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3 Self-Care Tips for Trauma Survivors Struggling During Election Season

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America is in the throes of a contentious election season during a pandemic, and the extra mental and emotional load has caused many people to feel exhausted, anxious and overwhelmed. Trauma survivors, under ordinary circumstances, require excellent self-care strategies to cope with the day-to-day stressors. Throw in the chaos of current events, and it’s particularly challenging to find equilibrium.

• What is PTSD?

Many trauma survivors “run hot,” meaning our brains and bodies work extra hard to keep up with the barrage of stimuli. Those of us living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have a hyperactive amygdala, which keeps us in a heightened state of fear, stress and hyper-vigilance. Due to the chronic nature of this, our pre-frontal cortex, which is supposed to regulate emotions, shuts down. The hippocampus, which can be smaller in trauma survivors, struggles to differentiate trauma from the past with trauma from the present. It doesn’t matter if the belligerence and shouting is coming from the TV right now or from the memory of that time you broke the cookie jar when you were three. A trauma brain perceives it as the same thing. All that extra adrenaline we pump through our bodies makes us more susceptible to inflammation, which can flare up to cause a number of symptoms, including migraines, chronic fatigue, rashes and digestive issues, to name a few. Basically, in times of stress, trauma brains are like iPhones dropped in water. It often takes several days to dry out and reboot.

It’s a lot of pressure, especially for a trauma survivor. Feeling seen, heard, cared for and valued are our core wounds, and it’s especially important to find more ways to experience relational healing at times when it seems like everyone is upset. Here are some ways to take care of yourself, even in an election, during a pandemic, with natural disasters raging around us.

Honor Your Feelings

Without judgment, identify and observe how you feel. Is it anger? Sadness? Hopelessness? Frustration? A combination of feelings? In a safe space, allow yourself to name the feeling and sit with it. Take some deep breaths and lean into the feeling. Many trauma survivors need practice in naming their feelings, especially if this wasn’t modeled for them as children.

Conversely, many trauma survivors feel apprehensive about getting carried away with their feelings, so they resist acknowledging that they’re there at all. According to neuroscientist Jill Bolte-Taylor, the physiological lifespan of an emotion in the brain and body is only 90 seconds. Allow yourself to give your full attention to what you are feeling, and you will likely experience a shift. It’s important to acknowledge your own feelings as valid, especially the “negative” ones, like anger and fear. If you’ve been gaslit or psychologically abused in the past, it’s especially important to identify and validate your own feelings over an abuser’s projections. The only person who gets to tell you how you feel is you, and feelings are never shameful or wrong.

Understand Your Coping Style

Without judgment, observe how you are responding to the stress of this moment. Now that you know how you feel, what are you doing (or want to do) to soothe yourself? If you feel anxious, do you want to escape through food, alcohol, drugs or binge-watching Netflix? If you feel angry, do you want to scream or punch something? If you feel scared, do you want to retreat under the covers until it’s all over? We all need healthy ways to cope, and identifying our feelings is the first step. Once we’ve sat with our feelings and acknowledged them as valid, we are empowered to make healthier choices in the common ways we cope. If your coping style choices are extreme, the goal is to bring them a step closer towards health and balance. For example, say your coping style is avoidance, so you avoid political news altogether. Say you take it to an extreme point, where you find yourself uninformed on the issues or only listening to opinions which confirm your particular bias. Coping styles, when taken to an extreme, often do us more harm than good. If avoidance is your thing, allow yourself to self-soothe through tuning out for a while, but set a time limit. Facing a problem head-on after a period of self-soothing is usually the healthy remedy for someone who tends to avoid. If you tend to avoid the challenge of different political views, a healthy change in coping style might mean a commitment to reading news which only comes from neutral sources. A good tool for this is the media bias chart.

Set Appropriate Boundaries

Because we all cope in different ways, what we need to feel safe, healthy and emotionally regulated might look different from someone else. Setting boundaries with other people in order to prioritize our own health is essential. What’s also essential is to surround yourself with people who respect your boundaries. Once you’ve identified your feelings and coping style, decide how you wish to interact with the known stressors in your life. Healthy boundaries during election season might look like:

  •  Deciding to not watch the debates (especially if you stay well-informed.)
  • Setting limits on social media.
  • Taking a walk, eating a healthy snack or a shower after feeling “slimed” from reading disturbing headlines.
  • Setting limits on exposing yourself to “guilty pleasure” biased opinions that you happen to agree with.
  • Setting limits with people in your personal life if they tend to upset you.
  • Acknowledging what you can control and what you can’t.
  • Voting according to your own informed decisions, not based on the influence of anyone else in your life.

Lastly, if you feel like you are going through life in survival mode right now, you are not alone. The current events are a heavy load to bear. Be extra kind to yourself and allow yourself the time and space to give your brain and body what it needs.

Photo by pawel szvmanski on Unsplash

Originally published: October 9, 2020
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