I can’t claim to be especially savvy in the arena of politics, but as a therapist I’ve taken it upon myself to help those who feel – or are genuinely, disenfranchised in one way or another. And it’s been rather impossible not to notice the strong reactions people have had in response to the recent presidential election. Last week I co-led a group where members were able to maintain focus on personal feelings about the election without venturing too far into political agendas. The wise women in this group did an incredible job of allowing themselves to be brave and vulnerable amongst their peers and the group was able to take a step in the direction of connection with one another while opening up to differences of opinion. This, even in light of the “double standards” that members of the group revealed. The theme that seemed to arise over and over again was that of fear – politically related and otherwise. Women spoke about actively experiencing fight or flight mode and how this can seem paralyzing and leave one feeling helpless. A friend reflected this sentiment again this morning as we pondered on the playground after sending our daughters off to school. “I won’t be effective until I take time to heal” she said in response to the fear that has been arising for her, with the knowledge that she will soon move to a part of the country where she will no longer be surrounded by like-minded people. Time to heal…I couldn’t agree more. Mindful meditation is so great in this way, it’s one of the things that I love about the practice. If we don’t take time to nurture our wounds, we’ll all be running around at half-capacity with the possibility of doing more harm than good. And like grief, the healing process will look different for everyone. There is no right or wrong way to do it and judgment from self or others isn’t going to help speed things along. Maybe this sense of helplessness is there for a reason.
Like most emotions, when we simply push fear away it has a tendency to chase us down. Perhaps counter-intuitively this is the time – and opportunity – to become familiar with the experience of fear in the present moment. What are the nuances of your thoughts and feelings? What does the sensation of hurt, or injustice feel like in your body? Are there areas in your body that feel neutral or even good? What does it feel like to rest your focus there? I suspect that with time, when you’ve come to know these feelings, and yourself more intimately, then things will start to shift. Perhaps this is when anger starts to arise and mindfulness can come in quite usefully here as well. Anger, often a secondary emotion in response to feeling hurt, can be a wonderful motivator but I think what’s so important now is to have a goal in mind. Who essentially do you want to be in the long run? When we react impulsively, it seems likely that this is when relationships are most often destroyed. But still, having a voice and taking action are highly important. Powerlessness, I believe, is one of the things that keeps the traumatic experiences alive. As trauma specialist Bessel van der Kolk explains, “The brain is an action organ…and as it matures, it’s increasingly characterized by the formation of patterns and schemas geared to promoting action.” When the ability to take action is suppressed or taken away, all sorts of calamity may ensue – like riots, violence, or drug use.
I’m not trying to say that the transformation from fear to action is a linear process – likely not at all. Sometimes I hear people describe the fight, flight or freeze experience as though it comes in waves. With each wave you might need to allow yourself a day to heal, or even a few weeks or much, much longer. But when you are finally ready to take action, there’s no shortage of productive things to do.
If, like me, you feel compelled to offer your support to the disenfranchised, see below for some links that can get you started. And if that’s not your thing, remember that whatever side you land on, it’s always important to use your voice – there are some links below for you as well. It seems so clear now that we are where we are with this election because too many voices went unheard for too long. And if you’re like the women in my group, and willing to allow yourself to be brave and vulnerable, please share personal experiences with one another, including those outside of your comfort zone – I believe we still have a chance to mend the great divide. Just don’t forget to listen, too.
Southern Poverty Law Center – fighting hate, teaching tolerance and seeking justice.
Greenpeace – independent, global, groundbreaking change to protect the planet.
Amnesty International – defending human rights for all.
MoveOn.org – democracy in action.
Change.org – a platform for change – start a petition!
How a Short Conversation Can Sway Someone’s Opinion – this is a great article about how the LGBT community learned to create significant, lasting change by starting at a grassroots level.
Subway Therapy – there’s room for everyone to have a voice. Plus it looks kind of pretty.
Guerrilla Art – these women activists have no limit in the creative ways they use to get their points across.
Mindfulness is great but I’m also a fan of scream therapy too which can feel pretty cathartic at times. (Side note: Scream therapy is not for everyone. If it seems like something you would just overwhelmed by, it’s probably best not to try it.)
Copyright 2016 © Rachel Braun, All rights reserved.
Rachel Braun, ATR-BC Art Therapist Philadelphia, PA
Specializing in art therapy groups for women who experience depression, anxiety and eating disorders.