Indeed, this is a question that is personal but also one of scientific significance that has to be understood on a trauma level but also one to explore on a human level.
Emotions have various reasons for being activated within someone. Feelings can give us a lot of information, but you must first be able to label and understand what you’re feeling and what the function of the emotion might be underneath. For example, you may be faced with a person on social media who disagrees or becomes verbally aggressive with you. What emotion do you feel? Is it anger? Fear? Generally, the first emotion you feel is something we call “secondary” and is often the one that is felt the strongest. You may feel rage at this person on social media who might be attacking you. While there is a reason to feel this rage, we can often peel it back a bit and notice something else happening that might even be truer. Fear.
I see clients coming in with great deals of rage in the political system, and I often ask them if other feelings are coming into the room with them or other “parts of themselves.” Most can usually identify with the rage and know where they feel that in their bodies. However, as we begin talking, fear is, and sometimes a feeling of helplessness follows.
I think all emotions can be helpful and potentially motivating. I believe there is a place for all feelings. A time for anger and a time for fear. I also think there is a time for two emotions to co-exist at once but knowing which one is driving your bus is paramount in knowing what to do next. If you mostly act out in rage in political discussions, you’ll likely not be heard. I contend one of the most challenging things happening in our communities is the break down of really being “heard.” It is complicated if your raging part comes to the table and cannot access the part that is also afraid but willing to hear.
You do not have to agree with your political opponent to hear them. Civil discourse while allowing the opinions of others to be understood is often challenging when things feel so unjust. However, to engage with another who is not also willing to enter into a civil dialogue and blended with their rage may be triggering to you, especially if you have had a history of trauma. Hearing someone may be creating a bridge but also doesn’t mean you have your voice taken away. You can listen to and also be heard if the other person is also willing to agree to the same standards. I don’t often find this to be the case online but can happen more frequently in person.
There are a few responses in the face of fear for trauma survivors. Fight, flight, freeze, surrender or collapse. Many people don’t know the last two or three. The first two we often hear of often but the last three are also still essential and given your history may explain some of the responses you may be having. Do you find yourself being triggered by the news and feeling angry, disconnected, numb, distracted, raged, impulsive, or looking to substances to escape? Our brains are remarkably helpful to us trying to do their best to protects us and have some socially learned response and some that are just hard-wired into who we are. It doesn’t mean to go down a 12 pack to drown out your fears, but the brain might want to do that as a way to cope and hasn’t learned other ways to deal with painful emotions and triggers.
For many, these political times are a constant trigger. I hear people feeling helpless. I tease out the fear underneath their helplessness or their anger in therapy. Below are things clients have found to be most helpful in the times of social injustice and reducing the apathy, rage, or numbing they go to.
A. Decide how much social media you’re going to consume. Latest research shows the more social media accounts you have, the more of a risk there is for depression. YOU get to choose when you engage online, WHERE, and HOW long. Have you gone down a rabbit hole of comments on a forum? It’s easy to do. Before one even realizes it you are so far away from what you intended on doing that evening and probably unaware of what is happening around you. For some of my clients, limiting social media time and making time for other things they love allows them to connect in a more meaningful way.
B. You do not have to feel guilty if your “pedal” isn’t on social advocacy every day. Guilt is an emotion that is either justified or unjustified and in times of political unrest, it is easy for the feelings of guilt (i.e., I’m not doing enough, I am only calling the senators, I am not marching, etc.) to come into the foreground and there has to be a time of rest to be able to adequately present in however you decide to engage.
C. Realize your anger might be motivating. I see many people feeling angry and wanting to run from it before even seeing the value in it. Anger can be motivating and helpful to us in many ways. We can become change agents of a world. If people hadn’t been angry and horrified at Hitler would he have been held accountable? Probably not.
D. Connect to communities you identify with both politically and elsewhere. The greater sense of community we have around us and the levels of support we have in our lives makes the isolation and fear responses that automatically get triggered less.
E. Decide how you can or if you want to make an impact to change course. The most significant changes can come from the quietest voices. Rosa Parks wasn’t a loud woman and made a brave and bold move to refuse to move to the back of the bus. She was followed and supported by others who recognized injustice and encouraged her to the next level.
F. We are all not going to be or have to be like Rosa Parks. Small and meaningful steps can be helpful and the higher the numbers or calls to your representatives mean the less helpless you feel and doing anything that makes you feel like you have a sense of control in the face of an unjust world can be helpful. However, YOU get to decide how, when, and in what forum you feel comfortable doing this in. Some clients feel compelled to march, some feel an urge to send e-mails, some clients feel the need to join political groups. Some clients desire to increase prayer.
G. Read about non-violent communication and those who have gone before us. I would be surprised if you wouldn’t feel a sense of great relief and hope after reading Coretta Scott King’s autobiography and how her small steps to support others and “faking bravery” in a time of great political unrest. Read things that inspire you.
H. Create art. Any art. Create music. Any music. Walk. Research shows that any movement that activates the calming parts of our brains can help center us. If you desire a sense of empowerment, consider martial arts. If you feel anxious and cannot express yourself in words, learn to paint. While a guilt part might come up for doing such things in a world that seems very unfair and wrong, you are still surviving in it and need to figure out how to fight back with intentionality.
Jill Lehmann-Bauer, LISW, ACSW
Clinical Social Worker, Central Iowa Therapy Solutions, LLC.
Passionate about advocacy, recovery + healing, attachment theory, and relationships.