Over the past month, people have been talking about a news story unfolding in our own backyard.
As everyone in Pennsylvania is familiar with, Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant football coach at Penn State, was charged on Nov. 5, with allegedly sexually assaulting eight boys.
Since then, the nation has been fixated on stories of the alleged abuse and subsequent fallout at the university.
For survivors of sexual assault, the details of the alleged child sexual abuse and the continuous buzz about the story have the potential to prompt a different kind of fallout — triggering or reliving the trauma of their own assault.
Triggering is when a survivor is flooded with sensory memories of a previous assault. Certain people, places, smells, sounds, or touches may cause a survivor to re-experience feelings associated with a prior traumatic experience. Sometimes it can be so overwhelming it may seem as if they are experiencing it in real time, which can be highly frightening.
And it’s not just survivors of child sexual abuse who may relive a trauma when they read the latest news. Anyone who’s experienced sexual assault — male or female, young or old — may be bothered, even if the details don’t specifically relate to his or her individual story.
Why? Because the reminders prompt the person to feel revictimized.
A person who has experienced sexual abuse may be impacted — physically, cognitively, emotionally or behaviorally — by reading about another person’s abuse. And, equally disturbingly, by reading the news that adults may have been able to do more to protect the victims.
In Pennsylvania, where so many residents have a current or past affiliation with Penn State and where news coverage about the story continues to be extremely high, it is nearly impossible to avoid the Sandusky case or people’s discussion about it.
If you’ve experienced sexual abuse and have experienced triggers by recent news, we encourage you to reach out for help.
The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR) collaborates with a network of 51 rape crisis centers across the state to provide quality services to victims and survivors of sexual violence and their families. Victims, survivors or people seeking information, referrals or resources can call our toll-free hotline at 1-888-772-7227 or visit www.pcar.org.
In addition, help is available for people who sexually abuse and for their families. Often, victims — particularly in cases of incest — don’t want to come forward with their story. We understand the inner conflict people face — they want the abuse to stop, but they aren’t sure they want to report a family member to police. Information, resources and referral information is available through Stop it Now (1-888-PREVENT or www.stopitnow.org) or through the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (www.atsa.com).
Sexual violence is a national crisis. As news stories unfold about its prevalence and the toll it takes on victims and families, let us stand together to help those struggling and to prevent it from happening in the future.
Suggestions for Handling Triggers
Triggering occurs when a survivor of sexual assault is flooded with sensory memories of a previous assault. Below are some tips for reducing a trigger’s impact.
Just being aware that triggers may occur and are “normal” can help reduce their impact.
Having a plan for reacting to triggers helps, too.
Learn healthy coping skills and ways to distract yourself when triggering occurs.
Talk to friends and family for support.
Seek professional help by calling PCAR’s toll-free hotline (1-888-772-7227) or visiting www.pcar.org.
Helping Friends or Family Members Who Experience Triggers
When triggering occurs, it can be very frightening for the survivor of sexual assault. Here are some things you can do to help.
Listen attentively and without judgment.
Provide understanding and support, and know that that support may be needed for a long time.
Encourage activities such as walks or other positive activities that are enjoyable and relaxing.
Reassure your friend or family member that things will get better.
Help find professional support.
If you are concerned for the person’s immediate safety, call 911 or seek professional care at a local hospital.