Part of our Sex-Ed Series
As we’ve reached the one-year mark of COVID-19 in Michigan, it is important to take a moment to reflect on how we are all experiencing collective trauma and grief. This pandemic has impacted everyone in some way, whether big or small. Those who are dealing with the stress and trauma from COVID-19 after already having suffered from sexual or relationship violence are some of those individuals being impacted in a big way. Victim survivors are uniquely experiencing this pandemic and can be affected differently than others. Although it may not be clear at first how there is a connection between COVID-19 and sexual violence, the following sections will help to explain this strong and harmful connection.
When thinking about COVID-19 and victim survivors, the first thought that likely comes to mind is how those who are currently living with an abuser are being harmed by stay at home orders. It’s true that staying at home can be very unsafe for those living in violent situations. This can increase their risk for domestic and sexual violence, while simultaneously restricting access to outside resources and supports, like friends and family. Abusers take advantage of the pandemic by using it as an excuse to limit visitors and deliveries, errands, canceling appointments, not allowing survivors to work outside the home, and more. Given the context of the pandemic and orders to stay at home and socially distance, this can be interpreted as perfectly reasonable and can be much more difficult to resist by the victim survivor. These are typical victim-isolation tactics, but are now able to be excused as compliance with public health guidelines. Additionally, many people are feeling the economic burden of COVID-19. While this is harmful to anyone who is experiencing it, those in abusive situations may be suffering unique consequences. A loss of income could force victim survivors to stay with their abusers. Although they could have been saving up money for an exit strategy, they may have to now abandon this strategy due to loss of income.
COVID-19 Retriggering Trauma
Victim survivors do not have to be currently experiencing sexual or relationship violence to still be facing challenges and a retriggering of their trauma during this time. Although the conversation about COVID-19 and victim survivors typically stops at a discussion about domestic violence, there is much more to unpack.Those who have experienced sexual violence in the past are facing a retriggering of trauma during the pandemic. Triggers are defined as “memories stored in our physical and emotional selves”. Those memories can resurface when experiencing specific sounds, tastes, feelings, or events. Staying at home may be triggering for victim survivors who were assaulted in their homes, leading to anxiety, fear, or symptoms of PTSD. Even if home is considered a safe space, having to remain at home for prolonged periods of time can still bring up its own set of challenges as the mere isolation of being at home can be triggering. A feeling of isolation can be a long-term effect on victim survivors, and that feeling is being heightened during the pandemic. Coping mechanisms that victim survivors used previously to manage their triggers, such as connecting with others, may no longer be as effective given the current state of the world. Further, many of us are currently experiencing changes in our body’s systems. It is normal for people to be experiencing sleeping and eating changes, high levels of anxious energy coupled with total exhaustion, and more frequent dreaming and nightmares. While this may be the first time some people are experiencing this at such a heightened level, for victim survivors, this can be reminiscent of what their bodies and minds endured in the early stages of recovering from sexual violence.
Medical care for victim survivors
Medical care for victim survivors are being impacted by the COVID-19 crisis as well. Forensic exams are examinations provided to sexual assault victim survivors to gather evidene that is suitable for use in court. These exams typically need to be conducted within 72 hours of the assault, as physical evidence is typically gone after this time period. 85% of forensic nursing programs in the United States operate out of emergency departments, according to the International Association of Forensic Nurses (IAFN). These emergency departments have noticed a significant decrease in the volume of patients seeking non-COVID related care. The IAFN conducted a survey that found that 4 out of 5 programs have noticed a decrease in the number of patients coming in, with almost all of them describing it as a “noticeable decrease”. This could largely be a result of victim survivors fearing infection if they enter an emergency department or hospital. Under normal circumstances, forensic exams can take 4 hours or longer to complete, so it is not surprising that a victim survivor may feel hesitant to be in a hospital for that long. They may also be impacted by the social messaging we are experiencing right now that encourages people to make sacrifices for the greater good, such as avoiding entering hospitals and burdening an already overwhelmed healthcare system. Even if a victim survivor does decide to enter a hospital, the experience is changed. For a while during the pandemic, trained victim advocates were not allowed to accompany the victim survivor to the exam, leaving them alone during possibly one of the most traumatic times in their lives.
As mentioned previously, prior coping skills that a victim survivor might have engaged previously may no longer be as effective. It is important to develop new coping skills and new routines given the circumstances of the pandemic. Here are some ideas:
- The first part of recovering after a traumatic event is to calm
the body and the activation of the nervous system. To accomplish
this, try some of the following techniques:
- Breathe mindfully: place one hand on your chest and one on your stomach, and do 4 second inhales, a 4 second pause, and then a 4 second exhale. Set a timer for a minute or two and do nothing but mindfully breathe
- Low intensity exercise: high intensity workouts can exacerbate your nervous system while it is working hard to regulate itself. Therefore, workouts like yoga, swimming, pilates, or walking that won’t raise your heart rate too high are a great option for bringing your body some calm. Bonus points if you can be outside while doing this!
- Make sure you’ve eaten: It can be easy to forget to check in with your physical needs, so take a minute to check in with your body and assess whether you’ve eaten enough or drank enough water.
- Trauma informed yoga: This can be a great way to bring your body some calm without raising your heart rate. If you are interested, check out the trauma informed yoga CWGE is putting on in collaboration with RecWell for Sexual Assault Awareness Month!
- After calming down your body, victim survivors may still
experience racing thoughts or triggers. Here are some suggestions
for how to bring your mind some relief after you’ve done so for your
- Journal: in documenting your thoughts, you may want to acknowledge that you are reliving memories of the trauma. Try asking “when did I know I was safe after that happened?” Gently move your thoughts to when you knew you were safe, rather than the traumatic event itself. Continue asking yourself what or who has made you feel safe since then? Let the prompt take you where you need to go
- Reach out to a safe person: reach out to someone who you feel safe with and supported by. Send a text, have a video chat, phone call, or socially distanced meet up.
- Watch a comforting show: Watching a show, especially one you’ve seen before, can bring a sense of comfort and predictability to a time that feels very unstable and unpredictable. Cuddle up with a blanket, a furry friend if you have one, and indulge in some Netflix!
- Say affirmations aloud: affirmations can be a powerful and grounding tool for when you are struggling. Cassandra Corrado has some wonderful affirmations specifically tailored to victim survivors on their website.
If you are interested in hearing more about this topic and diving deeper into the connection between COVID-19 and victim survivors, join the Center for Women and Gender Equity on April 7th at 4:00pm. Register for the event using the following link. Check out the Center for Women and Gender Equity’s other events for Sexual Assault Awareness Month as well. See you there!
Take care of yourself, Lakers!
By: Ariana Deherder, Violence Prevention Student Assistant