Almost every woman you know will have stories of times they have felt unsafe, threatened and scared at the hands of men.
The recent murder of Sarah Everard and killing of Sabina Nessa, and the subsequent discussions of the details, – particularly on social media – has amplified this feeling for everyone: the fear that it could so easily have happened to any one of us.
No, this isn’t the time for #NotAllMen, but instead to acknowledge how alarmingly normal it is for a woman to turn to another and say: ‘Yes, I’ve been through that too’.
What has been terrifying about Sarah Everard’s case is not only that Wayne Couzens was a police officer, but that the events of that night could have happened to anyone.
The last point is true of Sabina Nessa, too.
The reality is that women do not feel safe on the streets. While this is truly horrifying and is perhaps a hard pill to swallow – it is something women have had to deal with for a long time.
Claire, who lives down the road from the Sainsbury’s Sarah Everard was seen visiting that night, tells Metro.co.uk: ‘I’ve been feeling more scared than usual since it happened.’
‘Seeing her buy a bottle of wine to go to a friend’s house is something women all over do, and there are no words to describe how unfair it is that he chose Sarah to take that night.’
The news cycle has triggered painful memories of abuse at the hands of an ex.
‘Hearing that she was taken at 8.30pm and he wasn’t seen until 2.30am was really triggering – I know how horrific even 10 minutes alone with a violent man can be, so I can’t even begin to imagine what went on over such a long period of time,’ she says.
‘It’s triggered a lot of feelings around an abuser not being stopped early on. In a similar way to the sex offenders register I think there should be a stalker and domestic abuser register.’
A comment from a Conservative North Yorkshire commissioner in response to the Sarah Everard case also affected Claire.
Philip Allott told BBC Radio: ‘So women, first of all, need to be streetwise about when they can be arrested and when they can’t be arrested. She should never have been arrested and submitted to that.
‘Perhaps women need to consider in terms of the legal process, to just learn a bit about that legal process.’
Claire, like many other women, felt this was an entirely inappropriate response.
She says: ‘The narrative that puts the entire responsibility on women to make themselves safe also brings up memories: “Why didn’t you leave sooner?”, “Why didn’t you say something sooner?” – these were things I got asked a lot.
‘I was never once asked, “why didn’t he not abuse you?”‘
Harriet, who now works in mental health, normally avoids these news stories as an act of self-care, but this event has taken her back to dark times.
She tells us: ‘When I was 12, I was raped in a park. I didn’t go to the police as I thought they wouldn’t believe me.
‘I knew at that young age that sexual assaults were not going to be believed without evidence. I didn’t feel safe to tell them, I thought it would be made “my fault” that it had happened.
‘When Sarah’s story came to light, it took me back to that memory and reinforced my belief about not feeling safe around, or trusting the police.’
‘When Sarah’s story came to light, it took me back to that memory and reinforced my belief and feeling about not feeling safe around or trusting the police.’ (Picture: Getty Images)
Trauma psychotherapist for The Soke, Alejandra Sarmiento, tells us that for some people, seeing these stories in the news will be ‘more than upsetting’.
‘It is a revival of memories that disturb our peace and put us back in a place of deep pain, worry and fear.
‘For some, this tragedy is a trigger – an echo that leads to emotional flashbacks that hijack us when we least expect it. This is the reality of traumatic events.’
Self-care for when engaging with these events feels too much
Box breathing: Breathe in slowly through your nose counting to four; hold for a count of four; breathe out slowly through your mouth for a count of four; repeat these steps until you feel calmer and your breathing has returned to its normal rhythm.
Observe your surroundings closely: Focus on being present in the moment, for example, if you are walking, count how many red cars drive past you.
Ride the wave: ‘Flashbacks are over in a flash. Trust that the feeling will pass. The more you practice this, the easier it becomes. In the long run, this is much more effective for real healing than trying to suppress or deny your fear. By becoming the compassionate observer of your own pain, you take control of your own inner world.’
For Charley, who works in London, the resurfaced memories have made her alter her day-to-day behaviour.
‘A man once followed me home from the station in Elephant and Castle to my mums home 20 minutes away, and I had to hide every time I saw him to avoid being harassed,’ she says.
‘When it comes to sexual harassment, it isn’t a question of “if”, but “when”.
‘Unfortunately, it is not something we can ever expect to escape from and has changed my daily habits. I alternate the times I go to the gym, I don’t use my AirPods on my trips out, I have a rape alarm on my key chain, I avoid less-busy roads.
