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Why Bill Cosby’s Sentence Being Overturned Can Trigger Survivors

Five strategies that survivors can use to help them cope.

Key points

  • When a high-profile case such as Bill Cosby’s is overturned, this brings survivors' feelings of helplessness and hopelessness to the forefront.  
  • Events such as Bill Cosby’s prison release can trigger trauma symptoms in some survivors, such as a fight-or-flight reaction.
  • Strategies for survivors who become triggered by the news of Cosby's release include avoiding social media and using grounding techniques.
lchigo121212 Pixabay. Pixabay License. No attribution required
Source: lchigo121212 Pixabay. Pixabay License. No attribution required

On June 30th, 2021, Bill Cosby’s sexual assault sentence was overturned as a result of a legal technicality and he was released from prison. There has been a tremendous outcry from survivor groups, as this decision can be triggering for survivors.

Sexual abuse is the most underreported crime, and it is estimated that only about one-third (37%) of survivors report the crime to authorities. What is even more frustrating is that only 25 out of every 1000 sex crimes result in incarceration for the perpetrator.

While there are multiple barriers to reporting sexual abuse, two of them include distrust of the criminal justice system and disbelief that they will get a successful prosecution. Thus, when a high-profile case such as Cosby’s is overturned, this brings survivors' feelings of helplessness and hopelessness to the forefront and can retrigger the trauma.

While the #meToo movement brought survivors some hope, events such as Cosby’s release can retrigger trauma. This can result in the brain feeling as if it is back in the traumatic situation and a fight-or-flight instinct may be activated causing shortness of breath, heart racing, nausea, feelings of derealization or depersonalization, difficulty focusing, and feelings of panic. It is important in such instances to validate your feelings and emotions and recognize that these are physiological reactions to the injustice. When survivors feel retraumatized, it is also important to practice self-care.

Strategies for survivors who become triggered

The following techniques and strategies can be helpful when re-experiencing trauma.

  1. Turn off the news and get off social media. While you may want to know more about what happened, constant exposure to the details of the crimes and others’ reactions can just exacerbate the trauma symptoms.
  2. Practice mindfulness. Mindful breathing can help make you feel present if you are dissociating and feeling as if you are back in the traumatic situation.
  3. Use grounding techniques. Grounding techniques such as using your five senses can help you stay grounded in the present and minimize flashbacks.
  4. Stay away from drugs and alcohol. While there may be a tendency to want to numb the emotional pain, using drugs and alcohol will only make the situation worse.
  5. Reach out to your support system. Call a friend, family member, or your therapist and let them know you are struggling. Ask for help.

In addition to these strategies, RAINN provides links to many resources for survivors of abuse that can be accessed here.

More from Elizabeth L. Jeglic Ph.D.
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