Wednesday, September 26, 2018

What to do if You have Been Assaulted and are Triggered by the News

What to do if You Have Been Assaulted and are Triggered by The News
The Yoga Bag
Catherine Cook-Cottone

Why I am writing this:

While growing from a little girl to a woman, I was both sexually assaulted and physically assaulted. As I write, my stomach and heart ache and tears flood my eyes.

That said, it is part of who I am.

I think I am like many women out there. I care about what is happening in the news. However, the news is very triggering. I find myself torn between wanting to know the developments day-to-day and trying to get through my work and life tasks. I effort to get up every day and get my work done, engage in my relationships, and manage the resurgence of traumatizing memories and waves of emotions.

I find that I am at a place in which I need to gather together my coping strategies- so that they are here for me. I am writing to share them with you. So that WE have a plan.

To do this, I reached back to a post I wrote about coping shortly after my mother died. I am inspired by my 2015 self and her strength. I wrote the 2015 post less than three weeks after her passing. In my 2015 post, I spoke of the moment when my parents told me my baby brother was diagnosed with Down Syndrome. I spoke of the moment I heard my mom had, at-best, 3 years to live. There are these moments in our lives and they come in waves. 

When I wrote in 2015, I felt much like I do now. I was deep in one of those waves. I was going through the daily motions of life and wondering if I would ever feel okay again. Back then, I wrote about the hardships I had experienced in my life- a list. I wrote about how I was not special- that life is complicated, and messy, and sometimes really hurtful and that – I—like each one of us- was a bit bruised-up by it. still, despite the list, I did not refer to being physically or sexually assaulted-  I wrote this in the text—

"And, this is not all of it (some things simply must be kept private and sometimes those ones are the hardest)."

Today, I find it too hard to carry this burden silently. Life gives us these chances, again and again, to turn inward and heal the places where the wounds still ache.And so I take that chance.

It seems as though, the way out is still through and to heal I must feel. I know that this too shall pass and with my work, it will pass best after I have integrated, processed, and experienced it.

By leaning in, I will arise stronger.

I have decided to take what I learned in 2015 and expand the guidance for us. Here is our plan:

Rally your kindest and most compassionate self.
Research suggests that if you coach yourself with self-compassionate, caring encouragement using your own name, you providing self-support that can move you forward. This is how it works, “Catherine, I hear you saying that you are afraid that you will never feel okay again. I see your sadness. Remember, Catherine, you are strong. You have your breath and your practice. You have made it through hard times and learned and grown. Be present, feel, and breathe. You’ve got this.”

Take a news break.
Take a break. Instead of turning on the news in the car or in the morning while you get ready for your day, play songs that feed your soul. Listen to a podcast that reminds you why you love and can trust humans. Take time with your loved ones-- with no background noise- just the humming of your life as it pulses with the heartbeats of the safe people in your world. You can go back to the news whenever you are ready. It is never required. You can always choose.

Look for those who have made it and lock your eyes on them.
By the time my brother Stephen had grown a bit and was doing well in school, my mom went back to school to get her teaching degree. Sharing the writing gene, she wrote about our family experiences and the birth of Stephen. She wrote about Stephens’ birth and meeting a woman who also had a son with Down Syndrome. Her name was Eileen Hyslop. Mom reached out to her. Eileen generously talked to my mom at length and later became her dear friend. That first day on the phone, my mom could barely hear what Eileen was saying because she just heard her laugh, from the belly, from the soul, an authentic, happy laugh. The sound of that laugh gave my mom hope. My mom thought for the first time, in a long time, that maybe she would, in fact, feel okay again and maybe, in fact, she would laugh, a real laugh again.

There are women, heroes really, out there now, speaking of their rapes and assaults with mind-bending courage within the #metoo movement. There are community members and leaders who are feeling strong and supported enough to voice support. There are people who have built their entire careers on advocating for women and survivors. Like me, find those who have made it through and lock your eyes on them.

Let your friends and family be there.
The days after I told my partner of seven years that I was leaving were some of the hardest days of my life. I knew he deserved to be with someone who loved him completely and I knew I needed to leave. That did not mean that I didn’t love him very much. I did and leaving him was one of the hardest things I have even done. I was floored by the feelings that followed. One night, I felt as if I could not bear to exist. I didn’t want to die, but I didn’t know if I could handle being present in all I was feeling. My dear friend Lissa came over to my place with a novel in hand. The television was off, no music, just me curled up on the couch and Lissa sitting on the chair next to me reading. I didn’t know the story. To this day, I have no idea what she was reading. Still, the sound of her voice and knowing I was not alone, got me through one of the hardest nights of my life. I will be forever grateful.

