Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
We are in a historic moment of trauma in the United States.
Breonna Taylor, Riah Milton, Tony McDade, and George Floyd are only a few of the names from these past months of police killings. COVID-19 deaths in the United States have passed 200,000 at the time of publication, disproportionately taking the lives of Black, LatinX and Indigenous peoples. Our immigration system is abusing people through leaving children, mothers, and cousins separated and in cages at the border, and turning away others in need of safe harbor from wars we’ve sponsored. Poor and working class peoples are being traumatically affected by the economic devastation of this time, while the wealthy are getting wealthier. And the entire West is on fire.
How do we face these things fully, let in the devastation, and then both heal and act? Can we navigate through this toward healing? Toward racial, economic, and gender justice? Can we use this moment to alter the trajectory of climate change toward sustainability?
Somatics, a mind/body approach to healing, helps us to understand the impacts of trauma and oppression. When we are threatened, we have automatic, psychobiological reactions that kick in. Fight, flight, freeze, appease, and dissociative reactions are part of our evolutionary inheritance, and they act quickly. These survival strategies bypass the more recently evolved “thinking” brain, and throw us into action or stillness, whichever seems more likely to help us survive. These reactions are designed to get us away from danger, like running from a predator, and help us to reconnect with safety and the herd.
Somatics and neuroscience reveal that we have inherent needs as humans—safety, belonging and dignity.
Somatics and neuroscience reveal that we have inherent needs as humans—safety, belonging and dignity. We have essential material needs too, like healthy food and clean water, education, and housing. When these core needs are threatened, whether by more private experiences like child abuse or intimate partner violence, or by systemic oppression like racism or poverty and the abusive ways these are enforced, our automatic protective mechanisms engage. Our breath quickens, our muscles mobilize and contract, our heart rate increases, and our attention peaks, tracking for danger. This can last for moments, or years.
These survival reactions are built to enable us to take action. When we don’t get to act on our own behalf, when the threat is too overwhelming, or the system we are up against too dominating, this mobilization can freeze up or implode. Instead of helping us find safety, belonging, and dignity, these protective energies get trapped in our psychobiology, with no clear way to express. Other symptoms then show up: sustained anxiety, isolation, generalized distrust, compartmentalization, emotional numbing, blaming and attacking, and more.
You can imagine the scale at which we are contending with this now. Traumatizing conditions are not “over,” and collective safety, belonging, and dignity have no place to go. And yet we need to heal. We need to nourish resilience to multiple long-term threats. We need to act collectively to build a society and economy that offers safety, belonging, and dignity for all peoples, and the planet.
I am not saying any of this is easy. It is simply necessary, and worth it.
A seasoned social justice organizer, who is queer and LatinX, has been struggling under U.S. immigration policies and the pandemic. Her favorite uncle was recently deported, and many of her family are essential workers and highly exposed. More than 40 people in the communities she organizes have died from COVID-19. She began to have panic attacks, and was unable to process the overwhelming feelings of grief, rage, and fear, while also leading a vital organization. It became clear to her that “buckling down” wasn’t going to work. She needed support and trauma healing to be able to show up, have hope, and continue to vision the world she wants.
Take on purposeful daily practices to embody your values in your actions.
Here are some things she took on to build resilience and work with the impacts of trauma. These are practices you can engage too.
First, in ways relevant to your community and culture, nourish resilience. What brings you more connection, life, and a sense of hope? Practice this on purpose. Together. This can be music, art, imagining just futures, nature, connection. What can you do daily? Feel your sensations as you practice. This lets resilience register deeply in the nervous system, supporting right action instead of reaction.
Second, notice and work with your own and other’s automatic survival reactions. To change them, we need to work through the body, using new practices and blending. Try this for yourself … find a place in your body (or emotions) that is often tense or upset. Put your attention there, feel it from the inside out. Then gently add more tension, in the direction it’s already going. Hold that for a few moments, then soften. Repeat. Often these patterned places of contraction or numbness are “storage bins” for our difficult experiences and survival reactions. We can open up more choice, and doorways to healing, by working with them, rather than trying to manage or deny them. Then, practice getting curious about another’s triggered reactions.
Third, we become what we practice, and we are always practicing something. Is what you are practicing aligned with healing and equity? Three hundred repetitions of a purposeful practice creates muscle memory, 3,000 repetitions, embodiment. In other words, it becomes a new habit. Given what’s at stake, what do we need to embody? There are skills that trauma, oppression, and privilege did not teach us that are vital now—empathy, collective action, honest and difficult conversations, love in the face of pain, accountability, and more.
Take on purposeful daily practices to embody your values in your actions. Engage your mind and body in the practice, including your purpose for doing it. This can be singing to open and include your voice, or eyes-open meditation, cultivating presence to then take out to the streets. Practice can include risking difficult conversations while you both feel yourself and empathize with the other.
Last, but not least, join collective action. Many local and national organizations are working for social and environmental justice, for voting rights, and more. Collective action means more than donating or having conversations about our social issues. It means spending time each week, each month, in action with others to build a life-affirming society and economy. It means continuing to change our lives to align with the future we want for everyone. Look for the organizations led by the communities that are most affected by the systems they are changing. There are some great organizations below to give you a starting place.
As these times reveal, we need to integrate a social analysis of power—how the distribution of safety, belonging, dignity, and resources is organized along pre-determined lines that are not equitable—to heal trauma and cultivate change. If our practices, be they mindfulness, dance, ceremony, or yoga, do not acknowledge the broader context of oppression and cultural appropriation, they can inadvertently repeat and perpetuate oppression. Transformation, and even healing, can end up supporting racial capitalism, thus perpetuating systemic harms, rather than inherently challenging and changing these.
It is essential to connect trauma healing and movements for social justice. They are interdependent. Together, they let us become whole and build a just and sustainable future.
Below is a list of some groups I see doing that work.
Movement for Black Lives, National Domestic Workers Alliance, Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity, Asian Pacific Environmental Network, Indigenous Environmental Network, Black Futures Lab, United We Dream, Puente Movement.
Staci K. Haines is the author of The Politics of Trauma: Somatics, Healing and Social Justice and the co-founder of generative somatics.