Trauma Responses from Injustice: aka WTF is Happening in the World and Why am I Reacting This Way?
Updated: Aug 4
WHAT IS HAPPENING? This last week. Month. Year. Years. Our country feels incredibly divisive, controlling, and cruel. How am I supposed to help when I feel this gut-wrenching fear, anger and sadness, and have lost hope that anything will ever change? It has been so incredibly painful.
We all go through hard experiences in life and some of those are traumatic. Trauma means something has injured us and/or is deeply distressing. Trauma can be short-term or long-term and can have a bunch of health problems and side effects associated with it. And in some instances, action or inaction by lawmakers CREATE or EXPAND trauma. Let’s review various responses to trauma, how they apply to systemic oppression and injustice, and what we can do about it. Resources and action items also listed throughout.
A Basic Explanation of Science-y Things:
I am not great at science. Whenever my toddler asks me questions about how the world works my answer is usually just “Science,” which I assume explains it all! My very basic attempt at an explanation on trauma is that when we feel threatened our brains shut down and our bodies take over. (Of course, the brain is still working, I do know that much! Science!) Executive functioning has paused so the nervous system can react. For a much more comprehensive and fascinating dive into trauma and the brain, check out The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk.
So, if a bear jumps out at you, you feel threatened. You don’t stop to wonder about the bear’s origin story or do math to calculate if you can outrun it. The part of your brain that does complex stuff shuts down and the back part of your brain that drives your physical responses takes over- heart rate, breathing, eye dilation etc. Your brain and body are getting ready to protect yourself at all costs. You are in SURVIVAL mode.
Your body feels UNSAFE, and its now sole focus is on SURVIVAL. “But wait” you say. “When I watch a person being murdered by law enforcement on a video, or see children in cages at the border, or hear about mass graves of indigenous people being unearthed, or learn that a few people in power who were put there by a megalomanic strip away healthcare rights for millions of people, I’m not ACTUALLY, in that moment, in danger.” To which I reply, “yes and no”.
Fun fact, our brains can’t really tell the difference between something we are witnessing and something that is happening. For example, last night I watched a documentary on a religious cult (as one does) whose leader continuously abused minors. A brief audiotape of the perpetrator’s voice was played, and immediately my body was tense, my stomach was in knots, and I thought I might throw up at the anticipation of what was going to happen. I was not in danger, but my body automatically began having a physical response. We might have different physical reactions than each other, and certain events will trigger different responses for each person, but we all have them.
More fun facts: Did you know that trauma compounds? Each time we experience trauma it is not just a new wound, but a new wound on top on an old wound. Imagine a thousand paper cuts in the exact same place, each time going a little deeper. Each micro and macro aggression that is exerted over people with less power is one more cut. Each assault and degradation one more scar.
Were you aware that there is generational trauma that gets passed down through the lineage? There are studies showing that children of holocaust survivors have higher rates of a stress gene than control groups do. So repeated trauma exposure can overtime physically change your brain and your body on a molecular level!
Fight, Flight, Freeze or Fawn in the face of Social Oppression:
We have all experienced traumas in life, and our genes, family history and the number of repeated traumas we have been exposed to impact how we respond to trauma. Protective people, places and situations can also impact our trauma responses in a positive, more resilient way. (Finally, something good!)
You may be familiar with the fight or flight response. Freeze and Fawn have been added over time, as our brains and bodies are complex, and we keep learning more about them. Here are how these responses may look in regard to injustice:
Fight: Are your fists clenched? Is your heart racing? Do you want to punch someone? Upset stomach, tense muscles, angry crying? Indignant about what that asshole said on social media, need to put them in their place, and an hour later you emerge from the black hole you fell into, even more angry and exhausted than you were at the beginning? Fighting social injustice is a necessary act, however acting on the fight trauma response can continue the stress hormone cortisol flooding your body, which over time can lead to a number of health problems.
Flight: You are incredibly restless, you can’t sit still, your body is practically buzzing with anxiety. You may feel extremely uncomfortable or have panic attacks. That energy coursing through your body is trying to get you to run to protect yourself. This may look like avoidance and denial regarding certain places, topics, conversations, news reports etc. While taking a break when your body is on overload is a big piece of self-care, long-term avoidance can lead to broader anxiety that bleeds into other parts of your life.
