It’s been a tough news week for women. The week started with International Women’s Day, a day designed to shed light on equality. The same day, Meghan Markle’s interview with Oprah was aired and the nation discovered the truth behind her experience with the Royal family and the press. The response to the interview shocked a lot of us, especially when prominent figures discounted the revelation that she had experienced suicidal thoughts.
Despite finding her voice and allowing herself to be vulnerable, Meghan faced an onslaught of disbelief. I personally saw countless social media posts begging people to believe women and others of sheer exhaustion.
In a matter of days we then learnt that a serving police officer had been arrested on suspicion of murdering Sarah Everard. Sarah had been walking home from a friend’s house in Clapham when she disappeared. It’s a scenario every woman I know fears.
As women we quickly learn exactly what we need to do to feel safe in these situations.
We text our friends to let them know we’re home safe, we hold our keys in between our fingers while walking. We wear headphones and ignore anyone who tries to talk to us. We avoid the parks, we know to shout “fire” instead of “rape” because we were told people are more likely to help if they think there’s a fire.
Social media has been flooded with women sharing their experiences of feeling unsafe. We all have a story – mine was when I was waiting for my dad to pick me up years ago. A car drove by full of men who leaned out the window to call me a ‘whore’. They were laughing and I’m sure to them it was a bit of inconsequential fun, but it left me shaking and willing my dad to drive faster.
A twitter post that has caught the media’s attention is this one from Stuart Edwards. In it he asks “Aside from giving as much space as possible on quieter streets and keeping face visible, is there anything else men can reasonably do to reduce the anxiety/spook factor?” the question we all hoped men would ask.
The general mood for women this week is one of exhaustion – from Meghan Markle standing up for herself and being torn down because of it, to some people saying women shouldn’t walk alone at night to avoid harm… we’re tired.
So it’s refreshing to see this thread where a man is asking ‘what can we do?’. Here are some of the highlights.
Fiona Sturges says “This is an excellent question and I wish more men would ask it. Cross the street to avoid walking behind a woman. Give all women space. Never run close to them when jogging, esp in the dark – I’m endlessly astonished at how many men do this. Offer to walk female friends home.”
Venn says: “Thank you Stuart. This really means a lot. One of my male friends told me that if he feels he might be walking near a scared woman, he pretends to be, or gets himself, on the phone having a normal conversation. Silent people are more frightening than hearing someone talking :)”
Sarah Lee says: “Walk your friends home no matter how safe you may perceive the route, cross road if you’re walking behind a lone female and discuss with your male friends, I still don’t think men have any comprehension of how scary it can be walking alone at night as a female.”
Rebecca Vincent says: “The fact that you’re aware & asking this is fantastic. Talk to other men about it, as many are oblivious. If you witness even low-key harassment, call it out. Everyone pretends not to notice the creeps making women uncomfortable. It only emboldens them & normalises the behaviour.”
The world feels like an unsafe world for a lot of us right now, triggering fear and anxiety. Societal change is necessary and conversations prompted by people like Stuart Edwards is great to see, but is there anything we can do in this moment to cultivate a sense of security?
I asked some therapists for their thoughts.
Recognising what’s happening internally is a key first step says counsellor Kirsty Taylor.
“In times like this, when we see things on the news and question our own safety, we need to be aware of what’s happening inside. Fear activates our fight/flight system which gives us all the energy we need to run away if we need to; a pounding heart, a shot of adrenaline, rapid breathing, shaky legs. However, if the threat is perceived rather than actual then the body can store that fear as anxiety and stress which can result in a depleted immune system.
“To shift that fear into a place of safety, we need to regulate our nervous system by firstly recognising what is happening internally. Breathing slowly in and out will send a calming message to our brain that tells it that we are safe.”
Counsellor Catherine Beech agrees, noting the power of our parasympathetic nervous system which “serves as an emotional ‘full stop’ or brake, allowing the feelings of stress and anxiety in the body to reduce.” Some activities to help with this that Catherine recommends include:
“Any of these activities will tell your body that the danger is over, allow you to rebalance and to feel more safe and secure.”
Connecting with others can be another route to safety, says Kirsty.
“Another way to shift fear is to connect with others. Our nervous system needs meaningful connection with others and a soft calming voice of a friend or family member will regulate our nervous system and allow us to feel safe.”
Counsellor Karen Shumann also notes the importance of focusing on who you do trust.
“It might be helpful to think about all the friends, family and colleagues you have around you that you do trust, rather than those you don’t. When we start to think of all the things that might go wrong, or people we don’t think we could trust, or when we hear negative news stories about people speaking up, it can start to feel that we should keep quiet, that it is not safe to speak freely.
“Thinking about those around us who love and accept us and those that have been there for us and really valuing them, may help us to see that there is trust and safety around us.
“Speak about things with friends and family and ask them how they feel safe and talk about ways you can help to keep each other safe and be there for each other if you need support.”
The online world is noisy right now and if you need to step away, that’s absolutely fine.
“At the moment, the media is flooded with news about COVID, the recent disappearance of a young female and distressing negativity about women in crisis. It can be useful to limit your social media and news interaction when you feel bombarded. If you want to see what’s going on, perhaps limit to once a day and follow it by an activity that you enjoy such as reading or talking to a friend or exercising.” Says Kirsty.
For more tips on this, see Chartered Psychologist Kimberley Wilson’s article on protecting your mind when the media is overwhelming.
“Anxiety and fear sit within the body and moving helps shift them up and out. Exercise is good for your mind and your body and will help you process fear and also release endorphins, or happy hormones, which will help calm your fear and regulate your internal system. Choose a route that you feel safe if you want to run or go for a walk, tell someone where you are going if it helps to keep you calm and go at a pace that gets your heart beating a bit quicker.
“Finally, be gentle to yourself. Take a nice bath, read a magazine, speak to friends, have a glass of wine, cook some nice food and get lots of sleep.” Says Kirsty
If your mental health is being affected by what’s happening, please don’t hesitate to reach out for support. You can reach out to a private counsellor on Counselling Directory or a charity such as Women’s Aid. If you’re keen to take action, we recommend donating to the End Violence Against Women Coalition.
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