Self Care in Challenging Times: When your personal trauma intersects with public trauma

There are times when we really want to avoid the news. Sometimes we forget for a moment and then click a link and instantly regret it. Bill Cosby. Jian Ghomeshi. Alabama. For survivors of sexual assault these are hard times to navigate.

The headlines remind us that there is a war on women’s bodies and that our personal trauma is part of our larger cultural trauma. I feel so conflicted at these times, between survivor me and advocate me. Survivor self is triggered into a state of feeling helpless again to change these things, to take control of both my personal body and the collective female body. Advocate self wants to hop on a soapbox and rail against the injustices of the world. But there is a toll that is paid by women who speak out publicly about anything in this society. Speaking out publicly as a feminist can lead to death threats, personal attacks, and harassment. So how do we balance taking care of our mental health and standing up for our rights? How do we balance staying informed and maintaining our mental health?

I have a list of five things we can do to take care of ourselves during these challenging times.

1. First I have to take what I know about how trauma impacts the brain and remind myself that at times like this we are triggered into our fight/flight/freeze/fawn responses. When this happens the amygdala is in control and it is taking the thinking brain, the prefrontal cortex, off-line. And when that happens it’s time to remind myself to use my flashback management strategies.

2. It’s time for some radical self-care. That means lining up activities that remind me of all the good things in my life. It means connecting with friends, watching funny movies, making art, going for walks, drinking enough water, calling my therapist.

Sometimes art can help us process what we have no words for.

Sometimes art can help us process what we have no words for.

3. Watch out for inner critic attacks. When we are triggered into our past trauma our inner critic tends to get very loud. This is because we are triggered back into feeling like that helpless victim we once were. Paying attention to the inner critic voice and talking back to it is one way that we can take control again at a time when we might be feeling out of control.

4. Think small. Maybe we can’t do anything to change what is happening on a larger scale but maybe we can donate five dollars to Planned Parenthood or Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada. Maybe you buy a copy of the new anthology Whatever Gets You Through: Twelve Survivors On Life After Sexual Assault. Or another new book: My Body My Choice: The Fight for Abortion Rights. Make choices about when you will and will not speak up about this. We do not have to fight every single battle, we do not have to engage with every ignorant comment made online.

5. Seek out the good. When we are faced with a never-ending bad news cycle, it can really twist our perception of humanity. Make a list of all the people you know who are doing work that makes the world a better place. Include yourself on that list. Write a thank you note to someone whose work you admire.

I want you to know this above all: working on your own healing is a valid and necessary form of resistance against a culture that tells us that we do not matter. So if all you do is pick one item of self care off this list, that is still an important and valuable contribution to social change. Sometimes the hardest work we do is rooting out the voice of the internalized oppressor who tells us that we are worthless. As Audre Lorde said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Interested in learning more about trauma recovery?

Enroll in my upcoming online workshop: Parenting After Trauma.