Freeze: You are stunned, in shock, numb. You shut down. It’s not that you are avoiding being reminded about the traumatizing event, its that you don’t have any emotion related to it. Your cup is full, you are overloaded, you have nothing to give in this moment. You may look to detach through tv, endless internet scrolling, alcohol or drugs etc. Again, this is a temporary response to feeling in danger, your body literally shut down and is rebooting. However, staying checked out leads to detachment in other areas of your life.
Fawn: You can’t stand conflict. You are a people-pleaser who above all wants everyone to be okay about everything. You may spend a lot of time and energy on de-ruffling feathers. Or in your quest to help you may completely over-extend yourself to your causes, leaving no time for acknowledging and addressing your own needs. Not surprisingly, over time this lack of boundaries and constant momentum can lead to exhaustion, resentment and burn out.
Grief: Immense, all-encompassing devastation. A force of nature. Life as you know it will never be the same again. Not technically a trauma response but an emotional and physical response that takes over the body. It’s too vast to acknowledge at times, although not recognizing and expressing grief leads to a build up and a blockage in our bodies and souls.
These all have profound, prolonged impacts on your life if not acknowledged and treated. And while it is terrible for your health and wellbeing, and that of your family and other relationships, it also keeps you from DOING. You are not as effective an agent for change when you are mentally, physically and emotionally unwell. (A diabolical and intentional act from the people in power desperate to stay in charge of our white supremacist, capitalistic society? That’s a conversation for another day. But yes, yes it is.)
The Man is trying to keep us down, and keep us unwell. Therefore mental and physical health care is an act of resistance and rebellion, and resistance and rebellion can lead to better health care for all. Great! So, how do I do it?
Breathe. I know that is an infuriatingly simple response that feels completely ineffectual when battling the goliaths in front of us. Truth. However, breathing is not for them, it is for us. It releases tension, it grounds us, it slows our heart rate down, it gets rid of that pesky cortisol lingering around. It helps get your pre-frontal cortex back online so you can think more clearly. Do it now, take three deep, slow breaths. What do you notice?
Feel. The only way out is through, so feel your feelings. And label your feelings correctly. Get out the handy dandy feeling chart (everyone has one of these, right? Not just therapist households?!) and find what word matches your emotion. There is power and validation in naming emotions correctly. Are you pissed off, or you are enraged? Sad, or devastated? Checked out, or hopeless? There is no judgement around emotions, we can’t control how we feel, but once we know how we feel we can do something about it. Need an emotion dictionary? Explore Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of the Human Experience by Brene Brown.
Connect. Find solidarity by sharing your feelings with loved ones, allow your feelings to be honored and held. Be conscientious of who you are sharing with and their capacity to be with you in this moment. If your way of connecting is online just be extra cautious on where you are sharing your vulnerability. Ask yourself, is this meeting my need for emotional intimacy? If not, then put the phone down and keep looking for your support system.
Rest. There is always an immediate need to act. That sense of urgency you feel to respond in crisis situations is very real. Sometimes you may be able to act right away, and sometimes you may need to rest. I once had someone say to me that she couldn’t figure out why she felt exhausted and powerless all the time, until she realized that the current administration (this was the last administration) felt to her very much like her past domestic violence relationship. Old traumas and new traumas are exhausting, and its hard to help others when we are running low on basic needs. So, rest. Eat. Shower. Check out the Nap Ministry for insight on the power of Rest as a form of Resistance.
Move. Move that body. Get that cortisol outta there! Run, dance, lift weights, do yoga, whatever is your physical thing, do it. If you are like me and struggle to have a physical thing, tense all of your muscles in your entire body right now for five seconds. Five, four, three, two, one. Now relax and take a deep breath. How do you feel? (Check out the book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily and Amelia Nagoski, easy to read and great medical advice on how to emotionally and physically move stress out of the body).
Learn. Ok, you have taken a breath, felt your feelings, shared your feelings, and taken care of yourself. You are ready to go! But where to start? We live in a time when we are drowning in information. It can feel really overwhelming, but also empowering! You can fact check and find actual helpful information from helpful and reputable sites. Go to the source. Whatever pulls at your heartstrings read from people with a personal impacted by that issue. Explore graduates from schools that have a degree in sociology, race, history etc. Look up grassroots organizations in your area. Our capacity to learn and grow is massive. We can get new information, (it may be uncomfortable but we can do it) and then evolve. When we know better, we do better.
