Why Other Women's Trauma Can Feel Like Your Own

Experts say national events like Christine Blasey Ford's testimony can make trauma and the reliving of it a collective experience.

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Oct 3 2018, 3:04pm

A woman listens to the Kavanaugh hearing on her phone. Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call for Getty Images.

Last week was a hard week for women. This week will likely provide little respite.

On Thursday, days' worth of news items involving sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh culminated in Christine Blasey Ford testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, sharing with its members—and the country—her account of how Kavanaugh once held her down on a bed, covered her mouth, and tried to force himself on her at a small high school gathering in the 1980s. As Ford gave her opening statement while choking back tears, many more women cried openly along with her: New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand dabbed at her eyes; New York Representative Carolyn Maloney let mascara-tinted tears roll down her cheeks; and women protesting outside the hearing room wept as they watched Ford give her testimony from livestreams on their phones.

Many women saw themselves in Ford, who remained poised and polite as she recounted what she says was one of the most traumatic nights of her life. Then they watched Republican congressmen, conservative mouthpieces and, on Tuesday night, the president himself mock and discredit Ford and, by extension, all survivors of sexual assault. It's why, many women have said, they've been walking around feeling broken down, dejected, and depressed.

The scientific term for this phenomenon is "vicarious trauma," the secondhand trauma we can experience when someone with whom we've come in contact is going through a traumatic event. Though the term typically refers to the trauma therapists, social workers or other victim service professionals may experience on the job as a result of helping other people process their own trauma, it's been expanded more widely to talk about how everyday citizens interact with major news events or tragedies.

Some experts say the Ford hearings produced vicarious trauma on a mass scale, causing women and survivors of sexual assault across the country great stress and anxiety.

"You don't have to experience a traumatic event personally for it to have the potential to impact your life," Rachel O'Neill, a mental health counselor at Talk Space, an online therapy service, tells Broadly. "We started the year with the #MeToo movement, and in that time so many people have come forward and shared their pain. It's led to people feeling inundated with trauma."

The news cycle surrounding the allegations against Kavanaugh has been particularly relentless, with new stories detailing his alleged behavior as a high school and college student breaking nearly every hour. For this reason, social media has played a prominent role in exacerbating collective trauma , according to O'Neill, who says platforms like Facebook and Twitter can plunge readers into a bottomless pit of upsetting stories with no relief.

"With vicarious trauma it can be helpful to have this sense of interconnectedness and to validate each other's experiences," O'Neill said. "But one of the dangers of social media is that you can continue to re-experience and relive the trauma indefinitely."

This endless broadcast of trauma was especially difficult for survivors of sexual assault, for whom Ford's allegations dredged up memories of their own experiences with abuse. During the hearings themselves, women flooded C-SPAN with calls to tell their stories, and the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network reported a 147 percent uptick in calls to its sexual assault hotline. On Twitter, survivors used the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport to discuss the backlash victims of abuse are subject to if they go public with their allegations, or bring them to authorities.

But even those who haven't experienced the manner of assault Ford and others detailed in these forums can still find themselves sharing their emotional distress.

"If you experience emotions that others are experiencing, especially those associated with stress, your physiological patterns of stress can align with their physiological patterns," Tessa West, an associate professor of psychology at New York University, says. "In other words, you can become physiologically linked together. If people show elevated stress levels over time, and you 'catch' that stress, you can too can endure physiological harm."

"In other words, you can become physiologically linked together. If people show elevated stress levels over time, and you 'catch' that stress, you can too can endure physiological harm."

West says there still hasn't been quite enough research into the psychological effects of vicarious trauma, but these are reasonable conclusions based in part on what scientists know about the "contagious" quality of emotions. Emotions, she says, become especially contagious, or transferrable, when they're negative emotions, "like anger, sadness, and anxiety."

There will be plenty more of these emotions to go around in the coming days, it seems.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Wall Street Journal reported that the FBI could wrap up its investigation into the allegations against Kavanaugh as soon as later that night or Wednesday morning—possibly without ever interviewing Ford.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell vowed to hold a vote on Kavanaugh this week, regardless of the FBI's findings. “One thing we know for sure: The Senate will vote on Judge Kavanaugh here on this floor, this week,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Tuesday, while reportedly dismissing the allegations against Kavanaugh and accusing Democrats of trying to "move the goal posts" on his confirmation.

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O'Neill says she'll continue to offer her clients some simple tips for how to manage the communal feelings of anger and anguish the outcome of the investigation and subsequent vote—over which we have little control—may produce.

"When people feel a sense of powerlessness, that tends to reinforce collective trauma," O'Neill says. "Advocate however you feel compelled to do so: Feeling like you're part of making a difference and having the ability to make your voice heard can guard against vicarious trauma."