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AOC Is Right About the Compound Effects of Trauma

Last night on Instagram Live, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recounted her traumatic experience during the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6 and revealed that she is also a survivor of sexual assault.

“These folks who tell us to move on, that it’s not a big deal, that we should forget what’s happened, or even telling us to apologize. These are the same tactics of abusers. And I’m a survivor of sexual assault. I haven’t told many people that in my life. But when we go through trauma, trauma compounds on each other.”

As someone who lives with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I understand the effects of compound trauma all too well. While PTSD is typically based on a single traumatic event, complex PTSD is typically derived from multiple traumatic events over an extended period of time in which the victim could not escape. In my case, the roots of my trauma stem from childhood neglect, sexual abuse and emotional abuse, as well as the subsequent gaslighting from my abusers.

There are a number of ways a single traumatic event can turn into multiple traumas. Whenever an abuser lies about, denies or minimizes the impact of their actions, the effects of trauma in the victim will often magnify. Imagine how difficult it must be for rape survivors to give a report. In a situation where their abuser admits to the crime, it’s still a harrowing experience. Now imagine how much more time, energy and stress is generated when a survivor has to give a report, testify and be cross-examined when an abuser denies their crime. The burden of proof is an additional trauma carried by a victim of abuse which can often be as difficult to process as the crime perpetrated.

In addition to the primary traumatic event and the trauma of denial, victims of abuse who are not believed or supported by others face yet another trauma. The politicians who continue to minimize, deny and deflect the traumatic experiences that happened at the Capitol on January 6 fall into this category.

As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez points out in her tweet, “My story isn’t the only story, nor is it the central story of what happened on Jan 6th. It is just one story of many of those whose lives were endangered at the Capitol by the lies, threats, and violence fanned by the cowardice of people who chose personal gain above democracy.”

On January 6, multiple people died, including two officers by suicide. More than 60 officers were injured. Multiple politicians, including AOC, have received death threats. The mental health impact of this event will be processed by the hundreds who were there, and the millions who witnessed it from their screens, for years to come. Because our brains struggle to differentiate past trauma with the present, trauma survivors who watched the event from home continue to process that day as if we were there. For trauma survivors such as AOC who were there, and were in grave danger, the impact is exponential.

As we continue to heal and make reparations for what happened, my hope is that mental health and trauma recovery will become a higher priority for our politicians, in their personal lives, as well as legislative action. As noted in the ACE Study, which measures adverse childhood experiences, individuals who experience multiple traumatic events in childhood are at higher risk for health problems later on. In the highest risk category are those who have an ACE score of four (traumatic events) or higher. Trauma survivors of any age, rank, or status deserve more support.

Image via Wikimedia

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