Our Bodies Were Not Designed To Process Social Despair and Collective Trauma Alone

Patrick Dougherty, M.A., L.P. October 16, 2018

Many of us are experiencing an overwhelming amount of collective turmoil, chaos and trauma in the world today and are feeling adrift when trying to figure out how to cope with it all. For some of us, the social fabric that held us together feels like it is being torn apart, more and more every week. Old patterns and structures of power and oppression many of us thought were dying, have shown themselves not just to be alive, but to be growing.
Certainly, most of us don’t know what to do when the waves of collective hate, intolerance, mockery, bullying, and violence wash through our bodies and psyches. When that happens, we are often left to our reactivity, regardless of whether we are alone or with others. This can easily lead to anger, outrage, and even hatred that can get stuck in us and leave us stressed out and with frayed nerves. Or it may even lead to anguish, hopelessness, and/or depression that can leave us emotionally collapsed. Both these responses not only diminish our capacity to be in our intimate relationships but also to be nourished by them.
Survival and Beyond
Our bodies are beautifully adapted to survive even the harshest traumas. If we’re content with just getting by and surviving this time of upheaval, we really don’t have to do much but follow our individual body’s way of surviving. Our nervous systems will constrict as a natural initial response to trauma. Eventually the nervous system will help us to dissociate, to numb ourselves, to live detached from our selves and the world around us without having to think about it.
Another option is to choose to be present only to our own immediate lives—to insulate ourselves from the world and all of its turmoil and pain. This is often termed “taking care of yourself.” You might get a therapist, but mostly you will tend to spend time alone or with people who think and feel the way you do. In particular, if they share your desire to stay detached from the world, hoping things get better without doing anything to make that happen.
This second option, of course, is readily available to the privileged. Part of social privilege is having inside you, often without even knowing it, what I call a comfort dial. When you begin to feel uncomfortable about the world around you, you can just turn the dial down and look away from what is distressing you. Of course, this approach, “taking care of yourself,” means turning the dial way, way down so you don’t have to feel the suffering of those who can’t escape it or dial it down themselves.
If you lack the privilege that allows you to dial it down and can’t escape the injustices affecting so many, you may also choose to “take care of yourself.” To survive you focus on the immediate needs of you and your family by trying to shut out the misery of others and go numb to all but your immediate situation. That is very understandable. In either case, in the short term at least, you survive.
But suppose we want to do more than survive. Suppose we want to be present not only to what is happening to us and we’re willing to stay conscious and connected to the suffering of our neighbors and community members. In that case, for all of us, privileged or not, there is one primary action we must take in order to not be worn down, stressed out, burnt out, angry, and reactionary: we must build and maintain ongoing meaningful connections with other people.

The Lifeboat
Tossed on the seas of negativity where most of us now find ourselves, self-care provides us with little more than a life-jacket. It’s important because in the short term it keeps our heads above water, but it falls far short of what we need in these seemingly relentless waves. But by connecting to others and staying connected when the seas are rough, we find ourselves in a lifeboat with kindred spirits and discover more strength and resilience within ourselves. This helps us find the resolve to stay engaged in finding new creative ways to solve old problems.
Our bodies don’t lie. They will tell us the truth and always do. We just have to be willing to listen to them. When we are watching for weeks on end the patriarchy defending itself with a certainty that is devoid of any connection to the humanity of those it harms, when we see white supremacy not even trying to hide but coming out in the open and being praised by people in power, when we see nationalism and xenophobia being supported by large numbers of fellow citizens, what does our body want us to do?
To not be alone! The body knows how to contract and survive in times like these; but it also knows, if there is enough space and safety, how it wants to process and move through the traumas that we are swimming in. It is telling us to be with others whom we trust and to let the painful emotions that are being triggered move through us. The body does not want to turn away and pretend the horror isn’t affecting us, nor pretend that we are strong enough for it not to impact us. Such illusions all come from the mind. The body has evolved to heal spontaneously if we are able to listen and follow its organic process.
That means coming together and letting ourselves cry, wail, rage, or pray. It means holding each other while we shake with grief, anger, and fear. If we do this with others who share the intention of staying present to the reality around us and who are also committed to struggling for social justice, then we will also be free to dance together, sing, hug, make love, make art, and laugh with our children while we stay conscious, present, and engaged in making this a better world.
If you want to do more than survive or take care of yourself only, then listen to your body. It does not want to be alone. The human body evolved in connection and community, from the primate troupe to the hunter-gatherer band and the farming village, over hundreds of thousands of years. The human body is adapted for nourishing and being nourished by the collective life around every individual. And it wants you to listen to its wisdom.

Originally posted with The Salt Collective on Oct. 16, 2018