On Monday night Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told a story about the trauma we knew about, and the one we didn't.
During an emotional Instagram Live which has now been viewed 2.2 million times, Ocasio-Cortez said the fear she experienced in the Capitol riot last month was amplified by a previous trauma she had never spoken about publicly: her sexual assault.
Voice cracking, eyes tearing, hands clasped, she revealed she "hadn't told many people that in my life. But when we go through trauma, trauma compounds on each other."
After her harrowing account of how she hid from a violent mob on Jan. 6, Ocasio-Cortez received an outpouring of support from colleagues and other survivors who saw themselves in her story. But some critics derided her and claimed she was weaponizing trauma for political gain. Journalist Michael Tracey accused her of "emotional manipulation."
But trauma experts say Ocasio-Cortez's reaction is normal and expected, and her account aligns with what science shows happens to a mind and body under extreme forms of stress. When someone has a history of trauma, a new traumatic event, even if it's a different type of trauma, can reactivate similar feelings. It's likely, experts said, that Ocasio-Cortez's experience with sexual assault amplified what she endured at the Capitol.
"Trauma doesn't speak in words," said clinical psychologist Seth Gillihan. "Trauma isn't processing 'sexual assault' or 'Capitol assault.' What it's processing is an overwhelming sense of danger, of feeling powerless, feeling my life is out of my hands. From an outsider's perspective the sources look different, but inside our bodies and minds ... it's exactly the same message."
Trauma compounds trauma
Experts say a trauma response occurs when we need to protect ourselves physically and emotionally from an overwhelming experience that is more than our nervous system is able to digest at once.
"The basic definition of being traumatized starts with exposure to something that causes extreme fear, helplessness or horror, and then results in a number of symptoms or experiences that can unfold over time," said Emily Sachs, a clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma.
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Though there are many different ways to be traumatized, our body has a single stress response system. If the original trauma was a natural disaster and the second was a car accident, the car accident is going to bring up the same feelings even if outwardly it looks like an entirely different event.
Though Ocasio-Cortez did not elaborate on the details of her assault or comment further, experts say her feelings may be more closely linked given that both traumas were interpersonal.
Sexual assault "is a violation that takes their power away. ... The insurrection also is very deliberately and explicitly taking power away, with harm directed at specific targets, like women of color, more than others, like white men," said Jennifer Gómez, a psychology professor at Wayne State University. "AOC, and all the many others who have experienced violence, is reacting normally to extreme events. The links between sexual assault and the insurrection, in particular, are profound."
The assault on the Capitol was a potentially life-threatening attack, a trauma compounded by Ocasio-Cortez's experience with sexual assault and made all the more terrifying by the death threats she has received since she was elected to Congress.
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"It's not triggering trauma, it's trauma overlaid on trauma," Gillihan said.
Why trauma survivors can't simply forget
Ocasio-Cortez said she shared her experience at the riot in such vivid detail because she was frustrated by attempts to minimize what happened.
In an interview about the Capitol riot with Fox News last month, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said, "I think it's time to move on."
"They're trying to tell us to forget about what happened," Ocasio-Cortez said in her video. "They're trying to tell us that it wasn't a big deal ... without confronting the extreme damage, physical harm, loss of life and trauma that was inflicted."
Trauma leaves traces on the brain, and associations of danger, uncontrollability and unpredictability that can last a lifetime.
Some trauma reactions show up right away, while others show up months or years later. Some survivors find themselves triggered by things that are not objectively dangerous but that remind them of the past. And others, like Ocasio-Cortez, find old traumas reactivated by new traumatic experiences.
"Trauma doesn't recognize time," Gillihan said. "What often happens for trauma survivors is things are put to rest, but in a new event, at a neuro-biological level, a new trauma can activate those traumatic associations and bring them all flooding back. It can happen in an instant."
These stories are often dismissed
As a form of self-protection, experts say people will go to great psychological lengths to create distance between themselves and someone else who has experienced something violent or painful. Sometimes it looks like victim-blaming. "She's overreacting," people say. Or, "she brought this upon herself."
"Trauma is hard to grapple with," Gómez said. "It is difficult to hold in our minds that we live in a world depraved enough for rape and violence to be as common as it is. It can be easier to deny that reality – perhaps especially for people who are less likely to experience such traumas, such as white, straight, rich, cis men."
Experts say Ocasio-Cortez's gender is likely influencing reaction to her emotional disclosures. It's much easier to suggest Ocasio-Cortez is fragile, oversensitive or even politically motivated than it is to accept the horror of what happened to her.
"Women are historically much easier to disbelieve and discount because of their marginalization," Sachs said. "It's low-hanging fruit to say 'She's lying or exaggerating.' Then we don't have to reckon with what kind of true disaster just happened."
Ocasio-Cortez likened these denials to the behavior of abusers. Experts agree and say denial and victim-blaming are common tactics abusers use.
"Abusers demand silence," Gómez said. "The trouble is such a silence mandate is crazy-making for people who experience the violence and who see the world for what it is: a place that includes such violence just as much as it includes joy."
The final trauma: Being disbelieved
For trauma survivors, support from others is a crucial part of recovery. When a survivor isn't supported after a traumatic incident, that can create a secondary trauma.
Reactions of others who don't believe survivors or who downplay the seriousness of a traumatic event can have a devastating effect.
"It's sad that for predictable political reasons, someone divulging traumatic events would provoke invalidation and hatred," Gillihan said. "Wouldn't it be nice if we could all do the opposite, support each other in these things? We're all going to go through trauma at some point. We need to be there for each other as much as we can."
If you are a survivor of sexual assault, RAINN offers support through the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE & online.rainn.org).
If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time of day or night or chat online.
Crisis Text Line provides free, 24/7, confidential support when you dial 741741.