Since November, I’ve reflected often on trauma.
So let’s talk about it. I’ve been learning about this lately, and it seems like a good time to let you in on some of what I’ve been learning.
I’m certainly not the first to find it useful to look at our whole national and world situation through the lens of trauma and nervous system response. In the U.S., our whole polarized political process seems to be based in some part on our individual and collective responses to trauma. Wherever one stands politically, it seems that much of our motivation to act is as a response to the injuries we’ve experienced or that we see experienced. Much of our political process can be seen as people experiencing some kind of harm to themselves or communities they are identified with (or care about), and then acting in response to that experience of harm.
Often, we act with large amounts of unintegrated trauma and unbalanced nervous systems that have us stuck in more primitive parts of our brain that are actually incapable of the complex thinking and empathizing that would be needed to actually work together to solve any of the pressing problems we have.
I want to take you into some of my personal learning that informs my view of the larger system.
The night before the election, I went to bed with things looking dire, NYT predictions of Trump winning up to 95%. I thought I’d sleep better with the uncertainty rather than facing my despair right away. The next morning I decided to take care of myself first–Cecile and I did our yoga practice, shower, and made breakfast before looking into the election results. I was of course, panicking inside, right alongside of doing what I thought would provide me with the security and emotional regulation that I needed to be able to take the news that I was afraid of. When the news came, I was feeling ready, grounded, and able to feel some of my pain and deep sadness when I reflect on our angrily divided nation.
In an hour, I headed to town for my weekly therapy session. I’ve been learning a lot about how to regulate my own nervous system when I become activated into a fight/flight/freeze response to something in my life. One of the things that’s been helpful for me is to realize that my nervous system is wired to react to threats by activating these basic animal nervous system responses. And that these responses, if they are happening too much or too strongly, are almost never useful for me in creating my next move.
A twinge of fear or anger can be motivating for sure, but my best and most useful actions have to come from a more grounded and integrated place. I tend to get overwhelmed and not act at all if my fear or/and anger are triggered too much. I’ve had to discover how to sooth these responses and get myself back to that grounded place in order to be effective in my actions.
One of my key questions to help me sort this is “Am I safe right now, in this moment?” This comes from a realization that in this very moment, my safety is an objective assessment, not a subjective feeling! I look around the room letting my eyes go where they will, and I can see very clearly that there are no immediate threats, and have to acknowledge to myself that “okay, I am safe right now”. This observation might be extremely at odds with how I’m feeling however, so I just hold my feeling of fear, anxiety, unsettledness, and anger alongside my clear noticing that I’m physically safe.
And since I’m safe, it is safe to relax, calm down, and come out of the fight/flight/freeze responses that are going on. It’s safe to breathe, to feel my feet on the floor and how I’m supported by my body. Recognizing that even my fear is my body’s way of trying to support me. I’m coming back to center and to all the rest of my capacities. From here I can take an action forward, like acting on my desire to share this with you.
But what about the reality that we, Americans, have elected a president that plans to enact policies and appoint people to political office that will lead to many people in our country being in real danger. The future seems particularly dark and uncertain!
Brain science is showing that when our nervous system responds to immediate danger and fires off, the rest of our brain (that usually can think clearly and work strategically and complexly) literally shuts down. Our social circuitry goes offline too. Our ability to see other people clearly, to understand, to empathize, or to even accurately assess people gets flattened into a simple, friend or foe mentality. Thus, I feel strongly that we need to make a distinction between immediate danger, where our fight/flight/freeze could be a very useful response, and the complex, (somewhat) uncertain dangers represented by Trump’s election.
So on a personal level, I’m going to keep learning how to embody my full self and wisdom to reach my capacity to make a difference in the world by examining and undoing the impacts of harmful, extractive power in my own life and in our work together, and I invite you to join me in that!