Helping your Brain and Body Survive the Collective Trauma of 2017

(Originally published in on June 13, 2017)

Already, 2017 has been an extraordinarily difficult year for liberals and progressives. In my practice as a psychologist I have talked with people who are experiencing everything from outrage to dazed disbelief. Myself, I vacillate between the two.

On the basis of these conversations I believe many of us are experiencing what psychologists call Collective Trauma. The technical definition of collective trauma is a blow to the basic tissue of social life that damages the bonds attaching people to one another and impairs the prevailing sense of community.

For the last few years, it felt as though America was moving forward. From Black Lives Matter protests to the minimum-wage movement and civil rights for LGBTQ people, and the slow but steady improvements in environmental regulations. We seemed to be on the right path.

But the election of Trump and the sweep of Republicans into office have shredded that notion.

So what do we do now?

As a therapist I want to tell you that for our personal and national well-being, we have to care for ourselves in a way we never have, so that we don’t harm our intimate relationships and because we’ll need to stay passionately engaged socially for a long time to come.

How the nervous system and brain respond to stress

We now know through neuroscience, and specifically the Polyvagal Theory, that the nervous system has three zones within which we function.

The middle zone: Open heart and clear thinking

This is called the zone of connection, or the window of tolerance. Functioning in this zone, we are able to experience a range of emotions, from love and happiness to anger and grief. But crucially, we are able to stay connected to others with an open heart and a clear mind. We can tolerate life’s difficulties.

The upper zone: Stress, anxiety, and reactive anger

This zone is called hyper-arousal. This is where we feel stress, anxiety, hyper-vigilance, and reactive anger. We are irritable, moody, defensive, and generally not fun to be around, especially for those closest to us. We cannot feel intimately connected to others in this zone and our rational minds don’t function well.

The lower zone: Depression, despair and dissociation

The other zone is hypo-arousal, which shuts us down. We have low energy, are either numb or despairing, and may simply withdraw from active engagement with life. Again, no positive emotional connection with others or useful rational thinking happens here.

Social Activism Burnout

We all know what it’s like to be in hyper-arousal—which can happen easily in times like these. We feel stressed-out, irritable, reactive, and distracted, and our bodies literally contract. Our muscles can get tight and our breathing constricted.

And when we become overwhelmed, we sink into the opposite: hypo-arousal. We feel down, with no energy or desire to be engaged with the world. We become dull observers of life, not participants.

So it’s very important for us to know how to regulate our nervous systems so we can function with full presence in our lives, and especially in response to all the Republican assaults on human rights and environmental protection.

How to move through the despair and trauma to social engagement

Basic self-care is good, but not enough. Certainly we need to eat well, get enough sleep, take exercise, do meditative or mindful breathing, and turn off our screens when we get too wired. But in times like these, we need to do more.

1. Most important is frequent meaningful, intimate connection with other people.

By “meaningful connection” I don’t mean sharing political despair or reactive diatribes. I mean a connection that opens our hearts and leaves us feeling good about sharing with the other person.

2. The specific social or political acts of violence that affect us most deeply are most often also touching a personal nerve.

By “nerve,” I mean a response derived from our personal experience that can trigger hyper-arousal. It isn’t just that you hate injustice—it’s whatever personal experiences have left you with grief and anger about injustice. It isn’t just that you fear rich white men dictating the fate of the world—it’s how such men have already harmed you or others you know. While you connect with another person, trace this nerve so that the emotions you touch—anger, fear, grief—are able to pass through you and leave you more clearheaded and open-hearted.

3. Collective trauma and despair about social and political issues is best responded to by collective action.

Join a social justice/action group, get involved in your community or place of worship, and come together with like-minded people. During this last year, the clients in my practice who weren’t greatly distraught about the world were those that were already socially engaged in making it a better place. (They were just as concerned, but able to cope.)

4. Call on whatever connection to Love you call on, be it a group of people, a God, or just the Source.

Hardening one’s heart is a normal response to trauma and despair, but it ends up hurting us and those closest to us. Aligning ourselves with love helps us find the right flow forward. Make sure to get to your prayer or meditation group, your place of worship or community group that is focused on connection in love.

5. Frequent forays into beauty can be profoundly healing.

Consciously engage with art and nature to heal the wounds in our hearts. Beauty helps open our constricted hearts and restore hope. Being out in nature reminds us of the interdependence of all life. And every true work of art is a kind of utopia because it embodies the possibility of a different world.

These steps will help us move through the trauma and build resilience in us. They can help us to become fierce and openhearted in our response to the injustices around us. And every one of us is needed in the struggles to come.

Learn more at a website dedicated to educating you about social despair and collective trauma and how they might be affecting your life. It also shows you many things you can do that will help you move through those emotions so you can more fully engage your personal and social life.