Why Louis C.K.'s return to the stage could be triggering for survivors of sexual assault

Comedian Louis C.K. reportedly made a surprise appearance at a New York City comedy club Sunday night. Here he is pictured at Madison Square Garden in November 2016. (Photo: Getty Images)

Louis C.K.’s surprise performance at a New York City comedy club Sunday night marked the comedian’s first appearance since admitting to multiple instances of sexual misconduct November. In the moment, the comedian reportedly got a standing ovation. On social media now, the comedian is getting mostly the opposite — a digital booing that’s urging him, once again, to get off the stage.

In the two days since his appearance at the Comedy Cellar, a few comedians have defended C.K.’s comeback (like Michael Ian Black), but the vast majority have come out against it. They’re far from alone. Feminists, survivors, and academics have also weighed in, calling his comeback premature and the nature of it — rogue and unannounced — appallingly similar to the way in which he assaulted women.

But whether or not coming back into the public sphere was the right decision, the fact that he is back in the spotlight has major implications — not just for his five female victims but also for the millions of survivors of sexual violence nationwide. Samantha Manewitz, LICSW, an educator and AASECT-certified sex therapist, has counseled many patients grappling with these issues in the #MeToo era and says this is another example of the trauma that many wade through on a daily basis. 

“It’s definitely upsetting and infuriating,” Manewitz tells Yahoo Lifestyle, being sure to note that she can’t speak for all survivors. “Everyone responds to triggers differently depending on where they are in their healing journey. But these men coming back — combined with a constant news cycle about sexual assault — is continually terrifying and exhausting.”

Manewitz says there’s a scientific reason that incidents like this can be painful to survivors. It involves two areas of the brain: the limbic system, which stores emotions and sensations, and the prefrontal cortex, which controls executive functioning. During a crisis — such as a sexual assault — the limbic system goes into survival mode, shutting off the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s higher functioning. While this may protect the individual from remembering some of the more vivid images of an assault, it also thwarts the brain’s ability to perfectly store memories. What results is a tendency to be “triggered” by outside stimuli, which may or may not resemble the actual assault experienced.

“When you experience a traumatic event, your limbic system takes over and does what it needs to protect you and looks for patterns, and — when that is activated — your prefrontal cortex goes offline,” Manewitz tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “So while your limbic system is looking for — and recording — patterns to protect you, e.g., a smell, a T-shirt, a voice, the rational part of your brain isn’t operating.”

In other words, your brain does the best it can to record warning signs, but without your rational brain, the record isn’t perfect. “If there’s a smell or a T-shirt or anything that resembles what happened to you, your brain will respond as if the trauma is happening all over again,” says Manewitz. “When you’re experiencing PTSD, your brain literally cannot gauge what is and isn’t safe and will default to ‘I am unsafe.’ As a trauma survivor, your brain cannot always tell the difference between something happening to you or someone else, so your brain will treat everything as a threat.”

To be sure, this threat isn’t painless. Experiencing PTSD, severe anxiety, or panic attacks is more than uncomfortable — it’s excruciating. Symptoms of PTSD include flashbacks, debilitating fear, emotional numbness, and prolonged psychological distress. Anxiety attacks bring symptoms ranging from increased heart rate and racing thoughts to trembling and sweating. Panic attacks, worse, involve an onset of fear so severe and tangible that it can convince those suffering from one that they’re dying.

It’s impossible to confirm, of course, that the return of C.K. to the stage has yielded such reactions — but if it has, it wouldn’t be unusual. In an interview with Self in October, trauma expert Simon Rego, PsyD., chief psychologist at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine in NYC, said that even the story of another sexual assault can trigger a reaction in a trauma survivor. “It would be perfectly normal for someone suffering from PTSD to be triggered by reminders of their event,” Rego told Self, adding that reminders could “provoke an intense emotional and psychological reaction.”

Manewitz hopes that explanations like these will help others realize the uncontrollable nature of a survivor’s reaction in the era of #MeToo. “This isn’t ‘Oh, no, poor snowflakes having feelings’; this is physiology that is not within a survivor’s control,” she says. “The thing a survivor can control is coping systems to recover more quickly. But you can’t make fun of somebody for being triggered — that’s like making fun of somebody for sneezing.”

For those who are experiencing increased anxiety in the current news cycle, Manewitz recommends taking time away from social media or the news, or opting for other self-care measures that help with your own mental health. And in extremely dire situations, do not hesitate to reach out for help, either through RAINN or TNLR.org.

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