After trauma is over, “It ended!” is a powerful healing tool to convince the body that the emergency is over. What happens when the trauma, or similar threats, are ongoing?
Fearing a boss or leader who resembles the unpredictable, vindictive, bullying, sexually abusive head of household from childhood. Grieving the latest person pulled over and murdered for Driving While Black. Flinching at another threatening text from a stalking ex-spouse. Gasping at a letter saying already minimal disability benefits will be cut further. Worrying whether health insurance through the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) will vanish and pre-existing conditions will once again put needed health care out of reach. Feeling personally targeted for being a woman, or queer, or trans, or Muslim, or Jewish.
Amid news reports and conversations that make light of bizarre events or frankly contradict them, it helps to talk with people who simply acknowledge reality. Yes, this is happening. No, this is not normal.
Your reactions are valid. All of them. You get to feel aching grief, like being kicked in the chest. You get to feel liquid rage. You get to feel terrified by historical parallels and growing present-time threats.
You get to be numb, frozen. You get to throw yourself into action and activism. You get to alternate among many reactions. All your reactions are valid.
Separate past from present
You get to be triggered by current events, responding with the terror and helplessness of a child. It helps to kindly name that triggering, finding an inner witness who says, “Yes, I feel terrible. I wonder which parts of this are old.” Let your child self know that you are listening, that you feel the terror and helplessness.
As terrifying as the present may be, it is not a replay of childhood abuse. To find your adult witness self, remind yourself of today’s date and your current age. Push long with your feet and wide with your elbows to feel your full adult size and strength. Name aloud resources you have now that you did not have as a child, for example a bank account, driver’s license, more years of experience, and more connections with other people. Look around at your current environment, and name what is different from the past.
Connection and touch
Amid violent, dehumanizing rhetoric and actions, it helps to be in conversation with someone who responds to you as the living breathing valuable being you are. Positive connection is a balm in hard times. You can connect with other people, with pets, with Nature, and even with yourself. Look yourself in the eye in the mirror and say, “You matter.”
Remember that the people around you are going through their own reactions and may not be available for connection when you ask at first. Keep trying.
Safe touch can directly calm the nervous system. I worked on a lot of clients’ feet after the shocking US election result in 2016, soothing muscle and contacting bone. It helps to remember that the body is still there, and feel its edges.
As much as you can, continue with your daily routine, especially self-care like meals and sleep. As you navigate change, your body appreciates familiar patterns.
You may feel like cocooning alone, or you may want people around you all the time. Consider attending your regular group activities even if it takes extra energy. Participate in something that takes your whole attention and distracts you for a while. I find it calming to sing in harmony and dance in groups.
Stillness and motion
Give yourself a few minutes to sit still, perhaps in meditation or over a cup of tea. Allow yourself to connect with what is happening inside you. It might be uncomfortable or unexpected, and at the same time, the distress and other reactions inside like to be heard and acknowledged.
Give yourself time to walk or bike outside. Notice the details of the weather and the changing season today. How does the air feel? Balmy, chilly, sharp? How does it smell? Recently the air smelled like snow. The world is still turning. Plants are growing, or lying dormant for the winter. Small creatures rustle through leaves, gather seeds, rest and play.
Thinnest slice of now
When events are huge and overwhelming, give yourself a break by focusing just on what is happening now, rather than including everything that is coming in the future. Right now, you are breathing in and out. In this moment, you are safe from harassment. This month, you still have health care.
Robyn Posin names this “focusing on the thinnest slice of now,” and reminds us that even though we feel overwhelmed, our future self may well have more resources to handle future events. At least, our future self will have had more time to adapt to sudden changes and disasters.
Best case, worst case
While it helps to focus on the present, we do want to put some time and energy into planning for the future. Some of us tend to assume the worst, and some of us say it will all be for the best. When we spend time with both best and worst cases, it reminds us that we do not yet know what will happen, and allows us to make more flexible plans.
Take some time to acknowledge your fears of the worst case. What are you afraid of losing? What are you afraid of experiencing? Acknowledge your fears and give them some space. If you think of concrete steps you could take to protect yourself from bad outcomes, just note them for now.
Also spend some time with best outcomes. Find outcomes that bring relief. Maybe an ally steps in. Maybe new facts come to light that change the whole situation. Breathe in the relief. In times of not-knowing, allow yourself some time with relief. Do any concrete steps come to mind to make a good outcome more likely?
From your contemplation of best and worst cases, from talking with others, from listening to your body, from any other ideas that float up, choose at least one action. There are many actions to choose from, some loud, some quiet, all valid and valuable. From self-care, to helping others, to attending demonstrations, to contributing money and time for organizations, to calling elected officials, to speaking up against bullying you witness, all our actions weave together to make a more positive future.
Waiting is also a valid action. Allow yourself time to be with shock and confusion, which are valid responses to shocking and confusing events. Allow yourself time to observe and learn, and move into action when you see an opportunity that is a good fit for you.
What resilient strategies have you inherited from your family? What strategies have you developed for yourself over time? What has helped you survive this long? As you move through difficult, triggering events in the present, bring along all the healing tools you have learned over time.
- Robyn Posin reminds us to “live in the thinnest slice of now” when change moves quickly.
- Ursula K. Le Guin writes about studying peace in The Election, Lao Tzu, a Cup of Water. “The election of 2016 was one of the battles of the American Civil War. […] My song is Ain’t Gonna Study War No More.”