by Gina Navarrete, Ph.D., Clinical Neuropsychologist.
The Do’s and Don’ts of building resilience after traumatic events and learning to cope through meaningful action.
If someone asked you to tell them where you were and what you were doing when you learned about the Sandy Hook shooting or when JFK was shot or Pearl Harbor was bombed, I’m willing to bet you can tell them. The details we remember when we experience trauma stay with us long after the event occurs.
I remember being home alone with my 13-year-old son when my hope and excitement of witnessing the history of electing our first woman president dissipated. My husband was traveling for business with a group of Trump supporters (his own version of hell). Paralyzed with disbelief as the results were coming in, my phone was blowing up with texts from family and friends. I was texting with one friend who was also at home watching with horror as the votes were being posted on television. I was dumbfounded as I stayed up all night watching television, trying to make sense of it all. The next day, I asked my friend how she made it through; her reply: “It took a bottle of wine and an entire pan of brownies before I could stop crying and finally go to sleep.”
Well, it didn’t take long before political pundits and broadcasters alike began flooding the air waves with their commentaries and visuals of the election. Comparisons between the tragic events of 9/11 and election night on 11/9 soon followed. Except this time, it wasn’t our planes that were being hijacked – it was our democracy. Some call it the second worst day in modern history.
Unfortunately, elections have consequences and we are now all first line witnesses to this tragic time when politicians hide from their constituents because they cannot explain or justify their actions, and new words like “fake news”, “alternative-facts” and “covfefe” have become part of our everyday vocabulary. Worst yet, they have become part of our children’s vocabulary.
I initially wrote “first row” witness but changed it to first line witness because if you are reading this post on our website, you are more than a passive witness, you are more like a soldier on the front lines. And most of us know that this is a battle that will neither be quick nor without many casualties.
Between attacks to our healthcare, education and immigration to more global issues like the environment and isolationist policies, it often feels like we are watching a horror movie, except this movie we cannot turn off and walk away. Instead, we are helplessly watching everything decent in this country disappear. It is easy to understand why we may at times want to throw our hands up in the air and give in to despair. As with most of you, my experience since the campaign has been like a roller coaster with some ups and “yuge” downs. At times, I feel like I am in the front car and can hear the gears making that clicking sound as the roller coaster slowly ascends, not knowing whether there is a track on the way down. Either way, I’m constantly bracing for the worst, as I imagine many of you are as well. It is like waiting for the “other shoe to drop” knowing that this administration has many more shoes to drop in the months to come.
That being said, most of us who connected to this group still have HOPE. So how do we maintain HOPE as we keep marching forward? The answer is: work towards becoming more RESILIENT by following the coping strategies that I will outline below. Now, I know, I know . . . many of you reading this are saying to yourselves; “I don’t need to read further, I already have my own coping strategies.” However, drinking a bottle of wine with dinner every night and becoming reacquainted with the ice cream section at your local grocery store is just not healthy, and besides, you may not have healthcare for too much longer.
So, what is RESILIENCE? In order to answer this, I have to briefly talk about traumatic events and how we physically and mentally react to them. Soon after 9/11, the American Psychological Association formed a task force to address the issue of RESILIENCE due to the increased number of individuals suffering from Acute Stress Disorder, which many mental health professionals feared would result in long term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. Resilience is a person’s ability to adapt well and bounce back from traumatic or stressful events. Resilience is not a personal trait, it is a process that involves how you think, behave and act in the face of adversity; thus, it can be learned and implemented. While there are many steps one can take to increase one’s resiliency, many studies show that the primary factor in resilience is having a close support group (family, friends and colleagues who care). While there is no cookie-cutter approach to building resilience, what works for one person may not work for another; however, there are basic strategies to help you find better ways of coping with today’s political climate and become, overall, more resilient. These are as follows:
- Identify members of your support group and lean on them. Also, encourage them to lean on you. There’s comfort in commiserating and you will also have a purpose bigger than just focusing on what you are going through.
- Find ways of relaxing and recharging your batteries.
- Engage in positive activities, which is one of the best ways to combat stress. Finish that quilt you started months ago; go back to painting or walking the dog on a regular basis; go back to that book club you used to enjoy. Take every opportunity you have to spend time with loved ones doing fun activities.
- Try to maintain good physical health. Eat well, get regular sleep and exercise. For treating depression, exercise has been found to be as effective as medication.
- Keep track of your symptoms. Are you feeling anxious or nervous? Do you feel depressed? If so, talk about it with trusted loved ones or even seek out therapy.
- Get fresh air and enjoy the outdoors whenever possible. Sunlight is a great mood regulator.
- Use healthy distractions. Watching a funny movie or reading a book that inspires you is a great way of escaping from stress.
- Avoid seeing the Crises-de-jour as your own personal crisis. Keep matters and news in perspective and remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint. The last thing you want to do as an advocate/activist is to burn out mid-race.
- Maintain your spirituality (whatever being spiritual means to you), whether it is being connected to an organized religion, gardening, meditation, or walking in the woods, be sure to stay connected to something bigger than yourself. This will not only help you maintain your sanity but will also keep problems in perspective.
- Stay your course. Keeping an eye on your goals and tracking your progress can be an effective way of feeling like you are in control of an otherwise “helpless” situation. If you are focusing on immigration, then volunteer to help refugees. Call your legislators and make sure they know you are holding them accountable for how they vote.
- Keep a healthy and hopeful outlook on life. Remember, things that look bad today may look very different as times passes.
- Seize the opportunity. The Chinese word for “crisis” is composed of two separate Chinese characters; one that means “danger” and one that means “crucial point” or “opportunity”. Decide which way you would like to define “crisis”.
What do I want you to take away from this article? Make sure you stay connected to the movement or group you identify with and work towards common goals. Now is the time to BE…
Be Vigilant – If you haven’t found a movement or group that you identify with, find one.
Be Connected – Become part of a group that will help you feel supported and give you an equally important opportunity to offer support to others. Maintain these relationships and remember that you’ll get out of it what you put into it – don’t be afraid to put yourself out there.
Be Focused – Find a purpose and work together toward common goals. It’s great to have a support system, but remember your primary focus
And remember . . . find ways to laugh. Because if we don’t laugh at this time, we would have to cry!! And some of what is going on today is funny . . . if it wasn’t so tragic.