I Went To The Movies
For a few hours now, I have been working on this article about self-care and trauma in the context of protest and action. Now I am on my way to the movies with my husband. We have agreed to put aside the dread for a few hours.
We are driving down Los Feliz Boulevard, and the sun is setting directly ahead of us. The sky is pink and yellow and blue and purple, and I am excited to go see Moonlight. I am mildly, pleasantly over-caffeinated from a late afternoon coffee date with one of my mentors. I am at ease. I am telling my husband about this article that you are reading, about trauma responses and compulsively rehashing traumatic material, about my conversation with my mother over the phone earlier in the day, about my own difficulties setting boundaries around social media and the news, boundaries around my own thoughts. We are making plans to have dinner with a friend of his whom I have never met. We are both excited. The friend is involved in politics, and my husband and I get onto the topic of letter writing parties. I tell him about an email I got that includes recommendations for writing letters regarding violence against women. What happens if the new administration guts the Violence Against Women Act? What will happen? I think about my clients, many of them survivors of sexual assault and incest. I say, “When we get home, maybe we send an email to our friends to set up the letter writing party?”
This is it. The veer. I didn’t catch it. Did you? My husband replies, “Can we do it in the morning? Aren’t we supposed to be unplugging right now? Isn’t this what your article is about?” And he’s right. I check my breath and find that it is short and rapid. I take some deep breaths and lean back in the seat of his car. I am not practicing what I have spent the last several hours preaching. Of course I’m not. How could I? Even writing this, I feel it in my lungs.
We return to the task at hand – going to the movies together. I love my husband. I love that he prefers to drive so I rarely have to when we’re together. I love that I am taking a break from work, that I have time to think and write. I am lucky. I love LA and the pink and yellow sky over Los Feliz Boulevard. What will happen to us? Will California try to secede? Will we be invaded by the feds? An intrusive image – Nazis marching into the heart of Paris. Paris! The dread. My chest contracts. I wonder if the dread is intergenerational. And where it lives when I put it away.
We can understand what is happening in the USA during the first week of the Trump administration through the lens of trauma. I will not list the events of the past week, except to reiterate that the new administration is openly lying about measurable facts. They have taken a stance that belittles and attempts to discredit the news, which is, among other things, laying groundwork for the continued systematic gaslighting of the American people. I will also reiterate that our new president has referred to bragging about sexual assault as “locker room talk.”
I could go on and on, but that is not the point of this post. The point is that on top of the xenophobic, homophobic and misogynist rhetoric and behavior of the administration, these lies are disorienting and belittling. Being belittled by the people who are supposed to protect us is not new, of course. It’s not new for people who aren’t white, who aren’t straight, who aren’t documented, who aren’t Christian, who aren’t men. This does not change the fact that the behavior of President Trump and his administration is abusive, and the impact on Americans is traumatic. It is not surprising that many people are experiencing normal and debilitating trauma responses.
A trauma response can look different for different people. Some common aspects of trauma responses might include: intrusive thoughts and memories, compulsively rehashing traumatic material, feeling like any new information is unbearable, increased reactivity when we feel anything at all, feeling flooded in our bodies, sleeplessness, paranoia, depression, avoidance, or internalization of the abuser’s perspective.
A trauma response can also look like overwhelming feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. Immobility. Inaction. A freeze.
Ultimately, we don’t have total control over how our bodies, minds and hearts react to trauma. This is the definition of trauma – our nervous systems aren’t able to keep up. If they were, the event wouldn’t be traumatic.
That being said, we do have some crucial ability to shield ourselves, increase our wellbeing and capitalize on the resilient functions of the body.
Ideas for Self-Care
What constitutes safety, empowerment or healing is ultimately different for everyone. Nonetheless, I have provided a few concrete ideas for staying well. These ideas aren’t new or radical. You may already practice these skills. I am sharing them because for me, and for many members of my community, it is harder to practice self-care when we are triggered.
The technologies of resistance sometimes snag our mental health and can, if we’re not careful, seriously decrease our effectiveness. I know that I need boundaries around social media and the news. Maybe you do too.
Discomfort is inevitable and appropriate in the face of trauma. However, if checking the news or Facebook feels compulsive it might be a sign that you’ve read too much. Compulsive behavior can be a very normal sign that we’re in fight or flight, which means that we might be reacting to information instead of responding in the most effective way possible. Ultimately the goal is to use our energy – which is a limited and highly valuable resource – in the most effective way possible. So when you realize you’re compulsively reloading your feed, it could be a sign that it’s time to take a break.
I invite you to try decreasing the frequency with which you check the news and your Facebook feed. Refreshing the feed every 5 minutes is not more effective than refreshing every 2 or 5 hours.
Similarly, I invite us to consider the most effective times during the day to check the news. Namely, when do we have time to actually read it, and when do we have time to follow up with action? Can we do anything about it right before bed, or immediately prior to walking into work? Perhaps it makes more sense to put aside the news for an hour or two before bed. Quality rest is a crucial part of health, and an activated body may have trouble sleeping. We can spend the mornings or afternoons reading the news and making phone calls.
