Like so many Americans, actor Amandla Stenberg tuned in to witness the powerful testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, Ph.D., before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week.
She watched as Ford recounted in detail how Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh (now confirmed) allegedly sexually assaulted her when they were in high school. And, like a lot of women watching, hearing Ford's story brought back the trauma of Stenberg's own experience with sexual assault, the actor revealed in an op-ed for Teen Vogue.
In her essay, Stenberg wrote about the difficult emotions, like shame and self-blame, that she and millions of survivors deal with—and how those feelings can be brought to the surface by hearing other women's stories.
"Watching Dr. Ford’s testimony pushed me and so many others to move through discomfort that we’d buried," she wrote. "We have been riding waves of upheaval that have actuated processing and release," Stenberg said, referring to the ongoing revelations of sexual assault in the news. "Although these tipping points are chaotic, disorienting, infuriating, and often heartbreaking, I like to believe that real change begins with the eruption of truth." She added, "I am in awe of all survivors who have had no choice but to confront their trauma during this period, whether personally or publicly."
Stenberg talked about the indispensable grounding technique that she turned to while watching the hearing last week.
Her mother taught her how to use her breath in difficult situations throughout her life, and the strategy proved useful once again in this scenario. "As I live-streamed Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony in a hotel room, a humid drizzle painted the windows an opaque gray, and I found myself relying heavily on the tool of my breath," Stenberg wrote. "The grounding practice of breathing was gifted to me by my mama when I was a child and has been invaluable whenever I step into circumstances that challenge me to process and move through discomfort. Breathing practice is what I turn to when I’m scared or lonely; when I feel I am not enough or way too much."
She explained, "My breath reminds me that I was brought into the world with all that I could need already within me. When I set the intention to honor my body by giving myself time to breathe, to treat myself like a friend, my body actually listens, and my brain and nervous system naturally conspire together for my highest good."
Stenberg also turned to breathing as a coping mechanism in the immediate aftermath of a sexual assault.
"My breath was the tool I relied on when I ended up in a foreign country on a three-hour train ride to find an emergency contraceptive," she said. "The night before, what started as a consensual experience had turned forceful. Painful things had been done to my body that made me feel broken and disposable. I was unable to consent to them, and was silenced verbally and physically when I protested."
This was the second time Stenberg was sexually assaulted, she noted. The first time, she did not initially recognize what had happened to her as assault, because although she had not consented, she did not say "no" either. "I figured it was just an inherent part of sexual exploration as a teenage girl; the conundrum of compliance," she wrote. "In both instances, I excused the behavior because I had been taught to, and it was easier than facing the full weight of my pain. Afterward, I clung to the tool of my breath that had been given to me by my mama, but I didn’t call her to tell her what had happened."
Intentional breathing techniques are one way for sexual assault survivors to de-escalate their anxiety in the moment when difficult memories are triggered.
Sexual assault survivors who have strong reactions to news stories about assault—such as a panic attack or emotional distress—may benefit from having tools on hand to ground themselves in the present moment, Simon Rego, Psy.D., chief psychologist at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine, previously told SELF. "It’s good to remind yourself that you’re in a safe place and that the memories, although they’re scary, aren’t dangerous,” Rego said.
Breathing exercises are one way to do this, Laura Palumbo, a sexual assault counselor and communications director at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), previously told SELF. Although there are different techniques, they usually involve a few minutes of slow, focused inhales and exhales, psychologist Paul Coleman, Psy.D., previously told SELF, which tells your parasympathetic nervous system that everything is OK. "If your mind is telling you fearful thoughts but your breathing is relaxed, it informs your brain that the situation is not all that threatening,” Coleman said.
Of course, while these can be helpful coping mechanisms in the moment for some people, in general, clinical anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are treated long term with therapy and sometimes medication. As Stenberg put it in her essay, "It is not your responsibility to figure this out by yourself… You are not weak for needing help. You are not defined by this. You are not alone. You are loved. Cry if you need to. Breathe. Your breath and your body belong wholly to you."
If you need to talk to someone or find a nearby rape crisis center, you can reach a trained staff member at RAINN by calling 800-656-HOPE. You can also text a crisis counselor right now using the Crisis Text Line. And if you're looking for mental health resources in your area, try the NAMI help line at 800-950-NAMI (6264).