Post Election Advice from the Experts: Don’t Just Sit There Do Something!
In the wake of the election thousands, if not millions of Americans, are finding themselves feeling helpless and somewhat lost with the surprising turn of events.
“I feel as if my world just turned upside down”
I feel disenfranchised”
“I am sick inside, feeling depressed, anxious and afraid”
“All of my ACoA issues are getting stirred up, I don’t feel safe”
“My own sexual abuse issues are haunting me, I feel smarmed“
“I feel like withdrawing into my house and not coming out”
While naming and processing feelings is important, taking actions to repair what feels wrong is also our biological mandate. We need to enter, as Jane Austin said “the healing waters of action” to right ourselves when we feel knocked over. We are beings wired for action and when we are deprived of self affirming activity, we can collapse into feelings of helplessness and powerlessness and simmering beneath them resentment and even rage. This is the kind of emotional, psychological and biological set up that can contribute to post election depression and anxiety. It can increase our feeling of being trapped.
Bessel van der Kolk, expert on post traumatic stress, provides a poignant description from his trip with FEMA in 1989 to aid victims of Hurricane Hugo in Puerto Rico:
“I arrived in the middle of this devastation, and what I saw were lots and lots of people working with each other, actively putting their lives back together-carrying lumber, rebuilding houses and shops, cleaning up, repairing things.”
But the FEMA officials immediately told everybody to cease and desist until assorted bureaucracies could formally assess the damage, establish reimbursement formulas, and organize financial aid and loans. Everything came to a halt.
“People were suddenly forced to sit still in the middle of their disaster and do nothing,” van der Kolk remembers. “Very quickly, an enormous amount of violence broke out-rioting, looting, assault. All this energy mobilized by the disaster, which had gone into a flurry of rebuilding and recovery activity, now was turned on everybody else. It was one of the first times I saw very vividly how important it is for people to overcome their sense of helplessness after a trauma by actively doing something. Preventing people from moving when something terrible happens, that’s one of the things that makes trauma a trauma.” (Dayton 2015)
Pondering this striking lesson, van der Kolk wondered if perhaps the most damaging aspect of trauma wasn’t necessarily the awfulness of it, but the feeling of powerlessness in the face of it, the experience of being unable to escape or fight or have any impact on what was happening.
“The brain is an action organ,” he says, “and as it matures, it’s increasingly characterized by the formation of patterns and schemas geared to promoting action. People are physically organized to respond to things that happen to them with actions that change the situation.” But when people are traumatized, and can’t do anything to stop, reverse or correct it, “they freeze, explode, or engage in irrelevant actions,” he adds. Then, to tame their disorganized, chaotic physiological systems, they start drinking, taking drugs, and engaging in violence-like the looting and assault that took place after Hurricane Hugo. If they can’t reestablish their physical efficacy as a biological organism and recreate a sense of safety, they often develop PTSD. (Wylie, 2004, p. 5) (Dayton 2015)
The recent election has left many feeling helpless and as if they are stuck in and cannot escape a reality that disturbs them. The unexpected outcome of the election plays into one of the hallmarks of what makes trauma, trauma, namely something has occurred that causes us to doubt our sense of an orderly and predictable world. Polls and political opinion were making one outcome appear almost inevitable and seemingly out of nowhere, another unexpected and unpredicted result took over. Many of my ACoA clients feel as if their childhood issues of growing up with the unpredictability and chaos of addiction have been triggered, their world turned suddenly upside down which for children of chaos is an all too familiar feeling. These kids often grew up watching their parents fight, threaten each other and insult each other. Trump’s unpredictable behavior, his threats to do harm to his running mate, a woman, or to those who spoke out against him is causing many who had childhoods filled with this kind of emotional abuse to want to curl up under the covers. The person who threatened to do bad things is the one who now has the power. This recreates the kind of fear that all too many children grew up with; and they may in turn fall back on the kinds of trauma defenses that they learned as children such as withdrawal, numbing, denial or acting out to mange their anxiety and distress.
Equally people have voiced feeling called to action on many fronts:
“I see that I have to be more involved in our political process”
“I want to do something, anything to make a difference, to make my corner of the world feel better.”
“Maybe I’ll just mind my own patch for a few years”. or
“I guess I can’t just sit on the sidelines anymore”
Making actions positive and rebuilding, whatever those actions are, is key to self repair and climbing out of a post election malaise. Doing something to make a situation better helps us to channel negative emotions and the energy released by upset into new spheres and positive directions, it counters the feeling of helplessness and increases a sense of self agency and resilience.
When we stay in an overwhelmed state and cannot act on our own behalf, we pay a price both intra-personally and inter-personally, we suffer on the inside and our relationships suffer too, irritability, depression and anxiety are some of the symptoms that indicate that we may be carrying something that we need to deal with. In order to feel good within ourselves on a day to day basis, engaging in positive and repairing action, whatever that means to us, is something we CAN DO. We need to move from a state of frozen inaction to action, it is part of our biological mandate. If we do not move into conscious and positive action we increase our risk of moving mindlessly into unconscious, destructive action.
Hillary Clinton’s voicing the Methodist’s socially conscious words of strength and revitalization, ‘Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can,” are exactly the kind of prescription that research on trauma might endorse as a path to renewal well being. They are nothing less than a strategy for self care. They encourage us to channel some of the intense energies that have become released through this election process in life affirming directions so that we do not explode or implode, so that we can be constructive rather than destructive, so that we can build on our resilience and thrive.
Anda, R. F., Feletti, V. J., Walker, J.D., Whitfield, C., Perry, B. D., Dube, S. R., & Giles, W. H. (2005). The enduring effects of abuse and related adverse experiences in childhood: A convergence of evidence for neurobiology and epidemiology. European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, 256(3), 174–86.
Dayton, T. (2015). Neuropsychodrama in the Treatment of Relational Trauma. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications.
Van der kolk B. lecture given at The Meadows Conference , New York City, June, 2006
Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on November 27, 2016.