2: Meaning and One-Mindfulness
When any action is complete, whether it’s checking the news, calling a senator or marching, I invite you to move on to the other arenas in our lives that build meaning.
We must continue to try to give our full attention to sunsets. Writing, healing, teaching, studying, making art, excelling at work, parenting, cooking great food, supporting our clients, connecting with our families: all these things build the world that we are trying to both create and defend. And if we’ve taken time to exist “outside of” the trauma, not only is that valuable unto itself, but it also means that we’re going to have more stamina and louder voices when we take to the streets as often and loudly as we must.
Staying focused on anything this week, let alone a sunset, is difficult. We get distracted by catastrophic thoughts. We’re human. The key to one-mindfulness, or focus, is to choose to bring our full attention back to whatever we’re doing, over and over again. We can always go back to the catastrophic thoughts later. There’s a place for them too.
3: Our Bodies Have Limits
At marches I keep seeing the sign that reads: I am no longer accepting what I cannot change. I am changing what I cannot accept. I love this sign as it galvanizes us towards resistance. But isn’t the truth somewhere in the middle? I, for one, don’t have control over the limits of my own body. We can push these limits. We must, of course, if our values guide us to. But we can’t disappear them. And if we think we can, then the shame and rage of not could ultimately destroy us. And then where are we? In the wind.
When we are traumatized, we are more likely to experience physical symptoms that impede our ability to be active. But with little checks and balances, we can decrease the amount of unnecessary time we spend in fight/flight. The less time we spend in fight/flight, the more time our body has to heal and recharge.
The breath is a place where checks and balances can occur. If you’re short of breath because recent events are bringing about sensations of panic, it might help to take a pause to do some box breathing or alternate nostril breathing or just some regular old deep breathing.
In addition to breathing, we can stretch, eat, stay hydrated, and practice rituals around sleep.
We deserve to be as healthy as possible. We are more effective when we’re well. Furthermore, we are at serious risk of missing the battle because we’re too sick, tired, or depressed to show up. So let’s love our bodies.
We know that community has always been a crucial part of healing and resistance for individuals and groups who are being abused. Healthy relationships heal. It might help to lean into the love of our friends, partners, families, pets. It may be soothing to lean into gratitude and honor all of the people who have been surviving and fighting and loving for years – generations – before now, who have laid the groundwork for us to even have this freedom to fight out loud. The sensation of love can balm the nervous system when we are triggered. There are meditations that can help you invoke the feeling of loving kindness, and I invite you to try one of these.
5: Rage, Dread And Other Difficult Emotions
In and of themselves, difficult or overwhelming emotions are like anything – neither dangerous nor safe. We can do any number of things with them. Maybe we allow the rage to emerge in our chants, our art, and our persistence. Maybe we channel the dread into our spiritual practices, or allow it to guide us deep into the rich bowels of policy analysis.
Sometimes difficult emotions can become so overwhelming that we end up engaging in self-sabotaging behaviors to escape them, like increasing our use of drugs or yelling at our partners.
I recommend a Meditation for Working With Difficulties.
Among other things, this practice guides the listener through “pendulation,” which is a hugely useful technique for self-soothing by alternating our awareness between sensing the difficult emotion and sensing something more neutral or pleasant. You can sit for this meditation, or you can read the transcript and get ideas for how you might practice pendulation in your own way, at your own pace.
Additionally, if you are feeling flooded by emotion and you are having serious trouble in your relationships or your life, I invite you to talk with someone else, like a therapist or some other kind of supportive healer.
6. Acknowledge: Taking Care of Ourselves Is Really Hard Work
It is normal to feel entirely triggered, sick and panicked. Whether we practice self-care in the face of abuse and trauma is not just a choice, it is also a privilege. Not everyone has the internal or external resources to engage in these practices. If you’re working two jobs while taking care of three kids, or are grappling with serious mental or physical illness, maybe elements of this list seem preposterous. But if we have the privilege to choose to engage in the work of self-care at all, then shouldn’t we? For the sake of ourselves, our longevity, our power to effect change?
Simultaneously, I invite us to be gentle with ourselves when we pour a glass of whiskey instead of a cup of tea, or when we accidentally get looped into the Facebook feed while we’re lying down in bed. It’s never too late to take a deep breath, remind ourselves that we’re human, applaud ourselves for existing, and hit the hay. We can always pick up where we left off tomorrow.
Here We Are
So I am wishing for each of us a regimen of radical self-care to balance the regimen of resistance and action. I am wishing us compassion for ourselves when our self-care isn’t enough and we end up spinning out and missing a battle. I am wishing us well because we exist and because we matter. I am wishing us well so that there can be more action, more love, and more freedom from fascism and white nationalism everywhere.
Posting this with love, hope, anger, fear, determination and admiration.
This is necessarily an incomplete list of ideas for coping. What else has been working for you? What do you recommend? Please contribute resources and replies in the comments section.