Andrea Schneider, MSW, LCSW
We therapists are always preaching about self-care. But today made it get real. If ever there was a day requiring self-care, that day is today.
I am still trying to process the shock and disbelief of what happened on this day, November 8, 2016, in our nation’s history. If you are like me, and appalled by the results of the presidential election, you may have a wide range of concerns, including a retriggering of trauma, loss, anxiety, depression, horror, anger, shock and disbelief.
We, the people of the United States of America, just elected an individual who has a history of bigotry, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, bullying of disabled people, brags about “grabbing women by the pussy” because “he can”, wants to put up a wall between our border and our neighbor to the south, Mexico...have I forgotten anything? Oh yes, and fits the diagnostic criteria, spot on, for malignant narcissism. This man will be our president for the next four years.
Take a deep breath. That’s what I am attempting to do right now. It’s hard to navigate the cognitive dissonance that is permeating my brain. And I know that my clients who have histories of psychological abuse, racism, discrimination, bullying of any kind, sexual assault...are all experiencing signs and symptoms of PTSD….it’s a horrifying time for many who worry if they will be deported, if they will lose health care, if they will lose the right to decide who governs their reproductive organs, among other concerns. It’s appalling.
What do we do now that we are officially in the aftermath zone of the election? To say that our country has work to do is a gross understatement. I could spout off and rant and rave as a progressive liberal, and I know I would either be preaching to the choir or inciting people who disagree. So I will refrain from taking that tangent, and focus instead on what is universally helpful for trauma survivors in the face of trauma. Because this is what it feels like to at least half the population of this country: Trauma. That’s a lot of people.
In the case of the election, many have extensive and valid concerns regarding what will transpire in our country and how that will affect our citizens and people all over the world. People feel tense and traumatized. With that, we need to honor what our bodies are saying to us, and respond to our bodies by sending optimum relaxation response (Benson, 1975). The relaxation response was originally coined by researcher Herbert Benson who introduced the term in his original book entitled the same. What is at the core of releasing held tension is oxygen. Most of us in the psychology and self improvement field know that deep breathing using the abdominal muscle (versus the shallow breathing experienced in panic) is essential to induce a relaxation response. Many also incorporate mindfulness based meditation, exercise and yoga, among other physiological strategies to bring the body back to a state of equilibrium.
Self-care, when feeling panicked and overloaded, requires the survivor to take a few steps through the stages of grief and also access releasing trauma physiologically. When we are confronted with a traumatic loss, our brain takes a while to cognitively process what we have just experienced. So much of trauma is encoded in the brain on a neurological level and is held in the sensory part of the brain (van der Kolk, 2015). When words are not enough to describe our experience, our body feels the adrenaline and cortisol of stress, and we either fight, flee or freeze in response to a perceived threat. Somatic tension, in the form of muscle pain, migraines, heightened blood pressure and pulse, increased respiration all develop in response to trauma.
Renown trauma researcher and neuroscientist Bessel van der Kolk elaborates further by discussing in his cutting-edge work, The Body Keeps the Score (2015) that the work of releasing trauma initially must be experienced in a “felt” sense or physiologically. He is correct in saying that “the body keeps the score.” Some may achieve this release through drama therapy, newer fields such as somatic experiencing and EMDR, yoga, meditation, dance, music and exercise, to name just a few possible evidence-based strategies.
Adding to the next layer of trauma release involves the incorporation of the emotional catharsis of the midbrain. Our brain intuitively wants to create a visual understanding of meaning-making of a traumatic experience. Many achieve this release through the use of expressive arts (Malchiodi, 2015) via use of art intervention with trained art therapists or credentialed expressive arts therapists. Sometimes images can express what words alone are not able to.
Cognitively, our highest level of thinking and expressing comes through words. When we have been able to narrate and thereby master our traumatic experience through all three layers of the brain, physically, emotionally and cognitively, we are said to have integrated the traumatic experience in such a way that our brains are being protected from registering the memory as a trauma.
I know we are still in the midst of understanding what the trauma of the outcome of this election means. It’s unprecedented and unclear. But what we do have control over is how we respond to adversity and uncertainty.
We can daily make efforts to exercise for a minimum of 20 minutes. A power walk in nature is an excellent way to release stress and clear the mind. We can fortify our bodies with good nutrition and vitamins, including omega-3 fish oil which studies show is protective of brain health (among other wonderful benefits), particularly in combination with exercise (Kendall-Tackett, 2010). We need to find a way to sensorially express that which is hard to verbalize through music, art, dance, exercise, sports, yoga, meditation. And then we need to work to integrate our felt sense of the trauma by putting it into image-making, like expressive arts, a visual journal, collage, painting, etc. (Malchiodi, 2015). Some may elect to try therapeutic interventions as I mentioned before like EMDR or somatic experiencing (Levine, 1997), which are geared to integrate the brain’s experience of trauma so that the brain does not encode the experience as trauma, or that the impact of the trauma is dramatically reduced. Next steps are finding words to narrate the trauma either verbally or in written form (poetry, journaling, individual psychotherapy with a trauma-informed therapist) (Schneider, 2014).
For survivors of trauma, help is available. Seek out competent trauma-informed therapists who can help you release the many layers of stress as a result of the political climate we are immersed in. Seek out activities which you can engage in which calm your nervous system and induce a relaxation response (deep breathing, exercise). After the shock and disbelief thaws, channel anger into constructive activity (i.e. peaceful political activism, writing, advocacy, etc.). Give yourself permission to grieve losses of dreams and violations of basic human rights as represented by the incumbent president. Know that you are vulnerable. Focus on the basics of good sleep, good nutrition, exercise, positive social supports and psychotherapy. We as a nation will survive. We will one day thrive again. Begin with your own self-care, and then let’s work to move forward to heal our planet.
Benson, Robert (1975). The Relaxation Response, HarperTorch Publishers.
Kendall-Tackett, Kathleen (2010)
Levine, Peter (1997). Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma, North Atlantic Books.
Malchiodi, Cathy (2015) http://www.cathymalchiodi.com/art-therapy-books/trauma-informed-art-therapy/
Schneider, Andrea (2014) http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/expressive-arts-as-means-to-heal-trauma-032414
Van der Kolk, Bessel (2015). The Body Keeps the Score; Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Penguin Books.