Sexual retraumatization in the time of Trump

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Donald Trump shown with then "Access Hollywood" co-host Billy Bush (center) and actress Arianne Zucker on the set of "Days of Our Lives" in 2005. Trump was caught in a crude conversation with Bush about Zucker and other women on the bus ride to the set.

This election season is one unlike any other that has come before. This season, a presidential candidate has been caught on tape boasting of sexually assaulting women. In response, many women have come forward to tell their stories of allegedly being attacked by this candidate. These images have played on a constant loop on news outlets.

When millions of people are closely following this highly atypical presidential race, it is important to recognize that the words and images that have been repetitively shown on television, on-line, and in print can have a particularly negative psychological effect on a significant portion of the viewing audience.

We are referring specifically to those who have suffered sexual assault. According to the National Victimization Crime Survey, each year in the United States there are roughly 288,820 victims, ages 12 or older, of rape and sexual assault. That means that millions of people in our country are carrying these emotional scars. These individuals, both men and women, are especially vulnerable to undergoing retraumatization.

Retraumatization occurs when someone is exposed to an incident that is similar in some way to their original traumatic event. This triggers similar feelings and reactions as when the assault first occurred. Some individuals re-experience their previous assault and have symptoms of trauma, such as panic attacks, numbing, intrusive, unwanted thoughts and marked mental distress including depression, irritability, distressing dreams or other forms of flashbacks.

The fact that that Donald Trump is a powerful man caught on tape boasting of his conquests over  less powerful women will only intensify the reactions of individuals who identify with the women he spoke of.

One of our colleagues recently saw a patient who came to her for a therapy session shortly after the videotape of Trump and reporter Billy Bush was released.

The young woman said that she was immediately reminded of the time she was groped in a crowd while standing at a stoplight. She remembered feeling shocked, violated and confused. She looked at the people around her and couldn't identify who could have done it. She began to feel afraid of crowds and angry toward men in general. This was upsetting to her since she regularly worked with men and enjoyed good relationships with them. 

It took a few sessions for the woman and her therapist to reprocess those old feelings.

It is important for people experiencing this retraumatization to recognize what is going on and seek out support from family, friends, and professionals if necessary. Turning off the television, getting offline and reducing exposure to potential triggers can be helpful. Some people find mindfulness, relaxation exercises, taking a walk or listening to music helpful. Psychotherapy is very useful if symptoms persist.

Family members and professionals should recognize that retraumatization is a real event for those experiencing it and must treat it with the seriousness it deserves.  Fortunately for all of us, this campaign season is coming to an end. Unfortunately for those experiencing retraumatization, the suffering may not be over quite so soon.

Kenneth W. Covelman is chairman of the Department of Couple and Family Therapy, Jefferson College of Health Professions and Council for Relationships; Florda Priftanji is a licensed therapist and administrative assistant in the department.


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