Recently, in session, a patient was sharing her fears about the direction the world seems to be heading. What are we going to do? We are stuck in this situation. No one is going to do anything to help us! She was fatalistic, felt alone and isolated. And while on the surface she was reflecting on her terror about the current political climate, on a deeper level she was also re-experiencing trauma from her early life.
When you find that in the last few months you’re shakier, more irritable, more anxious, you feel less safe and you can’t figure out why, it may be that old traumatic experiences and memories are bubbling back up to the surface, triggered by how things have unfolded in the U.S. and in the world. The unapologetically authoritarian manner in which the man who occupies the Oval Office conducts himself is painfully similar to abusers, predators, sexual harassers, and seething misanthropes that so many people, females especially, have been forced to endure, or have likely been exposed to in one way or another in their lives. It is especially jarring because for many, the “President of the United States” is a symbol of bravery, intelligence, care and compassion. Instead, this President triggers memories of hurt, shame, fear, divisiveness, and distrust.
Politics aside, in this election the male won in large part by beating the woman down. She was brutalized yet always maintained her exterior decorum while he was and continues to be brazenly abusive. For many it is surreal and creates associations to being captive to their abuser(s) with nowhere to turn all over again.
When you’ve experienced trauma – physical, sexual, emotional or any other kind — or when you’ve had your self-experience negatively impacted by someone who overpowered, bullied or shamed you, it’s very hard to live through and live down. It takes a lot of effort and dedication to take your life and self esteem back from someone who subjected you to their sadism. It is like putting back together the pieces of your shattered sense of self, or trying to develop a sense of self in the first place. And now here you are, going along in your life, keeping the emotional and physiological experiences that come with trauma at bay… until that scary man began to infiltrate every pore in your body and neural pathways in your brain.
His style, his irrational inconsistency and inability to experience compassion or empathy are painfully familiar. He reminds you of the painful past you have worked hard to escape. When you’re retriggered, it’s like enduring the abuse all over again. In a traumatized state, you feel isolated – only you know how imprisoned, scared, alone, and shaken you feel.
Here is the good news: This time, you’re not alone. Rather, what feels so eerily familiar is now not an individual trauma, but a collective one.
With that in mind, one of the most important ways to address the symptoms of trauma reemerging is to first and foremost recognize that many, many people are suffering in the same way you are. The best thing you can do is reach out to others and share that you feel triggered. What you will receive in return – unlike the isolation of your original trauma – is validation and comfort in finding that so many other people feel as you do.
At the same time, understand that your trauma is debilitating and immobilizing. You feel like you should be doing something but you feel helpless, in large part because you haven’t yet succeeded in removing yourself from the situation. There’s so much going on and so many ways people are attempting to regroup and fight back and find civility in their lives again, but you may be so traumatized that you can’t engage.
Though in the past you’ve turned to social media for connection, now it’s nothing but bad, scary news that most certainly triggers even people who haven’t been traumatized, putting you in a position of being re-traumatized over and over again. Finding out from one minute to the next how chaotic and inflammatory the world is does you no service whatsoever.
Your best bet is to try the same strategy you would use to get over a relationship: Stay away from provocative social media. Instead, work to extend yourself in a real, personal, physical way. When an opportunity presents to attend a vigil or go to a meeting or write a congressperson, try to take that step. Be helpful to others and have them be helpful to you.
First and foremost, find connection with other people. When you’re ready, do what you can to contribute in small steps. But try to stay away from the kinds of things that further intensify or over-stimulate your brain in way that can send you reeling back into the fear, pain, despair and helplessness you experienced in the first place.
Other people feel as you do and humans are safe-havens. Physical connection, emotional connection, and sharing your struggle with others will help you find strength and unity. It will help you calm down and remember that the only way anyone can get through any traumatic experience is to be a safe haven for each other. Take it one step at a time.