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How COVID-19 Tests Can Be Triggering for Survivors of Sexual Abuse

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

The pandemic has been a trauma in itself. It has also brought to the surface unresolved trauma or carried triggers with it. Wearing masks has been triggering for some survivors of trauma and of sexual abuse. Another trigger that isn’t spoken of much and can be challenging for survivors is the COVID-19 test. This is because it can trigger painful memories of oral violations and the sensations that come along, such as the gagging reflex.

• What is PTSD?

The gag reflex is involuntary and difficult to stop when it occurs, and having no control can bring back the feeling of not being in control when the violation took place. Taking a COVID-19 test can prove even more difficult if it’s done by someone else or if we are surrounded by others because if a panic attack follows, we may feel embarrassed and this can add to the anxiety and distress.

I was dreading having to take one, especially since hearing how unpleasant others found it, how they described the gagging and that was enough to make me feel scared and highly anxious it would trigger me.

I have been having moderate symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and was close to tears hearing others describe the test. The thought alone of me taking it was causing me incredible distress. I wondered how many other survivors of sexual abuse felt they couldn’t speak about it and dreaded this as much as I did. I know for some, even visits to the dentist can be challenging.

I was lucky not to have had any symptoms of COVID-19 prior to this that would cause need for me to take a test, and I hoped I would never have to take one if it could be avoided. Of course, I would if I had to. And the dreaded day did come, when I had to take a test. I couldn’t avoid it because I work in a school and now schools had reopened and testing was a part of it.

That dreaded day was today, March 14, exactly a month before my birthday, the same day I went to have my first COVID jab. I was scared and anxious. I was even worried the result would come back void and inconclusive. I didn’t want to have to take it more times than needed. I was afraid I wouldn’t do it right because I struggle with anxiety alone and anxiety is always coming up with endless, “what if’s.” Anxiety already often makes you feel unsafe and sees everything a threat.

What I reminded myself is the worse was over, I grounded myself by reminding myself and saying it in my head, “This is the present, you are safe.” I reminded myself I had control, I could remove the swab and I had control of it going in and out. I took my time, I listened to my body, I took deep breaths. I was determined to face my demons, I was facing this nightmare knowing I was no longer helpless or powerless.

It took all the mental strength I had. “It’s going to be OK,” I kept saying to myself. “You’ve got this. I’m here for you. I can do this. I am in control. The past is gone.” This was me taking a test in my own flat where I was now safe and not in any danger.

It wasn’t easy, but I managed, and guess what? There was a result, so I must have managed to do it right and it was negative.

I burst into tears of relief it was over (for now anyway, I have to take them regularly as I am working in a school). I cried tears of pride and tears of gladness at having done what I feared having to do.

I was lucky it was a home kit so that gave me a sense of control and not having to worry about others seeing me if I had a panic attack. And that I was in the comfort of my flat if I did get triggered badly. I was also not at work or having to work once taken it and was relieved of any other commitments for the day.

It was Sunday and I took that day of rest. I was shaky and the internal panic did zap my energy for the rest of the day, but I was OK, I had survived.

I didn’t have a bad psychological reaction as I think grounding helped, but I know it’s not the same for everyone. I just want you to know you are not alone, that someone understands. Please be gentle and kind with yourself. If you need to take one, ask if you can do it at home in the safety of your comfort. Don’t pressure yourself or do anything you feel uncomfortable with.

Get support if you can. If you trust someone and have a loved one who is safe, let them be there to help you ground yourself. I asked my husband for a hug as soon as I did it. I also cried in his loving arms when I got the results. Have a self-care plan in place, hug a pet if you have one, hug a teddy and show yourself the love you deserve. You will know what helps you.

I hope my story can give you some hope, however small. I know we are all different, but I also know we all need the support and to share our stories and talk about things that are difficult to break the silence.

Sending love.

Getty image by Jelena Stanojkovic

Originally published: April 3, 2021
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