‘These measures have given me a slight sense of relief, but I know they aren’t bulletproof. I feel angry about having to change my life, my daily routines and constantly be super vigilant and hyper aware. It’s no way to live.’
Earlier this year, a report from UN Women exposed that 86% of women aged 18-24 have been sexually harassed in public spaces.
Just 3% said they had never encountered this behaviour, and 11% chose not to answer.
Briony, who has PTSD from past experiences, sought out therapy, which now makes hearing about the trauma of other women less ‘overwhelming’.
She tells us: ‘I’m so glad I’ve had enough therapy now to be able to cope with these big news stories.
‘It makes you feel hopeless – like no progress is going to be made around women’s safety.
‘It also makes me remember when I went into a police station to report a rape by my ex-boyfriend.
‘The process was so cold – I never saw my case officer. When they rang me to tell me they made the arrest I crumpled into a heap on the floor. It never went to court. I was emailed and told I was lying. It was dehumanising.’
These stories also bring back memories of other moments in Briony’s life, including being sexually assaulted on the street, being abused by a family member, and being groomed online.
‘When I hear the stories, I feel physical pain in parts of my body. It’s too close to home,’ she says.
‘When big stories like this come round, I try to switch off and avoid the news as much as possible. It just hurts too much.’
Sabina Nessa was just minutes from her home when she was killed (Picture: AP)
Rebecca Sparkes, a UKCP-registered psychotherapist, says it’s important to speak to a professional if untreated trauma is taking a toll on your life, recommending looking into EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) as a style of therapy, which works by asking the patient to focus briefly on their trauma while having bilateral stimulation.
‘It gets stuck in the right hemisphere of the brain, and can come back as traumatic memories, emotional distress, associations such as smell and taste, and in some cases, flashbacks,’ Rebecca explains.
‘Many trauma survivors notice that their intrusive symptoms are worse when there are news events which have even a vague similarity to their own trauma.’
During these spikes, she suggests reaching out to your support network as it generally ‘gets worse if the sufferer is left in isolation’.
Other short-term ways to provide relief include having a sufficient amount of sleep, getting the dopamine effect of exercise, and avoiding the ‘temptation to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs’.
‘Even gentle, meditative practices such as yoga and tai-chi, helps the body flush out adrenalin and cortisol,’ Rebecca adds.
‘These are the “fear” hormones which fire up when we perceive threat, even if it is threat from a past memory getting triggered in present time.
‘Likewise drugs and alcohol will reduce serotonin levels, so the body will be less able to deal with fear and depression.’
Daily reminders of danger can strike at anytime, especially when enhanced by fresh reports of missing and murdered women.
When Amelia was walking through London this week a man walked so close behind her that his umbrella brushed against her face and covered her eyes.
‘I freaked out,’ she says. ‘I didn’t realise it was an umbrella at first. All I knew was suddenly I’d lost my sight.
‘The guy was extremely apologetic. Luckily, I was across the road from the hotel and was able to get up to my room quickly, but it took a while for me to steady myself.’
Last year she was sexually assaulted by someone she knew, so her nerves are particularly shot.
Women across the world can all recognise that heart-jolting feeling.
While Sarah and Sabina’s names have joined a long and growing list of women murdered by men, it begs the question: will this outrage be enough to instigate lasting change?
With the Met’s advice to women to ‘flag down a bus’ should they not trust an officer – which was widely criticised, but then defended by Cressida Dick – the emphasis is still being placed on women to go to extreme lengths to safeguard themselves.
Placing the onus on women doesn’t address the institutional and systemic issues, and shifts blame from the perpetrators. Until this changes, women will continue to carry the burden of fear.
Your quick toolkit for when traumatic memories are triggered
Dr Kate Friedmann, consultant clinical psychologist from the Greater Manchester Resilience Hub, advises the following:
- Stop and notice how you are feeling: what do you need and what has helped you get through tough times in the past?
- Take a break from the news and social media
- Take care of your basic needs: eat and sleep well, stay hydrated and maintain a normal routine
- Try not to isolate yourself. Reach out and connect with important people in your life
- Our reactions are influenced by many things. Please have realistic expectations of yourself over the days and weeks to come
For professional help, contact:
- Your GP who can advise and refer you to the right service
- Hub of Hope – enter your postcode and find local mental health and support services.
- Samaritans: Help and advice (24 hours a day, 365 days a year) by phoning 116 123 (free from any phone), emailing [email protected], or dropping into a local branch.
- SANEline: Help and advice seven days a week, from 4.30pm to 10.30pm by phoning 0300 304 7000
All names have been changed to protect anonymity.
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