Our country has been through an emotional gauntlet in the past 18 months. The election build up, election coverage and post-election reactions have left many feeling exhausted and drained. Many of my clients have reported increasing feelings of uncertainty and fear about their future. Some have been triggered into traumatic reactions that stem from childhood. Themes of unpredictability, bullying, abuse of power, narcissism, bigotry, misogyny, and racism have caused a tsnaumi of feelings that can’t be ignored. We are inundated with images and soundbites that keep coming as part of our 24-hour news/social media culture. What is the best way to cope and recover from the cultural and personal traumatic reactions that many are feeling?
Take a Breath…………or Two
The first step is to find a way to come back into yourself and to ground in your body. When we get triggered, our body goes into a fight, flight, freeze response which is very stressful. We may hear a news story or read an article that gets our blood boiling and we want to lash out. We may want to run and hide because we are reminded of the bully who tortured us. We may feel paralyzed and numb by feelings of fear. These reactions are signs of a survival response.
The breath is the best way to naturally and quickly help the body come back to equilibrium. The great thing about the breath is you can practice breathing anywhere, anytime and it’s free! Knowing the right way to breathe is important. The simplest way is to take a natural, normal inhale through your nose all the way from your belly to the count of about 5 and then exhale through your mouth (pursing your lips as if blowing through a straw) to the count of about 7. The number count isn’t as important as making sure your exhale is longer than your inhale. This helps shift the nervous system from fight and flight to a more relaxed response very quickly. As you do this for a few rounds, most people notice a calming of their nervous system. I recommend developing a practice where you do this type of breathing for several rounds first thing upon waking in the morning, mid-morning, mid-day, after work and before bed. Building this into part of your daily routine will help your body restore its equilibrium and maintain more balance throughout your day.
Ground your Body
Grounding your body will help strengthen you to get through any challenge you face. There are many ways to ‘ground’ your body, in addition to your breath, but one simple way is to start by sitting on a solid, stable surface (chair, couch), putting both feet on the ground, and sitting up straight so that you can take a full breath. Gently and slowly alternate pressing the balls of your feet into the ground. As you are pressing, feel the solidness of the ground beneath you. Feel your leg muscles gently contracting and releasing with the alternative movement. After you feel solid in your feet and legs, become aware of your backside sitting on your chair. Feel the solid nature of your body. Slowly allow your breath to come all the way into your belly. Look around at your environment. Take in the beauty and any sounds that may be present. Place your arms across your chest as your hands rest on alternate shoulders. Give yourself a ‘butterfly hug’ as you gently alternate tapping each hand on your shoulder for about 20 seconds. Once you stop the alternate tapping, give yourself a little squeeze and hug. Notice what it’s feels like to feel the contact with your hands, notice how solid your body feels. Allow your body to feel solidly grounded in the present moment. Most people feel a sense of internal strength as they feel grounded in their body. These are small practical ways to shift the focus from worry and anxiety to being present in the moment and being fully in your body. Once you are grounded, there may be a shift to a more empowered perspective about things that are worrying you.
Another way to ‘ground’ is by carrying a smooth ‘worry’ stone and using it to touch throughout the day. If you notice feeling anxious or worried, imagine releasing your worries into the stone and allowing it to hold your burdens. Many people feel a sense of relief as they let their worries go and connect to the solidness of the stone.
Meditate/Develop a Mindfulness Practice
Meditation and mindfulness are current buzzwords in our culture. What is so great about meditation? What does it do, anyway? The idea is to develop some space to sit quietly so that you can practice developing a focus on the present moment. Why is that useful? Well, our minds are constantly sending us a barrage of messages, ‘do this’, ‘do that’, ‘go here’, ‘go there’, etc. We are overwhelmed by messages, both external and internal. If we don’t ever slow down enough to notice what we are thinking and telling ourselves, we can be ruled by runaway ideas and bogged down by worry.
Meditation and mindfulness are simply ways to slow things down to observe the nature of our thoughts and to practice letting them come and go. It helps us see a broader perspective and not be so attached to certain outcomes. If we notice that we are worried and anxious about the election fallout, it could be helpful to create some time and space to practice observing our thoughts and feelings and practice noticing them and letting them go.
Don’t be concerned about ‘doing it right’; there is no right or wrong. Sit comfortably in a quiet space and simply focus your attention on the coming and going of your breath. As you do this, notice what thoughts are coming from your ‘monkey mind’, the part of our mind that brings an endless array of thoughts. Just be curious and observe without judgement. If you notice that you are trailing off into a thought, gently return to your breath in the present moment. Inhale and exhale. You can also notice what feelings are coming up for you, allow yourself to notice them and allow them to move through with your breath. Just a few minutes a day can have an overall healing affect. Start off with just a couple of minutes to see how it feels. You can always build up slowly if you find it useful.
For some people, meditation can increase a sense of anxiety so if you become more anxious as you practice, pause and do the grounding exercises described above. If it doesn’t feel right for you, don’t continue. Always trust your instincts.
Limit Social Media/ News Exposure
This may sound obvious but in our world of 24 hour news coverage and round the clock tweets, it’s hard to do. We are inundated with social media and political stories everywhere we go. The other day, I decided to set a limit on listening to post election coverage. I needed a break. Once I made that decision, I immediately felt better. Remember the coverage of 911? Our nation continued to be traumatized by showing those horrible pictures day after day. In an effort to understand what happened, our nation was retraumatized every time those pictures replayed. In the post-election coverage, it may feel important to listen and keep track of the first 100 days. Everyone has a different tolerance level. Just make sure there is a balance. Do an internal check-in to make sure you are setting limits where you need to and not unintentionally overwhelming your nervous system with continuous coverage.
Take Action: Surround yourself with Friends, Loved Ones, and a Like Minded Community
When life gets overwhelming, no matter the cause, and things feel out of our control, the best remedy is to take some kind of action. What is most important for you during this time? What do you have control over and how can you be proactive in taking steps to stay on a productive track for yourself?
Make sure to build in time for those things that help you feel connected a bigger sense of purpose. Define and clarify your personal goals for this New Year and each day, refocus on things that you have control over. This will look different for everybody. Some people will literally need to move their body, dance, take a walk, do yoga. Some may join the protest movement and let their voices be heard. Others may gather with friends and create support groups to share current feelings and how to support each other moving forward. Share with those you love how you are feeling. Ask for hugs. Make sure to play. Remember to laugh and find some pleasure every day.
If you find that you are stressed and need a place to talk, feel free to contact Holly Prichard, MFT at 707-591-5065 for a free consultation.