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
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.
One of the personal resources that’s easy to take for granted is attention. That is, what you’re looking at or thinking about at a given moment. And in today’s information age, attention is a valuable resource. Marketers are constantly trying to grab your notice through commercials, billboards, pop-up ads, and product placement. The research on attention is actually pretty cool. Some of my favorite findings are:
- Babies use their attention (where they are looking or if they are looking) to help regulate (control) themselves. Ever see a baby fall asleep in a really noisy place? They are overwhelmed with stimulation and sleep is a way to control that. So is looking away from that loud stranger who has gotten too close.
- The key problem in ADHD is that children can’t keep their attention from being distracted. This is known as “inhibition.” Whereas children without ADHD are able to ignore distractions, like someone coming into their classroom or a noise going on in the other room, a child with ADHD can’t help but react. Even if that means they get in trouble!
- When we learn something new like driving, reading, or tying shoes, our attention is fully focused. We can’t do anything else. Likewise, when we do something challenging, like driving in traffic, reading in fuzzy font, or figuring out our new Smartphone, our attention is fully focused–and again, we can’t do anything else.
- Learning something new is often frustrating. When learning a new task, people’s thoughts and attention tend to be negative. E.g., “I don’t like this,” “This is hard,” “I’m never going to get this,” and other downers like that. But the cool part is, the better you get at the task, the less likely you are to have those negative thoughts. The key is to make it past that first, tough part.
- Just like babies, children and adults can refocus their attention to regulate or improve their mood. If their friend takes away a toy, a 5-year-old who immediately finds a new toy to happily play with is going to have less trouble in kindergarten than a 5-year-old who strikes out and becomes angry. Likewise, an adult who can “focus on the positive” (ick-phrase, but true) after a setback has better mental health.
Last night, at Torn Space Theater’s surreal production of They Kill Things, I used my attention to regulate my fear. There were lots of creepy situations, and in an everyday environment, I would have freaked out if a bulky masked man walked up to me and looked closely at my hands. Or if a group of masked maidens dressed in white rags wrapped a May pole while chanting.
But I was in Silo City, a converted industrial site. The environment was so amazing and so different from anything I’d ever experienced, that I could move on from feeling scared immediately, simply by refocusing my attention on something else.
Obviously there are times when it won’t work to refocus attention. There are plenty of situations that demand your full attention, for safety, or learning an important lesson, for example. But awareness of attention as a resource has definitely helped me in certain situations. Even outdoor interactive theater productions.
How to talk about the things that are most difficult? Choose one or more answers that apply.
A. Don’t. Keep it inside, and when a thought that pains or confuses you comes across your mind, wave it away like a fly.
B. Talk about it haphazardly. Talk about it when you don’t mean to, with people you don’t know or trust, and say things that you didn’t realize you thought, accidentally and without intention. Take the consequences and regret.
C. Talk about it awkwardly. Start to talk about it, then change your mind and see how the conversation partner responds. If they want to talk about the weather, sports, or a TV show, take it as a signal that they’re not ready, either. Talk about the weather, sports, or a TV show so neither of you has to act awkward in public. Or keep pushing until they hang up or become angry or stonewall. Feel sad that they won’t engage.
D. Talk about it thoughtfully. Mull your feelings over for a while first, write about it privately, decide how to open the topic and with whom you feel safe discussing it. Resolve not to become offended or hurt but to instead take new information in, like you’d feel a fabric before deciding to try it on. Feel grateful when the person(s) responds with thoughtfulness back, validating your feelings and telling you what they think. Feel more connected, trusting, and less alone.
There are so many topics that we would all like to pretend don’t hurt us. Catastrophic climate change, sexist family members, racism and police brutality, end of life decisions, second weddings, our personal writing. What are the consequences for not talking? Are they worse than trying B-D and going from there?
Even before I got divorced, I had trouble with holidays. Gifts – travel – lots of family visits in too little time – it could all be too much of a good thing. Or too much of a mixed bag (of mixed nuts…). And what’s more, those good things came tinged with a feeling of guilt, for feeling that way despite my blessings, or for being tired despite having plenty of time off.
Then my world turned inside out and I was single again, the “kid” again at the holidays. Instead of a carefree kid waiting for Santa, I was the woman without a husband. Without children. Just myself. So I had to figure out how to “do” the holidays. That first year, I had to reinvent the simplest things, like how to find gifts when I was too sad to like anything in the stores. Or how to enjoy Thanksgiving when I was too distracted to really taste anything.
I finally decided to just be myself. Even though “myself” didn’t feel like much. So instead of traveling by airplane on the busiest day of the year, I drove four hours over a beautiful mountain to see family in Charleston, WV, on Thanksgiving. That weekend, I rested and walked when I needed to. For the first time at the holidays, I tried to just be present, and good to myself – whoever that was. It turned out to be OK. All the worrying I normally did, the fretting over details and whether others were enjoying themselves – turned out to be unnecessary. Being present and good to myself somehow translated into feeling more present and more good to the others around me.
This Thanksgiving, I’m going back to Charleston, WV. My circumstances have sweetened considerably and I have energy to share. But rather than worrying and fretting and planning, I’m going to try to live more in the moment. Oh, and be myself. It sure is easier than trying to be anyone else.