These days, I am relying on my running group, good friends, and my husband. Jerry and I have a Netflix show we are watching, a gentle distraction. I am working with my friends on an event for this weekend in support of a veterans program. It is these close, trusting, and supportive moments that help you believe in humans again. Reach out to the people in your life, your sisters and brothers, family, good friends- those that won’t mind sitting and reading to you, running with you, planning events with you-- while you work on breathing.

Listen to the stories and perspectives of others.
This one was my daughter Chloe’s contribution. When I asked her what she does to get through the seemingly unbearable, she said she reaches out to others to get their perspective. She said that when she is too deep in something, she loses perspective and only sees one side. When she reaches out and listens, she hears other perspectives and possibilities. It has a balancing effect. She says it gets her closer to what is really happening and out of her reaction. I guess old souls can be 16 year-old girls.

With a similar intention, the year I turned 40 I re-storied my whole life in a series of journals. I interviewed my husband, my parents, my siblings, and my friends and got their stories of my life. I detailed things that made no sense to me when I was little and asked very specific questions. All the notes are in journals that I still hold precious today. This process was incredibly healing and “self”-organizing. I learned so much about my own perceptions as well as the sides of stories that perhaps I could never have known or understood as a kid. Not surprisingly, I was out-and-out wrong about more than a few things. The whole process made me stronger, deeper, more connected and integrated.

Read memoirs of survivors- The Hole in the World: An American Boyhood by Richard Rhodes is one of the bravest books I have ever read. You can purchase it it here.  Lucky by Alice Sebold tells the story of a young woman raped, only later to find out he had killed before and was told she was “lucky” to have survived. You can purchase Lucky here. Dig in, be inspired, and feel.

Routine is your friend.
When my Grandpa Cook died it hit me hard. He was the first of my grandparents to pass. He meant a lot to me. He was a teacher to me on topics ranging from how to recover from an eating disorder to maintenance of healthy daily routines. I somehow felt safe just thinking about him digging around his garden, making insane smoothies, and sitting and reading. To get through his death, I stuck to my routine. I went to school. I went to work. I ran (no yoga yet in my life at this time). My routine was my anchor. I said to myself, “Work is still here,”School is still here,” and “Daily runs are still here.”  Things had changed substantially and yet so much was going to stay the same. I still find great comfort in that.

Use your planner, calendar, or other scheduling support technology.
In the research world, these are called cognitive prosthetics (or neuro-prosthetics). Considered a tool for improved functioning, technologies can help you “think” just as a prosthetic leg can help someone who has lost a limb walk. For example, researchers are exploring ways that technological tools can help those with Alzheimer’s function day-to-day. How does this relate? When we are completely overwhelmed, we are at high risk for flaking out. Under stress, your brain is flooded with stress hormones and there is actual risk for cognitive impairment. Use your tools and give your brain a break so that it can process what you are experiencing. You can enhance the process by adding in reminders to do deep breathing exercises or reminders of positive affirmations (e.g., an auto-reminder pops up to say, “You are stronger than you think you are. Breathe”). Technology is a powerful tool for mental health.

Let your feelings move through you and breathe- breathe deeply.
You can’t think your way out of some things. It is simply not possible. When someone dies, you can’t fix it, think about it differently, nothing like that. It is loss, pure loss. It can’t be fixed. You can try to think your way out of it- that path takes you into loops of rumination- because it doesn’t really work. The feelings demand to be felt. As they wave in, allow them. Put one hand on your belly and one hand on your heart. Feel. Deepen your breath and stay present. These feelings are called emotions, e-motions- packets of energy and information (i.e., /e/) that move through you (i.e., /motion/). They tell us what matters. The remind us what is important. They move us. Allowing and presence is needed for integration and processing of what has happened. It’s a necessity. That said, take breaks. Alternate sessions of being totally and completely in it with periods of support, friends, and healthy distractions. When you are ready, allow again. That old saying is true, “In order to heal, we need to feel.”

