Sexism and PTSD: a guest blog by Elizabeth Menzel

Sexism and PTSD: a guest blog by Elizabeth Menzel

The Sexism to PTSD Connection that the #MeToo Campaign Exposed

Just as Ferguson, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the controversy surrounding Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling in NFL games has opened our eyes to h ow rampant racism still is, the #MeToo campaign has revealed just how pervasive sexism still is. In the first day of the #MeToo campaign, over 350,000 people admitted to being victims of sexual harassment and assault – and that number increases as more allegations of sexual assault from the entertainment and political world get revealed.

I am a women’s happiness expert who has spent more than 2 decades studying the effects of trauma and PTSD, and the #MeToo campaign has shaken me into realizing the depth to which my own sense of power, self-worth, and ability to be comfortably intimate with my partner has been compromised by the relentless abuse of a society that belittled, silenced, overlooked, dismissed, took advantage of, and shamed me for being born female.

The acceptance of bullying as the status quo is one of the unseen symptoms of PTSD. We get so used to treading water in a sea of constant abuse – in this case in the form of sexual harassment – that we close off parts of ourselves in order to cope, and even survive.

In my case, I was highly independent, worked 4 part-time jobs while going to school, and always appeared cheerful. What nobody knew was that on the inside I secretly felt hopeless, scared, powerless, alone, and had debilitating tension in my upper back and neck. I felt like I was living in my own private hell.

I still managed to keep my life moving forward, as many women do. I chose a career of service to help others heal, as many women do. I married a neglectful and abusive man just like my father, as many women do. I normalized the cat-calls, stalking, getting pinned in corners with unwelcome sexual advances, as many women do. And I suffered in silence, as many women do.

This all took a terrible toll on me, as it has on millions of women worldwide. 70% of Americans report being traumatized and w omen are more than twice as likely to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) than men. In fact, research has found a “moderately strong relationship between the experience of everyday sexism and PTSD.”

Usually people think of trauma happening from big horrible events: war, rape, a terrible car crash. But the truth is, trauma can also result from “a thousand tiny cuts” that happen over time. D aily sexist comments and actions can cause physical, mental, and emotional pain, that make people feel tense, drained, shut-down, depressed, anxious, numb, unsafe, paralyzed, avoidant, and sleepless. These are all symptoms of PTSD.

I’ve heard hundreds of stories similar to my own. Like me, many women received years of therapy, but still weren’t aware that their symptoms had connections to the relentless sexism they lived with every day.

If your particular symptoms are connected to trauma then there is something you should understand; trauma is stuck stress. If you don’t get to fully fight or run away when the stress response has been triggered in your body (by a perceived threat), then the stress hormones produced by your brain in order to help you save yourself don’t get utilized, and they sink into the soft tissue of your body causing pain, tension, fear, and a sense of feeling paralyzed, numb, or frozen.

How many times have you:

  • ●  Shrugged off a co-worker’s inappropriate comment?
  • ●  Been overlooked for a raise or promotion?
  • ●  Gotten overcharged by a mechanic?
  • ●  Walked from your car to your door with your keys pointing out between your knuckles?Every time the above happens, an alarm bell of stress goes off in your brain. For most women these stressors are so commonplace that we ignore the alarm and carry on, head tucked down, shoulders raised and arms poised to defend ourselves. We have so many thousands of examples of being taken advantage of to choose from that it’s hard to single out one single story of sexism. They all seem to run together like one long constant hum that’s been the background noise of every woman’s life.

    Then we get to the grosser sexism traumas. How many times have you been groped, kissed, or molested without your consent and not gotten to beat the crap out of or get away from your assaulter before the harm has happened?!

    Most women keep count of these and we know how radically life changes after they happen. The hypervigilance, depression, sleepless nights, shame, and anger become a constant reminder of the horrible event.

    PTSD comes in a full range of symptoms, not just the “shell-shocked vet” variety, but a whole host of unwelcome sensations that keep you from showing up as the powerful, happy, confident, secure, fun-loving woman you know you could be.

    And even though it’s a positive thing that the depths of sexism and sexual harassment are finally being revealed, PTSD symptoms get triggered by hearing the media’s relentless coverage. I’m relieved that eons of sexism are out in the open and being discussed, but I know I’m not alone in turning off the radio and skimming over articles in an effort to stop getting repeatedly retraumatized.

    If you are suffering the effects of trauma, my biggest concern is that you start receiving the support you need in the most safe and effective ways possible. So, what can you do to start feeling better – without making it worse or retraumatizing yourself?

Here are 3 Action Steps that help my clients (and myself) safely release trauma from cells and feel more powerful, worthy, and capable.

  1. 1)  Be Willing to Heal: You’ve got to be willing to let go of the past pain and trauma in order to make room for the good feelings you want to have in your body and mind. Are you willing to do what that takes to release the old so you can receive the new and start to heal? Good, go to step 2.
  2. 2)  Move Your Body: Because trauma tends to make you feel paralyzed both emotionally and physically, physical movement needs to be a part of your healing process. “Somatic Experiencing” is the best form of therapy I’ve had that actually helped me deal with past trauma without getting retraumatized. The safest thing I’ve found that you can do on your own is the Non-Linear Movement Method®, a somatic technique of gentle, non-force movements which relieves the bodily tension and underlying mental loops. Both of these techniques gradually “thaw” that frozen stress and free your body and emotions from stuck chronic pain.
  3. 3)  Be kind in your mind: If you are like every woman I’ve worked with, then you are probably way too hard on yourself. The cruel words and actions from othe rs have gotten internalized, and now you bully yourself. Learning to speak kindly in your mind is a massive step forward on your healing path. Get vigilant and stop terrorizing yourself. Turn around unkind thoughts into loving, caring, kind messages from your heart to soothe your soul.

Doing these 3 steps regularly will enable you to steadily gain the energy you need to feel more powerful, worthy, and able to have intimacy again.

Say what you will about the #MeToo campaign, but Pandora’s box is open and there is no denying that millions of women have suffered from sexism and have most likely experienced PTSD symptoms at some point in their lives. We have all suffered long enough. I want to raise our awareness of the problems and give real solutions so that every woman and girl can feel powerful and achieve her full potential.

Elizabeth Menzel is a best-selling author, speaker, and founder of The Happy Woman Academy, where she uses systems based in neurobiology, mindfulness, and compassion to teach women how to feel happy – even after trauma.