Compounded trauma is very real and all too common.

By Danielle Campoamor
Feb 03, 2021 @ 11:00 am
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Why AOC’s Harrowing Capitol Experience Feels Familiar to So Many Women
Credit: Getty Images

On Monday night, during a nearly 90-minute Instagram Live, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez detailed the trauma she endured during the Jan. 6 deadly coup attempt at the nation's Capitol. As she shared the details of that day as she experienced them — details that were both heartbreaking and harrowing — Ocasio-Cortez also revealed with a shaky voice that she is a survivor of sexual assault. 

"I haven't told many people that in my life," the 31-year-old admitted. "But when we go through trauma, traumas compound on each other." 

Nearly 150,000 people tuned in to hear Ocasio-Cortez's experience. "My story isn't the only story, nor is it the central story of what happened on Jan. 6," Ocasio-Cortez later tweeted. But countless women across the country saw themselves in Ocasio-Cortez's experience. They felt the familiar sting of complex or compound trauma, and the reality of how one traumatic event, like a sexual assault, can bleed into another traumatic event, like an armed attempt to topple American democracy while threatening the lives of numerous elected officials, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and former Vice President Mike Pence. 

"Compound trauma simply means that: trauma on trauma," Valentina Stoycheva, a clinical psychologist specializing in traumatic stress and the author of The Unconscious: Theory, Research, and Clinical Implications, tells InStyle. "It's having experienced multiple traumatic events in your lifetime." And according to Stoycheva, having experienced one or several past traumas can impact "how heightened your reaction is" and "how difficult it is to recover from" a subsequent trauma. 

By definition, trauma is an "emotional response to a terrible event, like an accident, rape, or natural disaster," per the American Psychological Association. And when faced with victim-blaming, gaslighting, and other negative reactions to one's trauma experience, it's not uncommon for traumatic events to be disregarded as "normal" or an overreaction to an otherwise common occurrence. It's no surprise, then, that Ocasio-Cortez decided to reveal her past sexual assault in response to persistent calls from GOP representatives to "move on" from the trauma of Jan. 6.

"These folks who tell us to move on, that it's not a big deal, that we should forget what's happening, or even telling us to apologize — these are the same tactics of abusers," she said, before revealing that she is a sexual assault survivor.

Ocasio-Cortez acknowledging her experience was more than just an insight into her past — it was an example of a reality far too many people, especially those from marginalized communities, face. It was also a step towards building a space where women, trans, and non-binary people have the chance to acknowledge their experiences and how they impact one another, with the hope that one day they won't be met by inevitable claims of "self-victimization" and shameless mockery from bad faith actors, but by a more understanding society that comprehends the intersection of past and present traumas.

Why AOC’s Harrowing Capitol Experience Feels Familiar to So Many Women
Credit: Getty Images

"You can think of it this way," Stoycheva says. "Having a broken bone, whether it heals properly or not, puts you at risk of getting another break later on, especially if that bone didn't heal well." 

Stoycheva explains that "compound trauma" does not exist as a term in clinical psych literature, meaning there is no formal diagnosis or formal treatment. And, unfortunately, Stoycheva says "many trauma treatments that focus on treating post traumatic stress disorder require people to focus on one event at a time as they go through protocols." 

But one has to only look to often-regurgitated statistics to get an idea of just how many people are living with the ramifications of multiple traumatic experiences. In a country where 20 people are abused by an intimate partner every minute, and nearly one in five women will be the victim of a sexual assault — where BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people are at higher risk of domestic violence and hate crimes have reached their highest level in over a decade — it is not uncommon to have experienced multiple traumatic events in a single lifetime, nor is it to have one traumatic event impact how one responds to and manages a subsequent one. It's why so many of us do the internal calculations borne out of trauma: scouting exits; assessing the time it would take to get from point A to point B; facing doors when we sit at restaurants and plotting multiple routes home should one prove riskier than another.

"When I work with patients I will frequently say we do not have the luxury of one trauma," Stoycheva says. "In the case of sexual trauma, it's still very hard to talk about — many people don't discuss it. [They] don't go to therapy. And then something else happens in their lives that may not have otherwise triggered a trauma reaction, but it will because they have these multiple experiences."

One ongoing example of compounded trauma is the public health crisis, racial awakening, and political atmosphere the country is currently enduring, all simultaneously. Multiple studies have shown that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has caused an increase in depression and anxiety, substance abuse, and disordered eating habits, as well as instances and suicide and suicidal ideation. Americans are also reporting an increase in cases of insomnia, an increase in the frequency and severity of headaches and migraines, as well as overall feelings of fatigue and burnout — all mental and physical manifestations of compounded trauma.

"This is something that isn't talked about often (and needs to be), but the body and the brain are so connected in the way that we store our traumas and how they appear in our body," Jessi Gold, M.D., a psychiatrist and assistant professor for the Department of Psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis, tells InStyle. "We might notice that we have a headache, or a backache, or insomnia and say out loud that is what we are struggling with, when really it is us processing the grief of the year, or the racial traumas from the year, or any of the many compounding traumatic events we have yet to have time to process out loud. Our body often tells the story our mind is holding and might not be ready to talk about or even aware of consciously yet."

Which is why Ocasio-Cortez sharing that she is a survivor of multiple traumatic events is so important. For so many women — especially Black, brown, Indigenous women and those in the LGBTQ+ community — existing under the banner of multiple traumatic experiences is commonplace. So common, in fact, that many of us do not notice the ways in which one trauma can bleed into another. 

"The more we talk about it, the more we have a chance to minimize the shame associated with talking about trauma," Stoycheva says. "Removing the shame also creates a space for the fact that it is a person's prerogative whether or not they want to talk about their trauma."

"It doesn't mean that everybody has to talk about it," she continues, "but there has to be the space to do so if someone wants to. And that space is still being created." 

With additional reporting by Kylie Gilbert.