As a therapist, I’ve been sitting on the front lines of what feels like a mass trauma-response since 11/9 (which, you may have noticed, is 9/11 backwards which, itself, is a variation of the emergency call number 911). I am not here to debate whether or not an election should evoke such a response but, rather, to raise awareness about what is happening when someone is having such a response. Awareness can help a person begin to move from feeling trapped and limited to accessing choice and flexibility.
Trauma, first and foremost, is a stress condition with biological roots. Stephen Porges has provided a great model (the polyvagal theory) that outlines the hierarchy of autonomic nervous system (ANS) responses to stress:
- Social Engagement (“tend and befriend”). When everything is feeling (at least generally) safe, the “tend and befriend” aspect of our nervous system facilitates engagement with our environment and helps us form positive connections with the people around us. It is the highest level of operation for our nervous system. Imagine you are in a boardroom meeting when you suddenly hear an explosion outside. At the social engagement level of operation, the first thing your nervous system would have you do is look around at all the other people around the table to assess what has just happened (“did you just hear what I heard?”) and, seeing your reality reflected in their reactions, you begin to organize to figure out what to do next (maybe look out the window, maybe check the internet for any reports of explosions in the vicinity, maybe make some phone calls to check and make sure everyone else outside the room is okay).
- Mobilization (“fight or flight”). Say, however, that the crisis is more intense (for example, the explosion takes out a window in the boardroom), or you have a personal history that predisposes you to a heightened nervous system response (for example, you are a combat veteran). If that is the case, the social engagement approach is ineffective in meeting the needs of the situation and will automatically (no matter how smart you are intellectually) give way to the mobilizing of “fight or flight” responses engaged by the sympathetic nervous system. At this level, you either jump up and run towards the explosion (“fight”) or jump up and run away from it (“flight”).
- Immobilization (“freeze”). Say the crisis is yet more intense (for example, the explosion took out a wall of the boardroom and men in uniforms are barreling through the breech) or you have a personal history that predisposes you to an even greater nervous system response (because, for example, you experienced early or persistent childhood abuse or neglect). If that is the case, the mobilization approach is ineffective in meeting the needs of the situation and will automatically (no matter how smart you are intellectually) give way to the immobilizing “freeze” response of the dorsal parasympathetic nervous system. At this level, you may be hunched over, body clenched, breath shallow, frozen still, with a deer-in-the-headlights look in your eyes.
This is a biological process, not an intellectual one. No matter how smart you are, no matter how much you study this stuff or teach it to others, your evolutionarily-honed biology is in charge of these “decision-making” processes, not your intellect. Truly acknowledging this (rather than spending time trying to ignore or control it) allows you access to the first important tool in your trauma response toolbox: your body.
Our minds can be in the past, future, and places only imagined. Our bodies, however, are only ever in the present moment. In the present moment, the saber-toothed tiger may very well be in the room (for example, we just elected a president you might consider dangerous for very legitimate reasons), but if you’re still alive, that means you’re also not dead and therefore have a range of options available to you in order to deal with that saber-toothed tiger. Our bodies are essential allies in responding to this threat.
Daniel Siegel has developed a really useful model for understanding the importance of breath in calming the nervous system (see a video of his hand/brain model here). When you take a deep, belly-expanding breath, you are pushing your organs against your rib cage and spinal cord, which puts pressure on various points of the vagus nerve and returns access to your neo-cortex (where higher-level thinking takes place). Access to our neo-cortex allows us to partner with our emotions, rather than just have our emotions run amok (you can read an earlier blog I wrote on the function of emotions here).
I’ll use my own reaction to the election to illustrate the sequencing of these responses:
Freeze: Starting around 8 or 9pm (Pacific Time) on Tuesday, I was frozen, curled up in a chair, barely breathing, as I listened to the election results rolling in. It felt awful. It felt like the end of the world and I felt powerless.
Flight: Starting around 10 or 11pm, I was having fantasies about moving to Canada or Australia. I started looking online to see what that would require, started pulling out notes I’ve made on the topic before, started thinking about what I would need to do to get that done. I was in motion now and it felt better than being immobilized. I stayed up late doing this.
Fight: My dog woke me up early on Wednesday morning to go outside and I couldn’t get back to sleep afterwards (you can check out the whole cortisol/HPA axis relationship to stress here). But those few hours of sleep (which, measly as they were, helped resource my body nonetheless) gave me the energy to start thinking about what I could do to fight back against what I oppose. That felt even better than running away from it.
Tend and Befriend: Before I went into work that morning, I sent out an email to a bunch of like-minded friends to talk about how we could organize around the issues mutually important to us in this new political climate (you can read an article I sent to them here which was Rachel Cole’s efforts to “tend and befriend” as well, which helped me make this transition myself and then reach out to help others to help them make the transition too). In this stage, I saw the work that needed to be done and a pathway to doing it.
At work later in the day, a client reminded me of work I had introduced her to (in a different context) that she was using effectively to apply to her own response to the election results. It comes from David Emerald’s book The Power of TED. Here is a visual of the model:
This model takes the traditional Karpman’s Drama Triangle (the dark triangle in the bottom half of the image) and flips it around into The Empowerment Dynamic (TED). TED turns Persecutors into Challengers, Victims into Creators, and Rescuers into Coaches. This alternative model asks you, “In the face of this challenge, who do you want to be?” Asking and answering this question helps move you from a place of powerlessness to a place of creativity, choice, and flexibility (i.e. empowerment).
Various factors are going to affect your cycle through all of the above levels of ANS responses. These factors include (but are not limited to) personal trauma history (i.e. the role of early or persistent trauma/neglect in your life predating the election), environment (i.e. are you isolated? do you have supportive/understanding people in your life? are you surrounded by people who are threatened by you and/or threatening towards you?), and personal demographics (which include, but are not limited to, gender, race, sexual identity/orientation, citizenship status, socio-economic status, health status, etc.). Here is a cheat-sheet to help you identify which stage you are in and what to do about it:
- If you’re in the freeze response (feeling numb, shut down, hopeless, trapped, scared stiff, shame-bound, stuck, or in a cognitive fog), get moving any way that is safe, take at least 3-10 deep belly-expanding breaths, connect with nourishing people you trust, share feelings, don’t believe everything you think (reality check your thoughts with those you trust).
- If you’re in fight or flight (feeling revved up, out of control, flipped out, rageful, or desperate to escape), move and breathe in slow rhythm (tapping, swaying, walking, yoga, tai chi, dance, drumming), connect with people who ground you, set good boundaries (to protect yourself as well as others), feel and process your feelings with someone you trust to help you organize your thoughts in alignment with your personal values.
- If you’re in tend and befriend (feeling aligned and able to think, feel, move, and communicate in flow), connect with others (those you agree with as well as those you don’t), stay centered in your values, swap certainty about the “other” with curiosity, make decisions, take action, talk, write, organize, pick effective strategies to get the things you want done, done.
In the face of an administration that potentially threatens civil liberties, human rights, and the health of the planet we all share, I anticipate that I will be toggling a lot between “fight” and “tend and befriend” in order to get things done alongside those who co-exist with me in this great melting pot we call America. Understanding and working with biology is essential in that endeavor.