Stay Sober.
There is another old saying (from Alcoholics Anonymous), “Nothing is so bad a drink won’t make it worse.” You don’t need to be an alcoholic to benefit from that wisdom. Your brain and soul need to be sober to process important things in your life. If you take yourself out with alcohol or drugs during the hard times, you rob yourself of the chance too honor the tragedy, loss, or important life event with pure, sober presence. Equally important, if you drink, or use, every time you start to feel, it is difficult, if not impossible to move forward. You get stuck. It bears repeating, that old saying is true, “In order to heal, we need to feel.”

Write, write, write.
Writing about hard times can help you heal (read a Psychology Today Piece here James Pennebaker, as researcher on the mental health benefits of writing found that when individuals write about difficult events in their lives, include specific details, and integrate their emotional experiences, they experience increased physical and emotional well-being (read about James Pennebaker here For me, writing in my journal, writing a blog, or any writing at all are ways for me to move thoughts and ideas through me. I love giving seemingly free-floating emotions a home on a page- whether it be a webpage or a hand-made journal page. My emotions seem to do better with a good home. Write, write, write.

Seek out nature.
Nature is medicine. Researchers are confirming what we all already know: getting into nature is grounding, spiritually uplifting, and healthy. I believe so strongly in this that I run to a local waterfall on a regular basis. If I don’t get there once a week, I feel it in my body. I love hearing the water rush over the rocks. I love seeing the trees grow and shed their leaves, hearing the snow crunch under my feet in the winter, and smelling the flowers in the spring. I love the birds, squirrels, and ducks that live there. Once when we were in the midst of moving, I ran to the falls in a state of exasperation with the unpacking. Sweaty, exhausted, I walked up to see the falls, and rested my hands and chin on the safety fence. At that moment, I saw the most beautiful thing. A blue heron was standing at the base of the falls dipping his bill in the water and then looking up to the sky. Somehow, I knew in that movement that everything was going to be okay. I didn’t take a picture. I hold the image of that heron clearly in my memories embedded with feelings of calm security.

The two weeks of my mom’s death, I ran or walked down to Lyon’s Falls, the actual falls. I watched the water fall over the rocks. I made wishing stone stacks. I noticed the roots on trees and the moss on rocks. I felt the sand on my fingers and the softness of the sides of the riverbed under my feed. I breathed in the fresh, snow-tinged spring air, and I cried. Yep, nature heals.

The next possible thing.
When I was an undergraduate, I did not love to clean my apartment. I would be busy on swim team, school, and work and get over my head with housekeeping. One Saturday morning I woke up knowing I had to get my apartment in order. It had gone too far and something had to be done. I felt frozen by the sheer magnitude of what I had to accomplish. I asked myself, “Catherine, what is the next possible thing you can do?” I answered, “You can put your feet on the floor and get out of bed.” I answered myself, “Yes, yes that seems possible.” And so it began. I asked myself if I could get this cup, this one cup, to the kitchen sink and I answered myself that I could, in fact, do that. One little, tiny thing at a time, I got my apartment clean. This strategy has come to serve me in postpartum after a spinal headache and complicated recovery. It came to serve me for many, many days when I was terrified that I would not get tenure (I did). It served me writing my last book (e.g., “I can write this section, just this section”). In Alcoholics Anonymous they talk about one day at a time. For me, on some days, that is too big. I ask, “What is the next possible thing you can do?” That’s it. Do that.

Schedule pleasant events.
Since the 1980s, researchers have been documenting the benefits of scheduling pleasant events. It is important that you see the two aspects of this tool: (a) schedule, and (b) pleasant event. Each component is important. In fact, planning the pleasant event (e.g., a vacation) may have as much, or more, of a benefit than the actual pleasant event. Read the New York Times piece on the benefits of planning vacation Next, the pleasant event is- well- pleasant. You don’t need to earn it or deserve it. It is just healthy to do fun and nourishing things. I love to go for a run in nature or hike. I love to go in our hot tub. I love to cuddle in by the fireplace and write blogs. I love teaching yoga. I love group runs with friends. I love yoga trainings (my brother said that I need to admit this is yoga camp for grown-ups- I say training makes it sound legit). I plan “trainings” and travel. I have been saving for and planning a trip to Italy for almost 5 years. I hope to go this year, completely paid-for, no credit card debt, and learn to cook authentic Italian meals in all different regions. Just thinking about it makes me happy. (Go here for a list of pleasant events

Practice and all is coming.
When I found out my mom had Pulmonary Fibrosis, I deepened my yoga practice. I recall sobbing in savasana with Susan Fain, the yoga teacher, playing “Awaken My Soul” as she gently pressed my shoulders to the floor (thank God for towels over the eyes). Practice yoga, run, swim, or whatever physical practice centers you. The act of being in your body and moving is essential and powerful. Recall the section on emotions needing to move?  You need to move too. You move, the emotions move, and integration of even the hardest of stuff happens. Unlike substance use, a practice that allows you to feel your body and your feelings allows the impact of hard times move through you. Warning: each of these physical practices, if done with the wrong intention- can work just like alcohol or drugs. You can use your yoga, your running, your swimming to numb out the feelings- and if you do- well- re-read the section on staying sober. It’s not a step forward. So move- YES- and move with the intention of feeling and processing. Now, that will serve you.

