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Author: Paula Kavanagh

Raising Awareness of Childhood Sexual Abuse Triggers


When abuse of any description is covered on TV it is usually followed by an announcement that if you have been triggered by the content of the programme call this phone number.  As a victim of childhood sexual abuse, I often heard the term triggers without making the connection to what was happening in my own life.

Those of us who have suffered from flashbacks or strong emotional or physical responses in the most inopportune moments can really struggle to connect the dots.

Because triggers can be from the most innocuous things, it is not uncommon to become flooded by feelings of fear or panic that often appear to come out of the blue and without any warning or connection to anything that is happening at the time.

Add to that that once you get triggered the response felt can last for a second or linger for weeks. This can make it even more difficult for you to understand what the initial cause or trigger for your emotional or physical response was.

When I broke my ankle a few years back I began to have nightly panic attacks. I had an overwhelming feeling that I was going to die in the middle of the night. I really struggled to understand what was happening to me. I went around all day feeling panic and a physical pain in my chest and was constantly dreading the thoughts of bedtime.

I found myself delaying going to bed and only gave in when I was exhausted, even then I’d sit on the top stair for at least ten minutes telling myself that I was fine and had nothing to worry about. This carried on for weeks until I finally understood that I was being triggered by my dependency on my partner to do everything for me. I hated feeling helpless and out of control and all this brought me back to my childhood feelings of not being able to escape when my father came into my room at night to rape me.

What are Triggers? 

A trigger is anything that reminds you of your trauma. They can be extremely personal and can occur at any time. Triggers can be sounds, smells, tastes, touch, the tone in someone voice, hearing a word or phrase, seeing images, videos, an expression or a gesture.  It is likely that you may feel powerless to stop your immediate emotional or physical response to your triggers.

What Happens When you are Triggered?

A trigger can cause a strong or overwhelming emotional or physical response which can occur at any time. A typical response can be anger, rage, uncontrollable crying, physical pain, palpitations or breathlessness.

These triggered responses can transport you back to unconscious or stored memories or experiences of trauma. It is not unusual for you to feel confused or overwhelmed, and you can sometimes feel like you have been hit by a train.

Why are Victims of Abuse Vulnerable to Triggers?

Those of us who have experienced trauma as a child develop a variety of coping mechanisms that allow us to store memories or emotions away from our conscious minds.

When you engage one of your senses connected to your abuse, for instance in my case the sounds of someone eating loudly or crunching food can immediately transport me back to a memory of my father and how much I hated sitting at the table while he shoveled food into his mouth and dribbled its contents down his top.

Understanding just how you store memories can help to understand why these emotional or physical experiences can appear to have no apparent connection to what is happening in your life at the time when they occur.

Understanding Your Coping Mechanisms

I can honestly say I was shocked that something as simple as a broken ankle could throw be back into memories of my abuse.  When we were researching coping mechanisms for our book, ‘Why Go Back? 7 Steps to Healing from Childhood Sexual Abuse’ we discovered how as victims of abuse our memories are often fragmented, with this knowledge things began to fall into place. Understanding that it is not uncommon for emotions and facts to be stored in different parts of the brain helped me make the connections between triggers and emotional responses.

It is for this very reason that I understand the importance of victims understanding all of the many ways abuse impacts your life so that you can take control and save yourself from needless suffering and pain.

What to Do in the Moment?

I know it’s all well and good to say that you don’t have to carry on being triggered when you’re on the other side of the trauma. However, I have found a number of things helped me through the times I struggled the most.

  1. Firstly, talk to someone. Call a support person or friend to say how you are feeling and allow them to help you. It is not a sign of weakness to get help rather a sign of strength. Remember how you feel when you are in a position to help a friend it’s the same for them, so where possible call someone.
  2. Breath, I know how simple this can sound but it really can help. If you can bring your attention to your breath, breathing in for 10 and out for 10 and then reduce it to 9, 8, 7 and so on… it helps to not only distract you from the panic but calms you down and helps you sleep.
  3. Acknowledge your feelings be it upset of angry I know this also sounds easy but crying or getting angry is something I still struggle with. I can tell you that when I do make a conscious effort to express my feelings things improve.
  4. Repeat a Mantra/statement or phrase: By repeating a phrase in your head you distract yourself long enough to calm down and think more rationally. This can be anything like ‘Everything is Ok’ to ‘I am going to be fine’ it is not important what you say just the act of repeating the statement will work to get you out of your head.
  5. Try writing how you are feeling. Writing is a great way to express yourself freely.
  6. Drink water: because the body releases chemicals when you are anxious water can help release toxins and reduce the stress you are feeling.

Triggers for anyone who experienced any type of trauma can be very debilitating and frightening. I feel it is especially true for those of us who experienced childhood sexual abuse. If you understand how your memories work and how to access them, you will be better placed to identify and manage those things that trigger painful memories in the future.

Paula- 4th February 2018

10 Reasons Why Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse Don’t Speak Out!

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I recently read an article in the Irish Mail on Sunday about Joe Devine, who told his wife about his childhood experience of sexual abuse 35 years after it had occurred. He spoke about how he was sexually abused while attending St Augustine’s special needs school and how he feared that his now wife, would not have agreed to marry him if he spoke out earlier.

It’s unfortunate that Joe is not alone in his silence.  Although more and more cases of childhood sexual abuse are being reported daily, childhood sexual abuse still remains the most under reported crime across the globe with many victims bringing their experience of sexual abuse with them to the grave.

Who Are the Abusers?

