In America, the use of the word “unprecedented” has become common place in 2020. Living through a global pandemic has left us working, schooling, and recreating from home, bereft of our “normal” opportunities for managing stress and enjoying community. Add to this natural disasters (hurricanes and fires), a toxic political climate, and a 24 hour news cycle and “unprecedented" seems far too weak a word to describe the state of affairs in our country.
For anyone who has a history of trauma or has experienced a failure of justice (e.g. bullying where the bully never faces consequences for their behavior), these days are nearly impossible.
There’s a brilliant analogy that can help us understand the way in which our minds and bodies experience trauma, which is not time based, but lives inside the traumatized individual’s very cells. Life before trauma can be likened to the experience of walking through a field taking in all the sensory information around us. We notice the birdsong and grass, the clouds and and sky, and smell all that is on offer. We may notice a small, coiled object on the side of our path but don’t really tend to it because we are fully present where we are.
If, however, we suddenly feel pain in our ankle and our body surges with adrenaline, kicking us into a fight/flight/freeze/faint reaction, we may look down to see that the coiled object was actually a snake. In that moment our brains and bodies code “coiled object” with “snake” and all that goes with being bitten. We don’t simply leave that memory there. Instead, it lives with us and, wherever we walk, our bodies and minds react to all coiled objects as though they are snakes…even if they are simply garden hoses.
This brings us back to survivors of mistreatment and trauma. To observe unchecked bullying and gaslighting on a national stage, to bear witness to active teasing of vulnerable populations with no consequence, and to watch groups associated with hatred and dangerous ideologies endorsed is to see coiled objects everywhere. When we see these injustices playing out, we are right back in the field, engaged in a trauma response that our body and mind can’t just “snap out of.”
The next 5 weeks don’t promise much reprieve and it will benefit all of us to have a plan for times when our trauma response is piqued. To that end, here are 5 actions to help us cope.
1) Stop mindless scrolling. Find a reliable, non inflammatory news source and determine the best time(s) of day for you to access it. Checking the news from bed in the morning or as the last thing we do before falling asleep is likely not best for our mental health. While changing these habits may feel anxiety producing at first, the long term benefit will be huge. Find new ways of waking up and falling asleep. Ways that encourage calm and groundedness. Sleep stories or quiet music can be helpful as can paper books or magazines.
Regardless of when you choose to access news, create the habit of checking it, then actively addressing any emotions that it evokes. Too often we sit and stew. This will not help us. Consider setting a timer to avoid going down Twitter or news rabbit holes and, when the timer goes off, take some deep breaths, acknowledge big feelings and the frustration that results from exposure to injustice, then redirect your attention (see point 4 below). Be committed to this plan as much as possible.
2) Take consistent social media breaks. Social media is not only correlated with increases in depression, anxiety, and fear of missing out, but has also been shown to cause these realities. If social media has become a source of rising emotion for us it would be important to take the apps off our phones (for now), curate (unfollow and/or block) those we follow to decrease feelings of hopelessness or comparison, and limit our use to under 30 minutes a day.
3) Enlist support. It is far too easy to feel alone when we experience snakes all around us. Identify one or two people that can listen without inflating your already big feelings. If no one comes immediately to mind, reach out to a friend to see if you can be each other’s grounding force for the next few weeks. Agree that you will be available to talk when you can or to receive voice messages. Commit to keeping your rants to no more than five minutes then promise to help each other name/validate the feelings then redirect your attention to something less likely to pique trauma.
4) Practice redirecting your attention. Redirecting our attention away from data that has the potential of piquing our trauma is different from being in denial. Where denial can cause us to repress our emotions and leave us feeling fragile, the ability to see the source of distress, acknowledge it, work through the resulting emotions, and then intentionally place our attention on something else leaves us feeling capable. This is not an easy process but, with practice, can be accomplished.
To build this ability, try a concrete example. Use sticky notes (or a piece of paper torn into small squares and tape) to record feelings or situations you’ve experienced in a day. Write one feeling or situation on each paper. Stick them to the wall in no particular order. Choose one of them to hold your gaze on and spin around, forcing your vision to hold that one square as long as possible as you turn and then return to stillness. Dancers call this spotting. While there are many squares to choose from, selecting one to focus on can keep you from being dizzy as you spin.
Apply this to your attention elsewhere. Choose to redirect your attention to a beautiful or hopeful object or situation even when a plethora of coiled objects exist. Work to hold your active attention in places other than those that contain what feels like snakes, even though they will call out to you with ferocity.
5) Up your self care game, privileging attendance to your body. If our bodies hold the memories of injustice, then we must tend to them carefully right now, offering them opportunities for rest and calm. Practice deep breathing and meditation or prayer. Offer yourself smells and tastes that bring comfort. Give your skin what it needs in the way of touch and stimulation as well as soothing. Your body has brought you through to now, thank it by treating it with care.