Lindsay Novak is a certified sex therapist based in west Omaha. She blogs every Tuesday for Livewellnebraska.com. Read more from Lindsay here.
The Sandusky sexual abuse trial has stirred up a multitude of emotions from those who've been following it.
It has brought about needed awareness of sexual abuse and validation for other abuse survivors that they're not alone. Unfortunately, the media coverage and detailed abuse descriptions have also triggered anger, anxieties and fears in the general public as well as abuse memories and post-traumatic stress symptoms in trauma survivors.
It's common for sexual abuse survivors to experience symptoms years after the actual event occurred, especially when the trauma is triggered. Triggers are a combination of emotional, psychological and physical reminders which occur when a survivor experiences an increase in sensory memories of a previous traumatic event. Triggers can include smells, sounds, touches, people, times of the year, events, holidays or any combination of these. These can cause flashbacks, nightmares, anxieties and anger. These memories can feel as intense as the day the abuse occurred.
I've had patients report that they were drawn to the media coverage of Sandusky's trial because it was validating, fulfilling and vindicating to see an abuser face the crime and punishment. This is especially true for those survivors who chose not to or didn't have the opportunity to hold their accuser accountable. However, others may feel shame for having not confronted their abuser.
And you don't have to be a survivor of sexual abuse to have an extreme reaction toward sexual abuse coverage in the media. The following are examples of reactions you or somebody close to you may be experiencing related to the recent sexual abuse coverage:
• Anger and disgust toward Jerry Sandusky's behavior. And confusion toward Mr. Sandusky about his attraction to young boys and his ability to sexually violate them.
• Frustration and anger toward Mrs. Sandusky and/or other officials who didn't stop the abuse. When abuse occurs by a perpetrator, the spouse/partner is often referred to as the non-offending parent. This suggests that this person may not have directly contributed to the abuse but indirectly allowed the abuse to continue by ignoring signs and failing to report it.
• Frustration and confusion toward the victim. The public sometimes criticizes victims for coming forward years after the abuse, often thinking, “Why did you wait to report the crime” or “what is your motive for coming forward now?” Know that it's more important to support victims as they confront memories and work to overcome the trauma. Every survivor is unique but deserves respect in his or her therapeutic path.
Here are some ways to deal with triggers and work to overcome abuse memories.
• Limit exposure to media coverage that heavily discusses abuse cases. And if you do choose to watch or read this coverage, make sure to process your thoughts and feelings in a journal or to a friend/family member who is supportive.
• Increase coping skills like deep breathing, exercise, meditation and journaling.
• Be aware of negative outlets, self-medicating and destructive behaviors. This could include alcohol, drugs and non-prescribed medications, as well as overeating or spending money.
• Explore support groups for sexual abuse survivors or attend therapy by somebody who specializes in sexual abuse. Children Services offer support groups for children, adults and families who've experienced sexual abuse. Call 402.661.7100 and ask for either Parents United or R-Safe program.
• To vent and get additional referrals, contact a 24-hour crisis line like the National Boys Town Hotline at 800-448-3000.