Savile: there has been a lot for survivors of male perpetuated violence and sexual abuse to feel triggered by.

The coverage of the Wayne Couzens trial felt like a very culturally significant moment. In quick succession all of our worst suspicions on just how the at the time, Met Police Officer convinced Everard to comply, were laid bare.

This information flooded news media outlets and social media platforms, triggering a whole plethora trauma wounds: from racialised police violence, the culture wide fear all women hold of being taken or attacked, and finally those who are survivors of past violence and abuse.

In these moments of cultural importance, as with the discourse around all the aforementioned news stories, it can be very easy for those of us who are survivors to overburden ourselves with information, to actively participate in conversation or consume media that will ultimately, be retraumatising.

Andrew Chan of private London and Nottingham based counselling services, Delight Counselling, and who works with survivors regularly, spoke to the Sunday National on the news of the upcoming BBC Savile drama:

“Most survivors of sexual trauma and abuse can be triggered by sexual abuse stories shown by the media, and this new Jimmy Savile TV drama is no different. Portrayals of sexual violence in the media including TV shows and movies can prompt negative reactions for victims including anxiety, feelings of sadness or irritability and even flashbacks.”

With world mental health day on the horizon – Sunday October the 10th – instead of diving into this discussion and living in the trauma, it is equally as important, in many ways more important, to make space for a conversation around safeguarding and self-care measures that survivors can take at this time.

Things you can do as a survivor

Acknowledge that it is ok to feel really triggered and overwhelmed right now:

Psychotherapist Cate Campbell, who specialises in trauma, abuse and relationships said: “It’s very disturbing news, and it makes the world feel like an unsafe place. So I think acknowledging that is really important, I think what causes the most problems people is when they beat themselves up for feeling what are absolutely normal feelings.”

Acknowledging your feelings and that you might have been triggered is the first step to addressing them and finding ways to soothe those triggers. For example, if seeing the news about Sarah Everard or the BBC drama is spiking your anxiety you can engage in calming, mindful and grounding practices such as: deep breathing, grounding practices like running through all your five senses aka ‘what can I see/feel/smell/taste/hear?’.

If the news is making you feel angry it can be a good idea to find ways to channel that energy, for example: punch a pillow, grip something soft really tight, go for a run, create something like a painting or even do expressive free writing for ten minutes.

Familiarise yourself with the relevant helplines:

For the moments when recognising your triggers isn’t enough and you feel in desperate need of support, there are helplines that are designed to help you:

  • Rape Crisis England and Wales have a national helpline on: 0808 802 9999, find out more here
  • Survivors UK for Male survivors have a national online helpline available through their site from 12pm every day
  • Survivors Trust have a national helpline on: 08088 010 818, find out more here

Source and get in touch with local survivor charities:

Many national charities and organisations have locally based branches, Survivors Trust have many member organisations throughout the country and you can find them here. Often these local charities and organisations provide peer support groups or drop in sessions while you wait for more long-term counselling.

Speak to someone close to you:

If you feel comfortable doing so, talking to someone close to you about how you are feeling as a result of the news can really help. Being a survivor can feel extremely isolating and lonely and so, although the people in your life may not have experienced anything like what you have, they can provide support just by listening.

Identify activities that are anxiety reducing and soothing to your trauma triggers:

We identified some above but, there is an almost endless list of possible soothing activities that might work for you and how your mind and body responds when triggered. If you break down triggers into two categories, most will fit into either physical or emotional triggers. The physical triggers are things like being touched in a certain place or even a physical thing reminding you of something in your past. An example of an emotional trigger is feeling triggered by a loved one’s normal frustration or slight raised voice because of past traumas, we can also be triggered by our own emotions.

When we are triggered, either emotionally or physically we often respond in one of three ways or a mixture of all:

  • a physical response e.g. tension, exhaustion, sweating, fast breathing
  • a behavioural response e.g. nail biting, changes in eating, impulsiveness, repetitive actions such as tapping
  • an emotional response e.g. feelings of shame, anger, insecurity, anxiety, irritability, guilt

As such, it can be helpful to think of activities that directly relate to those three responses in how they might soothe you, for example:

When your response is a physical one try stretching, going for a slow walk around the house/flat or even around the block, go for a run if you enjoy that, dance to your favourite music, do some relaxing yoga.

When your response is behavioural, look outside of yourself and reach out, either to a trusted person or to one of the helplines listed above. You can also do something creative that interrupts the behavioural pattern such as, colouring, or mindful drawing.

When your response is emotional, make yourself feel safe by creating a cosy environment, maybe watch your favourite film, if you have a pet, cuddle them, visit a place or person who makes you feel safe and at ease, write down a list of self-soothing phrases that speaks to your triggered, vulnerable part such as ‘you are safe, you are not alone’ and then read it out loud back to yourself, write a list of things you are grateful for, write a list of things you are great at (this can be as simple as being a good listener).

What the family members, partners and loved ones of survivors can do

Ask them how they’re doing and don’t assume their trauma response will be to get upset:

If you know someone in your life is a survivor, engage with them about the possibility of them being retraumatised, but always give them the power to speak as much or as little as they want. For example, you could say, ‘I just wanted to check in with you because of what is in the news at the moment, do you want to talk?’

Be mindful of when/how you bring up/share retraumatising topics:

If you do know someone who is a survivor, whether this is a family member, a friend, partner or even a colleague, be very mindful about when and how you bring up the news stories mentioned above, you don’t want to risk triggering them in a situation that might be really uncomfortable for them. For example, if you are concerned that a friend might have been particularly triggered by the Wayne Couzen’s trial and they are with you and a group of friends that are not so close, it’s probably a good idea not to bring it up with everyone around. Similarly, if you work alongside someone who you know is a survivor or has experienced trauma, bringing up these stories in team meetings might be something to avoid.

See if there’s anything you can do to help:

Following on from the first point in this section, if the person does want to talk, it might be helpful to suggest to them ways in which you can help while they’re feeling particularly vulnerable or retraumatised. For example, offering to go on quiet nature walks with them, offering to accompany them to any appointments that might make them more anxious, offering to go round to their home or host them at yours to distract them.

Survivors Trust has a great guide online that breaks down how you, or a loved one might respond when triggered, this also includes lots of helpful tips and information about trauma.