This one is not so simple as we talk about trauma. .

What I said before (2015), “Start meditating today so that when you need the skills you have them. During the last weeks of my mom’s life, we had the privilege of taking care of her. Thanks to Hospice and their wonderful care providers we were able to be at my parents’ home providing the care my mom needed. These times are so very important and hard. I was able to use the skills I have practiced for years- breathing, mantra, and focus- to stay present and experience all that there was to experience. You see, the more you meditate, the more you have a felt sense that everything really is going to be okay no matter what is happening. You have a felt sense that we are all one and that we all come from and go to the same place and that place is calm and full of love. Each day you practice you allow yourself to get a closer- not to believing this, but knowing it.”

With trauma, it can be a bit more complicated. Here is a great article on trauma and mindfulness, “The Science of Trauma, Mindfulness and PTSD” in Mindful: Healthy Mind, Healthy life.

Here are the conclusions of David Treheaven, author of Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness as cited in his article, “Is Mindfulness Safe for Trauma Survivors?” In Applied NPT Magazine- here.

Many who suffer under the weight of traumatic stress respond favorably to mindfulness meditation. But others may have a different experience, where the practice unintentionally lands them in more pain. Mindfulness practice doesn’t need to work for everyone, but I’ve become convinced that certain modifications to meditation can support survivors, at the very least ensuring that they are not re-traumatizing themselves in practice. Mindfulness meditation isn’t bad: it’s powerful. And those of us offering it to others benefit when we continue exploring its risks and rewards.”

So- find supportive, guided meditations and do what feels safe and okay. I have created two series on Simple Habit for survivors of trauma and sexual assault here. Read more about our Simple Habit series on meditation for women on Medium here.

I am not about acceptance. Maybe for some things- for others- no. There are things I do not and will not accept. Physical and sexual assault- no.

For most of the rest--  I have found it to be good practice to allow. Allow others to be on their own path. Don’t let your judgment, your ideas, your concepts about where they should be and how they should be doing things to get in the way of love and presence. It has taken me a while to get to this and it is my practice. Allow. Allow. Allow. And then Love. Love. Love. I promise, you will not regret this.

Look for meaning.
This one takes a commitment to dharma- the concept that we were each born with a reason for being and it is our path to find our reason and express it. Seane Corn, a teacher of yoga, explains that the universe is our teacher- always. She says that our souls are placed here on Earth to learn and the life events that manifest as we move from day-to-day and year-to-year are there to be our teachers. In my life, I have a sense that the universe does not speak English, or any other human language for that matter. Rather, the universe speaks in symbols and energy. That means that the universe is not going to walk up to you and say, “Catherine, your brother Stephen was born to show you the beauty, love, and intelligence in all human beings.” Nope, I had to see, witness, share, experience, and value all of that. There were no words. Just Stephen.

I have yet to figure out the big picture for why I was assaulted. Maybe my heartaches and body aches were just collateral damage to other people’s inability to manage their own hurt, drives, and struggles. Maybe it’s a reminder of just how fragile we all are.

Maybe some things just happen.

For certain, I did not deserve these hurts. I also don’t deserve a life of ongoing replays of these horrible events either.

I deserve to move forward and live and love and laugh. And—that--  I will do.

Get professional help. I have. Getting help is one of the bravest, smartest, and deepest acts of self-care I have ever accomplished. It has made all the difference.

So there you are--  our plan.

The way out is through and getting through can be manageable. It is not easy, but it can be remarkably simple- some of the most powerful things are- stay present and process- and know you and your beautiful life are worth the effort. Your ability to stay present and move through the experience is a way of honoring your strength.

It is a way of honoring the journey of your own soul.

I hope you choose the path of presence. You are stronger than you think and life is more beautiful than we can remember in the hard times.

The way out is through.


Catherine Cook-Cottone
The Yoga Bag