Recognizing the widespread problem of sexual assault, and giving voice to the victims, is undoubtedly a good thing. But it can have this unintended consequence.

Amanda MacMillan
October 18, 2017

It’s nearly impossible to turn on the TV, read the news, or log onto Facebook right now without reading or hearing about a woman’s experience with sexual assault. What started with celebrity accusations of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein has spread to women everywhere—including, probably, many women in your own social media feed.

The Me Too movement, which was founded by activist Tarana Burke 10 years ago, began trending over the weekend when Alyssa Milano tweeted about it. “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem,” she posted. On Monday, People reported that #MeToo had been tweeted more than half a million times.

Giving a voice to women who have suffered from sexual violence, and shining a light on the problem, is definitely a good thing, says Katherine Porterfield, PhD, a psychologist at the Bellevue/NYU Program for the Survivors of Torture. But it’s also important to acknowledge that for some women, seeing and hearing about these accounts can trigger memories and emotions of their own traumatic experiences.

“If you have survived something like a sexual assault, it’s common—and in some ways it’s quite easy—to be brought back to memories of that experience,” Porterfield tells Health. “Triggers can definitely include someone else telling a story or describing an assault they went through.”

In that sense, she says, the very things that are designed to help women feel empowered have the potential to do just the opposite. That doesn’t mean sexual assault survivors can’t engage in the discussion, she adds, but it does mean that they—and those around them—should pay attention to how they’re feeling while they do. If you’re struggling, here are a few things to keep in mind.

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Recognize your reaction

People who have survived trauma are sometimes surprised at how visceral their reactions can be to certain triggers, says Porterfield. “They can become flooded with memories of the event, including physical feelings and stress associated with it, and that can feel really bad and very uncomfortable,” she says. “The more intense the assault, and the less it’s processed, the more potentially disruptive the reaction can be.”

Stephanie Amada, PhD, a professor at Michigan State University, wrote in the Huffington Post yesterday about how her own #MeToo declaration triggered a “hollow” feeling she later recognized as traumatic stress. Ian Kerner, PhD, sex therapist and psychotherapist in New York City, says he has a number of patients who have found recent news stories upsetting and anxiety provoking.

“Some people are noticing they’re getting heart palpitations or cramps or other physical symptoms,” Kerner tells Health. “It’s important to pay attention to that—to understand where this anxiety is located in your body, so you can ideally try to process it in some way.”

Choose to participate—or not

The #MeToo movement involves many women talking about things they’ve never before spoken publicly about—and joining that movement can be very empowering for someone who’s stayed silent about her own experiences, says Kerner.

The concept of “witnessing” is very powerful in trauma recovery, Kerner explains; if someone’s trauma happened in the past, they may feel that they weren’t properly witnessed or protected. “Some people find that what they really need now is witnessing, and that’s kind of the amazing thing about social media—you can get that witnessing and reassurance and mirroring from others, and for some people that’s going to be very powerful.”

But it can also be overwhelming. “If you do choose to engage, whether you are speaking or listening or reading, be aware of your own self care and your own self protection,” says Porterfield, “and make sure you have the support you need.”

Some people also won’t feel ready to share their story, especially not with their entire social media feed, and that’s okay too. “It’s going to be very different for each person,” says Kerner. “Some people may not be ready to talk at all, and some people may only want to talk with someone they have an intimate connection with, like a partner, a friend, or a therapist.”

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Practice self care

“Managing your relationship with social media, and limiting how much exposure you have to all this media discussion, is something to consider if you’re feeling triggered,” says Kerner. It can also help to “reground yourself” in the important people and things in your life, he says, like a supportive spouse or partner, kids and family, or a career you love.

“When we get triggered, we get hijacked away from the mainland of our lives and we go to this traumatic place, this island, where it’s easy to feel isolated,” he says. “If you can create a bridge back to that mainland—those things you love—you can start to process that island, and integrate it back into your life.”

Some women also find that meditation helps them sort through their emotions, Kerner says; he also recommends the book The Body Keeps the Score to help understand trauma and the journey to recovery.

Consider therapy

The #MeToo movement may help some women understand that they’re holding onto a traumatic experience, and that therapy might help. Kerner specializes in a type of therapy called eye-motion desensitization reprocessing (EMDR), but says there are multiple types of treatment—all supported by science—that can help trauma survivors face their past experiences and move past them.

“This could be a wake-up call to attend to yourself maybe in ways you haven’t before,” says Kerner. “These therapies can be incredibly healing, and they’re not necessarily long-term psychoanalytic treatment, either. It can often be short- to medium-term processing just to help you work through it all.”

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Support others—and be sensitive to their needs, too

For women who find themselves in conversations about sexual assault, Kerner recommends offering support to those willing to speak up. “If you don’t want to be witnessed yourself, be a witness to somebody else,” he says. “Be curious and warm and supportive—all the things you could imagine that you would want to experience.” (If you’re still feeling pressure to share your own sordid tales, he says, recognize that and try to avoid those situations in the future.)

That’s a message that should go out to everyone, says Porterfield, whether they’re offering up their own stories or not. “It’s important that we’re listening to the needs of sexual assault survivors,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean that anything goes, or that people should be asking any questions they want or expecting a completely open conversation where someone’s going to go into all the details.”

“These are sensitive things for survivors, and it’s important we’re taking the lead from them,” she continues. “And we should also be recommending that survivors are taking care of themselves, and being careful if and when they do decide to open up.”