I don't even know what to say.
In lieu of this week's Monday Matter, a message on trauma response
We’re just over a week into 2021 and boy has it been tumultuous. Like many of you, I’m struggling to function like I normally do. I was debating whether or not to send the weekly roundup out and as I sat down to devour all of the beautiful stories I’d saved for my weekend Foreign Bodies reading marathon, I found myself just kind of staring onto a blank page for hours. On Sunday morning, when I normally finish up the roundup’s final edits and ship the draft off to my trusty and lovely copyeditor Farah, I spent several hours just sitting in the dark with my eyes glazed over. I know this is a common experience. I know we’re meant to soak in the gravity of this moment in history.
When I woke up last Wednesday to news of my state flipping the Senate—and therefore changing the trajectory of the United States’ policies, at least for the next few years—I felt a sense of relief. Then white supremacists attempted a coup, incited by a sitting president who has repeatedly espoused fascist ideologies. My younger brother texted me and told me he couldn’t move, that he was just paralyzed watching it all unfold on network news. Many of us, namely the Black community, saw this coming. Warnings were made and regularly ignored, brushed off as hyperbole.
I felt this ball of electricity, like a Tesla coil, worming around inside me, making me physically sick to my stomach. I, too, felt paralyzed. I tried to find assignments, commissions, anything I could take on to fill up my time and stupefy the uneasiness.
Wanting to stay busy, to even approach burnout levels of busy, is actually a common coping mechanism for trauma. In her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown writes about how numbing behaviors—including the need to stay frantically busy—function as armor against vulnerability.
“We are a culture of people who’ve bought into the idea that if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us,” she writes.
For one of my assigned stories, pitched to me by a former editor, I looked at how our heightened anxiety right now, a culmination of a pandemic resurgence and the general state of our nation, is absolutely warranted. Psychiatrists repeatedly told me that now is the time for us to take care of ourselves however we can, because if we don’t, this ball of anxiety floating around our insides has the potential to become even more dangerous to our health in the long term.
Our bodies process mental and physical threats in similar ways, with sensors and feedback loops, Dr. David Hanscom, an orthopedic surgeon who focuses on the relationship between anxiety and chronic pain, told me. You may not feel mental pain or be able to recognize anxiety or stress off the bat, “but it will manifest in over 30 different symptoms.” For Hanscom himself, these symptoms have involved migraine headaches, neck and back pain, burning feet, depression and skin rashes.
For me, symptoms have involved dehydration, nerve pain, and a stress habit that I’ve noticed only emerges during trauma: the involuntary biting of my lips and inner cheeks.
Without addressing our pains, such prolonged exposure to sustained mental, personal and societal threats can cause prolonged exposure to inflammation, which physically destroys tissues and is at the core of chronic disease and increases risk of early mortality, Hanscom said. Societal threats such as racism and poverty can also explain why communities of color have historically borne the burden of high rates of chronic diseases like diabetes, obesity, heart disease and cancer.
I know self-care can feel like a capitalistic scam, a Band-Aid for the root systemic issues at play. But we do need to stick around to help make things better and to witness more gentle days, don’t we? We’re a big part of that equation. I have to keep reminding myself to stick around.
I’m trying to channel my anxiety in ways that allow me to find a balance between falling too deeply into it and completely suppressing my feelings. Here are some habits or activities that have been *sort of* working for me:
Writing thank-you cards and sending stickers to Southern organizers and voters to remind them (and myself) that some monumental good did come from all this.
Putting emotion into art and sharing how whatever I’ve painted connects to how I’m feeling, something I actually don’t normally do.
Writing this. I know from past experience that expression helps my anxiety, makes it easier for me to really understand what I’m feeling and ultimately helps me create a plan to move forward (i.e. I know to be extra mindful now of how busy I choose to get when I’m feeling anxious).
The Great British Bake-Off.
Consuming news however I want once or twice a day and leaving the room if someone has network news turned on.
My friends—talking to them, sending memes, crying with them. Just anything related to my friends.
Moving my body, which I need to work on more.
That kind of concludes what I thought would just be a one-paragraph apology about totally skipping over this week’s roundup. Thanks for listening, Foreign Bodies fam. Please, please take care.
Thankful for this.
A necessary and important reminder for those of us who default to activity and busy-ness to compensate for the heaviness of processing such deep emotion. Thank you for this.