How Trauma Can Shape the Way We Live at Home

published Oct 3, 2018
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Note: This article contains information about common triggers for PTSD and anxiety.

During Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, she mentioned something that may have sounded curious to many homeowners. When she and her husband completed an extensive remodel, she said, it included an unusual feature: “I insisted on a second front door, an idea that he disagreed with and could not understand.”

In explaining to her husband why she wanted the second door, she testified, she described in detail an incident in which she was allegedly sexually assaulted at age 15 and named Brett Kavanaugh, a federal judge who has been nominated to the Supreme Court, as her attacker. Kavanaugh has denied the allegation.

What is the connection? Why might Dr. Blasey have felt she needed the second door?

“Everyone who has been through a trauma is afraid it will happen again,” says Debra Borys, Ph.D., a practicing psychologist in Los Angeles who is an expert on the causes and impact of sexual assault. “The experience of being victimized is so overwhelming and so shattering of the sense of safety and protection in the world that the mind is urgent to find some sort of reassurance that it won’t.” Although she is careful to say that she hasn’t spoken to Dr. Blasey and can’t be certain, she says a second door might offer her a greater sense of control over her surroundings and therefore lower her anxiety. “It’s another way to escape.”

This rings true to some other trauma victims, including a conservative Christian woman who recently revealed that she had been sexually abused. As reported in the Washington Post, she was a strong supporter of Judge Kavanaugh but found Dr. Blasey’s testimony about the door to be credible. “I immediately thought, ‘She’s telling the truth.’ I thought, ‘I want a second door.'”

Valerie Greer, an architect and a professor of practice at Washington University in St. Louis (who also hasn’t evaluated Dr. Blasey firsthand), found her experience to be consistent with that of military veterans suffering from PTSD who were the subject of research she conducted. “The door is a threshold—a passageway from one room to the next,” she says. “Dr. Blasey’s relationship with thresholds was also common to the veterans’ experience. The threshold was a point of anxiety.”

It even affected the way the veterans situated themselves in a room. “They want to be able to see the threshold. They would purposefully choose a point—such as a corner opposite the door—that would allow them to have a direct relationship with the door.” She refers to this as the concept of “advantageous viewpoint.” “They want to be in a dominant position so they can survey the threshold very clearly.”

Interestingly, Dr. Borys says, police officers often do something similar when they take a break in a diner: They request a seat facing the door. “They specifically ask for seating that in their minds positions them best just in case there’s an incident—not to flee but to protect the place,” she says.

Greer’s research showed that transition spaces like stairs and corridors can also trigger anxiety. The veterans she studied preferred to be at a higher level on a staircase, so they can see down as opposed to having to look up. Corridors can be problematic because they’re a confined space. “You don’t know what’s behind the doors, who’s coming or going, or what’s at the end of the corridor,” she says. “If spaces are partially blocked, that can be pretty scary.”

Lighting is important, too. “One of the most common side effects of trauma is the inability to sleep,” Greer says. “People may have night terrors.” A lack of sleep also interferes with the body’s ability to heal from trauma. She recommends allowing in as much sunlight as possible in the morning and practicing good sleep hygiene at night, including being consistent about when lights are dimmed and screens are turned off. “This helps regulate the circadian rhythms and make sleep more regular,” she says.

Dr. Borys adds that there’s another reason a second door could have been important to Dr. Blasey. “For trauma survivors, part of the psychological experience afterward is having a lot of thoughts, sometimes very intrusive and repetitive, about what they could have done to prevent it,” she says. “People feel so utterly powerless and vulnerable, and the psyche tries to restore a sense of safety and control by thinking, ‘Should I have done something different?'” This is unfair, she emphasizes, because victims are not to blame. “It’s a coping mechanism, with faults.”

Trauma can also cause victims to avoid a wide swath of situations that remind them of the trauma, she says. One of Dr. Borys’s patients who had experienced an attempted rape in a basement laundry room in her apartment building would not go into the room again. A colleague at a professional conference had to leave a jazz club because it reminded her of a place where she had been victimized. “It triggered physical discomfort for her,” Dr. Borys says.

Specific types of treatment, such as Eye Movement and Desensitization Processing, Dr. Borys says, can ease the stress associated with traumatic memories.

It also may help trauma survivors to understand how their living spaces can trigger anxiety, Greer says. “Our environment has effects on us that we may not realize,” she says. “The door seems innocuous, but it’s really charged territory. Something we look at as not being very special can be very sensitive to survivors of trauma.” It can also help to make adjustments, even if it’s not possible to install a second front door, that will ease their fears: “We’ve learned that the more we can design with the ability to give users control over their environment, the more empowering it is.”

Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. Find more information on PTSD here.