States of Unrest

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?

Additional resources:

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

Talking with children about the Jan. 6 violence at the Capitol

How can families help their children and young people understand the attempted government takeover by White nationalists at the U. S. Capitol on January 6?

Parents can share with children that when people feel really strongly and they don’t have other problem-solving skills like communication or strong relationship skills, they think that the only solution to a societal problem is through violence. When these people are from our own country, we call them “domestic terrorists.” Domestic means they are from our own country, and terrorist means they are using violence and terror to try to get their way.

  • Parents can ask children “Have you ever been really mad when you wanted to get your way but couldn’t? What helps you calm down? What do you think the people at the Capitol should do to calm down instead of using violence?”

Parents should tell their children that in the United States, most of our government workers and leaders care about peace and telling the truth. President Trump and the domestic terrorists using lies and violence to get their way are the exception. But they cause a lot of fear and confusion, and this makes it seem like more people agree with them than actually do.

  • Parents can ask children, “Have you ever noticed how one loud or violent person can make the whole room seem scary? But when you look around, most of the people in the room are remaining calm and peaceful?”
  • Parents can also tell children that a true leader leads by example and the way to know who a true leader is to see who is using their power to help others understand each other and stay safe during a crisis. Even though some people in leadership positions, like President Trump, may say that not having your way is a sign of weakness, real leaders listen and recognize that they can’t always have their way.

President Trump and the white nationalists at the Capitol are mad that they lost the election. It is difficult for them to imagine that so many other citizens in the United States voted for President-Elect Biden. It is so difficult for them to imagine this reality that they think it is not even possible. They are making up stories, which are lies, to explain away something that makes them very uncomfortable: that the majority of Americans voted for President-Elect Biden, not Trump; and that Biden won the Electoral College fair and square – in fact, by as many votes as Trump won in 2016.

  • Parents can ask children “Have you wanted something to be true so badly that you couldn’t understand how reality could be any other way? What helped you calm down so you could accept how things really are?”

President Trump hasn’t admitted his loss, and this has made it very hard for the people who like and care about him to accept that he lost. Children also need to know that human beings tend to use violence and things like this have happened in our country before, though more than 100 years ago, and happen today across the world. They need to know that the United States was founded on the idea that humans can be better than this. The peaceful transition of power is key to this idea of being better. No one likes to lose least of all the leader of a country. But in our country, a losing President is supposed to admit their defeat, and this helps the people on his side accept it.

  • Parents can ask children “Have you ever seen anyone you care about lose something important to them? How did they act? Did they accept it or deny that they had lost? How did you feel when this happened?”
  • Parents can confirm that it’s good that President Trump has finally asked for a peaceful transition of power, but he is not the right person to trust or listen to, because he changes his mind so much and because he has shown he approves of or likes the domestic terrorists who are using violence. He is unpredictable and unpredictable people are scary to be around. He also tells a lot of lies. When you say one helpful or true thing and 9 scary or untrue things, it doesn’t really matter if you said one helpful thing.

It is important right now that we listen to people across our communities and government who are remaining calm and have called for peace and a peaceful transition since the November election. And it is important to look within our communities and see that the vast majority of people in the United States want a peaceful transition and are ready for President-Elect Biden to become President on January 20. Even when people, including senators and members of Congress, didn’t vote for Biden, most of them want a peaceful transition.

Finally, parents should emphasize to children that they are safe and this includes protecting them from too much information. While talking openly and encouraging questions and conversation appropriate for the child’s age, parents should limit children’s exposure to media about the violence at the Capitol. Limit or avoid watching videos or letting children overhear adult conversations about these unsettling events. When parents are able to stay calm and keep to the regular family routine, this reassures children that they are safe and helps us all navigate an uncertain period.

I recognize that many different people can be parents: grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings, other relatives, and family friends. I use “parents” in this article to include all these people and others who are helping nurture children during these uncertain times.  

Additional resources:

NEA article about talking to young people about the violence at Capitol

NEA about white nationalism in schools

Get the Confronting White Nationalism in Schools Toolkit

Facing History & Ourselves

Being Kind to Myself: The Email Diet

The middle of the fall semester is a good time to review the idea of healthy email–and social media–habits. This is a repost of an Oct, 2012 post. 

Our culture challenges us with “too much of a good thing” habits: flying on airplanes, watching television, checking email. As much as I appreciate my information economy job, it’s making me tired, and there are no structures in place where I work to help my email behavior improve.

Source: Being Kind to Myself: The Email Diet

What if Ashley Powell’s controversial race-based art project had been research?

Within a few weeks of starting my new position at the University at Buffalo, a graduate art student posted “White only” and “Black only” signs on the campus.  Though the student, Ashley Powell, claimed she was exercising free speech and artistic expression, many students were alarmed and called the university police.  The university’s response, which has emphasized the importance of intellectual freedom, has been criticized and the subject of a peaceful protest during President Satish Tripathi’s annual State of the University address on Oct 9.

Here you can find my letter to the editor of the UB Spectrum (UB’s student newspaper), dated last week, asking, “What if Ashley Powell’s controversial art project had been research?” I explore the concepts of external review, informed consent, and debriefing.  These concepts validate the outraged responses of students who feel they were experimented on without their permission.

Automaticity in Everyday Life

Automaticity is when you have become so good at something, you can do it without thinking. Until we achieve automaticity, things seem very difficult (i.e., we have to think hard while doing). After we achieve automaticity in something, we forget a time when it wasn’t easy. For example, do you remember learning each of the tasks below? Try to imagine what learning the below tasks would be like for a young person:

infancy: learning to crawl, walk, use a spoon
early childhood: put away your toys, get dressed, use a pencil, crayon, or marker
middle childhood: write with good penmanship, pack your backpack, zip a zipper
adolescence: drive a car, make a meal, take notes

photo by A M Carley

Adults have gotten good at many things. Automaticity makes us able to do more tasks and more tasks that are complex. Still, there are times when we have to learn new things, and when it’s not an advantage to be able to do something without thinking. The 21st century demands a lot of new learning from all of us–especially adults. I’ve gotten too good at ordering take-out and throwing away the styrofoam at the end of the meal. I’ve gotten too good at going to the grocery store without my cloth bags, because years of stores that provide me with bags have trained me that way.

Automaticity intersects with everything–how we navigate the world, how we educate our young people. It’s about how we treat each other, and how we use the social and environmental resources around us. Having just completed a big move, I’m re-evaluating my habits–the things I do automatically, without thinking. Which habits should I keep in my everyday life? Which ones should I discontinue (a psychologist would say, extinguish)?

Learning new things requires attention, a limited resource. Which is part of why I often urge friends to make sure to take rests and vacation. The benefits of free time are clear. Now, if we could just make resting something we do more automatically in this culture…