Donald Trump is a Trigger

It’s been nearly three weeks since Donald Trump was dubbed President-Elect of the United States. In the wake of his victory, survivors of sexual violence are seeking healing—but they remain triggered by the barrage of abusive and blunt conversations about sexual violence that have come from the President-Elect himself. How do they move forward into a Trump presidency when Trump’s campaign reminded them, consistently and unrelentingly, of one of the worst experiences of their lives?

Triggers are as diverse as the survivors they affect and can range in response from sadness, discomfort, anxiety, panic attacks, dissociation, numbness, flashbacks, terror or freezing. A trigger is caused by the brain associating a smell, image, location, person, touch or even sound with a past traumatic experience the body has yet to process. In an article from Brain Blogger, Dr. Viatcheslav Wlassoff explained that neuro-imaging studies of the brains of individuals who suffer from PTSD showed that traumatic events actually alter the structure of the brain to be in prolonged states of hyper-arousal. It’s in these moments that someone is being triggered that their brain is actually responding to the imprint of a traumatic experience rather than an immediate danger.

When Trump’s 2005 interview tapes with Billy Bush originally surfaced in early October—in which he admitted on camera to “grabbing women by the pussy” and “moving on them like a bitch”—the National Sexual Assault Hotline saw a 33 percent increase in people calling in for their support.

Trump’s “locker room talk” demolished Sage Swiatek, a self-identified queer polyamorous woman, from filtering and coping with the continued triggers of her sexual assault as she had been for years. “I suffer from PTSD as a result of sexual assault which makes a trigger something that has very real consequences on my health and well-being,” Swiatek shared with Ms. “Every time there was a media uptick around sexual assault—like Brock Turner, for example—I was able to work through triggers by temporarily blocking myself from social media or avoiding places in which those discussions might be happening.”

That strategy, though, isn’t possible with Trump as president-elect. It wasn’t even possible when he was running for the office. “I would need to live completely under a rock to avoid being triggered around sexual assault in the height of the election,” Swiatek told Ms. 

Domestic violence, sexual assault and gun violence survivor and activistCourtney Weaver—who was shot in the face and arm by her now-imprisoned abusive ex-boyfriend—noticed early on that Trump exhibited qualities reminiscent of him. On the night of the election, Weaver woke up drenched in sweat to the sensation of someone strangling her after she dreamt Trump was trying to grab her. “I am worried about my safety when my ex gets out of prison in 2019,” Weaver said. “I was already concerned about that, but this election validates his motive and all the perpetrators and predators out there.” Despite her fear, Weaver continues to use her voice to speak out about her experiences with the hope of not only changing legislation but also inspiring other survivors share their own experiences.

It’s not only the fact that Trump—a man accused by over 10 women of sexual assault and countless others of sexual harassment—won the election that has shaken survivors. It’s also the fact that millions of Americans thusly overlooked his history of violating of women when they voted. Trump’s election sent a clear message that in U.S. culture it’s still considered normal and even worthy of reward for men to see women as something to “grab” or “move” without consent. Trump’s presidency thus effectively silences survivors from reporting or even sharing their own stories for fear of backlash and judgement.

Trump’s actions, words, articulated values and demonstrated beliefs illustrate how people have used—and continue to use—their privilege to have power over someone’s worth, voice and choice,” Grace Poon, the Coordinator of Sexual Violence Prevention and Education at Stanford University, told Ms. “When Trump illustrates this—whether it be through the tapes, his actions or words—it triggers survivors significantly because of their trauma that is related to experiences of invalidation and devaluation of their boundaries.”

“When I was a sexually assault back in 2004,” survivor Caitlin Lanier told Ms., “my trauma reaction was to freeze—and similarly, I have felt frozen since the election. I feel stuck. I feel numb. I feel completely helpless and hopeless. I am so afraid of having someone [as president] who is guilty of sexual assault and who does not get it—thinks that bragging about sexual assault is okay—is going to be setting this movement [opposing sexual assault] so far back. All the progress we’ve made will not only be lost, but maybe be worse off.”

It is within the power of survivors, however, to ensure that we don’t roll back the progress of the fight to end violence—as well as all those allied to them. The first step in continuing to fight, especially for those who are triggered or struggling to cope—is to practice self-care.

“To survivors with multiple intersecting oppressive experiences of hate, bias, discrimination and marginalization due to your identities—you are not alone,” Poon declared. In her work at Stanford, Poon educates and empowers underserved and marginalized communities whose healing process is complicated by their intersecting identities and historical oppression from societal institutions. She recommended survivors engage with communities that they feel safe in, celebrate and reflect on their strength and spend time with those that share their experiences and values in order to cope with backlash and other triggers sure to come next.

Zabie Yamasaki, the Assistant Director of UCLA’s Campus Assault Resource and Education center, has spent years developing a yoga curriculum now implemented at universities and community centers around the world that provides healing and reconnection for survivors of sexual assault with their bodies. Her work after the election is more personal, however, than ever.

“I am a woman of color. I am a survivor of sexual violence. I am Muslim,” Yamasaki told Ms. “The various intersections of my identity are quite frankly the epitome of all things Trump has expressed hatred towards. This election has sent me into a state of hyper-arousal, my nervous system has been revved up constantly. It’s exhausting. But I believe in our capacity to re-group, restore, repair and build the strength we collectively need to more forward.”

In the wake of the election, Yamasaki has been contacted by survivors across the country feeling unsafe, panicked, numb, heartbroken, disconnected and betrayed. She has been offering four pieces of advice to help those struggling with”Post-Trump Stress Disorder” continue their healing process: identifying and making use of inner resources and safe spaces, developing a core set of exercises to calm the nervous system, remaining emotionally present and identifying a mantra. (One of Yamasaki’s favorites is: “I am loved. I am home. I am safe. I am resilient. I am in my body.”)

“Self-care is also a form of activism and resistance,” Swiatek told Ms. “Working to remind myself that I am worthy of safety, I am worthy of love, I am worthy of autonomy over my own body is the most radical thing I can do.”

Although rape and sexual assault remain widely underreported, RAINN states that one in six American women and one in 33 American men will experience sexual assault at some point during their lifetime. If that number holds true, nearly 40.8 million survivors are living in the United States right now.

Though we cannot change the outcome of the election, survivors can continue using our experiences to change the nation’s dialogue around sexual violence. Through our words, we will combat victim blaming and rape culture by continuing to remind the public that our bodies are not objects that can be violated and forgotten. In the face of adversity, we’re infinitely stronger together.

As Yamasaki so perfectly reminds us: “No one, not even the president-elect, can take away [our] resilience, courage and healing.”




Carly Lanning can be found searching NYC for the perfect slice of pie and contemplating life with Alfred, her red yoga mat, when not photographing her cats for Instagram. She's a professional video curator for digital media companies, the founder of Voices—a oral history project dedicated to ending sexual violence one story at a time—and a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn. She's previously been published on NBC, Thrillist, YouTube Trends, Daily Dot and BUST Magazine.