Caveat. Many of us follow celebrities, activists and role models online. We come to depend on their words and actions to carry us. Nothing wrong with this, just don’t forget that they are human too. They have their own traumas and grief, and need rest and compassion. They are allowed to be silent. They are allowed to think before responding. They are providing their strength and knowledge to you but don’t owe you anything. You are also capable of doing some heavy lifting from time to time. So don’t jump all over people when they need to take care of their health, that’s their priority. Don’t say anything, or better yet tell them thank you and that you care.
Act. Do something. Anything. Vote. Protest. Vote. Donate. Vote. Attend a local government meeting, those are eye opening. Raise awareness. Creation is also a form of resistance. Write, draw, paint, whatever your skill set and passion is use it to put something new into this world that has something real to say. Did I mention vote? (Struggling to get going, or to figure out your next step? Check out the book The Lightmaker’s Manifesto: How to Work for Change without Losing your Joy by Karen Walrond for ideas).
Serve. May or may not be the same as Act. In our quest to do something I sometimes think that we forget what we are trying to do is help. That helping one person makes a difference. So random acts of kindness and small ways of providing aid go a long way. Volunteer. Help refugees get to appointments, drive someone to a clinic, hand out food at a food bank, donate your old baby items to a local nonprofit instead of trying to sell them for a few bucks. What would the world be like if everyone could let go of their fear around “what are people going to take from me?” and instead were able to ask, “what do I have to give?”
We, not Me. We are connected to everyone and everything around us, despite the loud messages out there trying to keep us separate. Instead of Me, we have got to think We. If you have not experienced discrimination in life it is easy to be complacent and think “that doesn’t impact me” or “that doesn’t involve me”. Yes, it fucking does. Just because someone had an experience you can’t personally relate to, doesn’t mean it is invalid. Don’t ignore it, but actually think about it. What if when you got pulled over for a speeding ticket you were afraid for your life? What if your child was brave enough to tell you more about their gender and who they will love in life, and the religious organizations, government and schools shunned them? What if your sister was pregnant and for a million reasons that are none of our business couldn’t go through with the pregnancy but couldn’t get access to an abortion? What if you went to a polling station to vote and found out there were restrictions in place preventing you from doing so? Check out the podcast We Can Do Hard Things: episode on Abortion date 6/27/22 for a look at the intersection of all social justice issues and the detriment of thinking these societal issues are separate from each other.
As a therapist I do focus on self-care, although I'm starting to rethink it. It’s a good thought, but doesn’t fully accomplish what it is trying to accomplish. Perhaps it is an over-correction from the epidemic of caretakers in this world (mostly women) who are juggling impossible
weight and are overwhelmed, burnt out and literally dying from stress. So, we swung from being selfless to focusing entirely on the self. Call me crazy but I don’t think we can find satisfaction in self-care when the world is burning down around us.
Maybe a better way to think of it is Equity Care. Some of my time and energy for you, some of it for me. It will never be perfectly balanced (though I keep hoping!) So, stop and ponder, or better yet, write down, what does Equity Care mean to you and your life?
Conclusion: Don’t judge yourself for how you have been feeling in response to the appalling amount of loss, harm and indignity that is being constructed around us. Your body is responding appropriately to societal oppression as well as dealing with it's own personal trauma history. Be kind to yourself and others. And then act.
I personally went through most of the trauma responses regarding Roe v Wade being overturned. I went for a walk that evening (one of the few times when I followed my own advice!) and I looked up and there, struggling and pushing through very gray and angry looking clouds were beams of sunshine. I’m not a “sunbeam” person, but I felt peace and resolution seeing that. We aren’t in the sun yet, we have a lot of big, scary, angry grayness to get through. And we can do it. I know we can. But it means most of us will all need to do some things. The time for complacency is over. Where will you start?
If you are struggling with ongoing impacts of trauma, then I encourage you to reach out to me or another therapist to receive mental health therapy. If you would like to schedule a consultation with me please submit that request in the Contact section of my website and I will be in touch.