Walking Through a Field of Landmines: Survivors of Sexual Assault and Human Trafficking Struggle to Negotiate Trauma Triggers

Aug 2, 2019

A woman is raped when she is seventeen. Twenty years later, she smells the cologne her rapist wore the night of the attack on the person she is currently dating. Her heart begins to race and she cannot follow the thread of conversation she was participating in moments ago. The next day, she ends the relationship. Six months after he escaped his human trafficker, a man drives past a construction site, the sound of hammering and electric saws wafting in through his open car windows. Suddenly, he struggles to draw a full breath. He feels he must hide. Unable to navigate his vehicle, he pulls over to the side of the road, moving to the passenger seat so his befuddled companion can take over the wheel.

Both this man and this woman are survivors of trauma. Although the experiences that caused terror and despair are in the past, at times their minds and bodies react as if they were responding to a very real, very present threat. Neither the woman nor the man know what, exactly, evokes such strong responses in them. And this not-knowing makes them feel even more out-of-control. But there is hope: identifying and understanding the external and internal stimuli that cause them distress – commonly referred to as triggers – will help these survivors regain control of their reactions and ultimately, their lives.

One way to avoid triggers is not subject yourself to them. But, as people grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) know, complete avoidance of triggers is an impossible endeavor. Seemingly innocuous smells, sounds and sights may trigger a series of physiological and psychological responses in survivors, making them feel they are reliving life-threatening or terrifying events. Triggers are personal – what triggers one survivor may not trigger another. A non-exhaustive list of triggers, in addition to those already mentioned include: something somebody says, holidays, anniversaries, television, movie and news content, a particular place, seeing someone connected to the trauma, a medical exam, telling the trauma story, and even talking about triggers. As Matthew Tull, PhD, points out on verywellmind.com, triggers may also be internal – that is, emerge from the physical and emotional experiences of the survivor. These internal triggers may include: memories, feelings of vulnerability, anxiety, anger, pain and muscle tension.

When triggers are not recognized or effectively addressed, they can set off chain reactions – one trigger sets off another and then another – taking over survivors’ lives. 1in6.org, an organization dedicated to helping male survivors of sexual assault, quotes from Growing Beyond Survival: A Self-Help Toolkit for Managing Traumatic Stress, by Elizabeth Vermilyea: “A stress response can trigger avoidance in the form of denial, dissociation, bingeing, substance abuse, self-harm, and other behaviors in an effort to get rid of feelings. These avoidance behaviors, in turn, can trigger stress responses inside because they are reminders of old efforts to deal with painful feelings. The stronger the response, the stronger the impulses to avoid. The effort spent avoiding leaves little energy to manage day-to-day life, and the result is increased stress responses that increase impulses to avoid.”

It is possible for survivors – whether victims of human trafficking or sexual assault – to manage the inevitable triggers they encounter in their day-to-day lives. Qualified therapists can help survivors work through their trauma stories and negotiate preferred responses to triggers. In an interview with NPR, Emily R. Dworkin, a senior fellow at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, comments, “‘It’s important for survivors to know that they can regain a sense of power over those triggers, and that the most natural response is to push away the triggers. Self-care isn’t about turning off those bad feelings, but feeling those feelings so that they can subside naturally.’” Body work, meditation, biofeedback, and support from family and friends can also help survivors overcome unwanted responses to trauma triggers.

If you are a survivor of human trafficking or sexual assault and would like to learn how the civil justice system can help recover the resources you need to begin or continue your healing journey, please contact us for a free consultation. Our experienced attorneys are committed to holding perpetrators of sexual assault and human trafficking, as well as the systems that support them, accountable for their abuses.

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