The U. S. has a
violence trauma problem.
Our nervous systems evolved to help us survive threats to our bodily safety and integrity. Most people are familiar with the concept of fight-or-flight responses, where adrenaline is pumping and we become ready to move—in whatever direction will most minimize the threat—with all our energy. Sometimes fleeing makes sense. Sometimes fighting is the only path.
The shutdown response, where a person becomes numb and detached, is another way we respond to threat. Shutdown is how children tend to process threats, which often come from adults who are far stronger and scarier than the child’s capacity to either fight or flee from.
The ideal state for our nervous systems is a social connection state, where we feel calm and open and have the capacity to be curious, to listen, and to learn. Different people need different things to return to social connection after their body deploys a threat response. Music, movement, art, piney scents – but also workouts, punching bags, or even enacting or threatening violence – are all ways we humans may attempt to metabolize our bodily reactions when we have faced real or imagined danger.
In the days since ten Black people were murdered in a grocery store a few miles from my house in Buffalo, NY, I have grieved. I have mostly remained open and connected, except for one morning when I cried and screamed in my empty kitchen. That first Monday, after my kindergartener went to school, I spent a fretful, wandering hour wondering where to put my energy. I cut up cardboard boxes with a kitchen knife and painted a few protest signs. I planned a small community arts event on my street. Nothing heroic, just a way to bring a few people together to grieve and recognize the lives that were lost in our beloved and deeply flawed City of Good Neighbors.
Since 19 children and 2 elementary teachers were murdered in Uvalde, TX, my nervous system has been in an almost constant state of either shutdown or fight-or-flight. I go between feeling helpless—which leads to shutdown—or angry or scared, which is fight-or-flight energy. Reading the news keeps me in one of those two defensive states, and I see our leaders experiencing the same thing: President Biden spoke in Buffalo on Tuesday May 17 and I could hear his grief but also his resignation – a sign of shutdown. He knows Congress will not act. The time to act was years ago, after Sandy Hook. After Columbine. He sounded the same on Tuesday May 24.
It has helped me to recognize that like many Americans, members of our two political parties are also in states of shutdown or fight-or-flight. The problem is, half of Congress would feel better with more gun safety, and the other half would feel better with more guns. Both groups are responding to their nervous system’s directives. We evolved with these systems.
Our responses can’t be “wrong” in the logical sense, because they are primal and are deployed without input from the thinking brain. We don’t choose our nervous system responses the way we choose a belief or opinion. But they are intimately related because the thinking brain is expert at coming up with explanations for our nervous systems’ directives. We can find, invent, or edit facts and beliefs so that they are consistent with our nervous system responses. In this way, our nervous system-approved facts help us maintain at least a feeling of order in this complex and scary world—if not actual order.
I want to change this gun control/gun safety conversation. Can we begin to recognize what is driving our reactions, our interpretations and our policy proposals – and also see what is driving those who are reacting in the opposite direction? Can we begin to see each other, not as enemy combatants, but as human beings having bodily responses to threats of real or imagined harm?
Healing Racialized Trauma Begins With Your Body, Resmaa Menakem
How to Communicate Effectively with Legislators, Animal Welfare Institute
Politicians and the people are suffering from two forms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. We need to find ways to heal, Rick Knobe, The South Dakota Standard