Headlines about rape and harassment are powerful triggers.

Julia Naftulin
November 13, 2017

Ever since sexual abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein came out in early October, the news cycle has been full of stories about the past sexual misconduct of powerful men. While the #metoo movement has spurred survivors to open up about rape and harassment, the barrage of headlines has had an unintended effect: It's become a strong trigger for some survivors of sexual assault and harassment.

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Actress Evan Rachel Wood, who had previously disclosed her rape and sexual abuse, brought this to light in a recent tweet. "Has anyone elses [sic] PTSD been triggered thru [sic] the roof?" she asked her followers on Friday, November 10. "I hate that these feelings of danger are coming back."

 

People with PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, develop anxiety, depression, or self-destructive tendencies following a traumatic event. While PTSD was once mainly recognized in war veterans, the condition is now talked about in the context of sexual abuse. 

After Wood shared her experience on Twitter, followers replied. "Feeling sad and shaken all the time," said one. "It's mentally exhausting. Comforting to know I'm not alone but devastating and consuming to know so many others know it," posted another.

Not all trauma survivors experience PTSD. But those who do can suffer flashbacks to the traumatic event and may be triggered by things they smell, feel, or see—like a news report about a sexual abuse case. “Those [triggers] go to the deep part of your brain. Your instincts take over,” Elspeth Cameron Ritchie, MD, MPH, a retired military psychiatrist, told Health in a previous interview.

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Someone with PTSD can also have nightmares, withdraw from normal social interactions, startle easily, or be constantly on the lookout for potential threats. Feeling on guard all the time can be emotionally draining, especially when the news cycle is a constant reminder of how unsafe the world can be.

The best way to help a friend or family member whose PTSD has been triggered? Act with empathy. “The more understanding there is, the easier it is for patients, and treatment goes better for those patients,” Jack Nitschke, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, told Health in a previous interview. Survivors need solidarity and support, which Wood and her followers are providing.