According to Darkness to Light ( about 90% of children who experience childhood sexual abuse know their abuser and of those molesting a child under six, 50% were family members. Family members also accounted for 23% of those abusing children ages 12 to 17.  It is these very relationships that adds to the difficulty for victims to speak out.

It is also widely recognised that children who are being abused often love and trust the person that is abusing them. The abused child will have undergone a grooming process leaving them confused about exactly what is happening and who is to blame.

The Lasting Impacts of Grooming.

In our book ‘Why Go Back? 7 Steps to Healing from Childhood Sexual Abuse we talk extensively about the process of grooming.  We firmly believe that if you are not aware of how grooming happens, you will never be in a position to keep your child safe.

Grooming occurs in stages and most often happens slowly allowing the abuser to build trust with everyone involved in the child’s life.  The most damaging stage of grooming a child, occurs when the abuser gets the child to touch his/her genitals.  The act of touching the abuser’s genitals changes everything for the child.  It can leave the child believing that not only have they participated in the act, but they may even feel they were responsible for instigating what happened. This leaves the child confused as to whether or not what is happening, is abuse. The process of ‘grooming’ will now shape the thoughts and future behaviors of that child.

10 Reasons Not To Tell!

  1. The victim may not understand that what is happening is abuse.

Because grooming occurs over a period of time and the abuse can build slowly.  A child can often feel that what is happening is normal.  They don’t like it, but they don’t feel they have a choice and so feel they have to do what they are told. As they become adults and depending on what they used to cope with the abuse, they most often can push the memories to the back of their minds and convince themselves it is over now, so forget it.

  1. Fear of the abuser.

It is often the case that the abuser threatens the child or another family member. They may threaten the child that they will get hurt or be removed from their home if they speak out or that no one will believe them. This belief and the fear of the abuser carries into adulthood unless it is interrupted or challenged.

  1. Fear of not being believed and worrying about what people would think of them.

Through the process of demeaning the child, constant taunting and name calling, along with the child feeling dirty and ashamed for the abuse, victims can really struggle to believe they are innocent. Developing a number of social anxieties due to the long-term impacts of trauma, can also make telling someone next to impossible.

  1. Feelings of confusion, guilt, shame and responsibility.

Again because of the grooming process the child often takes on the responsibility for the abuse. Developing strong beliefs around personal involvement/collusion or engagement in the act of abuse itself. This will most likely lead to the adult survivor feeling that telling someone would be more like a confession than the reporting of a crime and so they remain silent.

  1. Feelings for the abuser.

As most abuse is carried out by someone the child knows, trusts, and in a lot of cases is dependent upon, they will be very reluctant to speak out.  All children love their parents regardless of how they act. In abuse cases it is often misguided loyalty that can prevent the victim from speaking out. Fear of tearing the family apart or of the family member being physically hurt or sent to prison, are all contributing factors that can prevent even the strongest child/adult from speaking out.

  1. Trust Issues.

One of the most damaging impacts of childhood sexual abuse is the struggle victims have in placing their trust in anyone. When the abuser is someone that you were supposed to trust, being abused by that person leaves a lot of confusion and a constant struggle not only to trust others, but what is more damaging can be the inability to trust themselves. This is an area that requires a lot of work to rebuild but can be done, gently and over time.

  1. Fear of the consequences.

The fear of who will be impacted by disclosure is usually the biggest concern for victims of childhood sexual abuse. The awareness that the non-abusing parents, siblings, friends etc will all suffer when the abuse is disclosed can prevent victims from ever coming out and telling their story. It is not uncommon for victims to hold their truth until a parent dies so as to lessen the pain they feel they will be inflicting on those they love. The saddest thing is that by the victim remaining silent, they take on the responsibility for something they had nothing to do with.

  1. Not having the language to explain what is happening.

Victims of childhood sexual abuse very often lack the capacity to express, understand or build normal ways of expressing their emotions. This can leave victims fearful that even if they decided to tell someone about their abuse, they wouldn’t know how to explain it or even may struggle with gathering full memories. This is due to the manner in which trauma affects the brains development and how memories of abuse are stored in fragments. Understanding that this is perfectly normal and is as a direct result of the abuse will help victims overcome these difficulties and be better able to express their feelings appropriately.

  1. Believing the abuse is temporary and will stop soon.

Often victims of abuse convince themselves that what is happening is temporary even if it carries on for many years. Their need to believe that what is happening will be over soon is a coping mechanism that they have developed to survive the immediate abuse. This is why educating your children around the impacts of abuse if vital.

  1. The victim may believe they are being punished for being bad. They may also believe it will stop if they are good.

Victims often believe that there is something inherently wrong with them and that they are the reason for the abuse. They may act out, struggle to control their anger and rage which is a direct result of the abuse they are or have suffered. They can take on the negative image of themselves. They believe their abusers when told that they are bad and need to be punished. Also, if like me, you grew up in the shadow of the catholic church, you may have convinced yourself that because God himself didn’t save you,  you deserve what you got.

Moving Forward

As an adult it doesn’t become any easier to speak out. Years of pain, buried memories, anger, and mistrust can make the process of speaking out extremely fearful and painful.  I feel it is also important to mention that to tell someone about your abuse does not, and should not, require you to speak publicly about your abuser. Telling someone about your abuse is about YOU and how best to heal from the abuse you suffered.  Breaking the silence may help you gain an understanding of how your life has been impacted and influenced by the abuse you suffered and leave you free to learn a new way forward that is guilt, shame and pain free.

Paula- 28th January 2018

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