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I approach therapy with a simple question: 

"What do you want out of life, and what is holding you back from that?" 

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October 18, 2023

When We Are Filled With Horror

Moving through horror and terror, grief and lament, and embodied activism

Moving through horror and terror, grief and lament, and embodied activism

We are in a global moment of horror, and for some, terror.

We are necessarily in a state of shock.

This is the freeze nervous-system response

that our bodies use to hold us

as we witness or experience directly such pain.

It is there to cradle and protect us

as we experience more than our bodies can take in.

A moment of meaning-making before moving back to how to care for ourselves through this...

The current pain is seen in the hellish dance of terrorist attacks and state-sponsored oppression. A reign of terror and oppression is met with a grand display of terror and bloodshed, which is met with retaliatory bloodshed. I don't want to spend much time on the horror of it, but I do think we need some meaning-making here to cope.

I posit that part of the endless cycle of bloodshed that keeps repeating itself and getting ratcheted up is also a trauma/nervous-system response. If you need a refresher, the trauma or nervous-system responses that have been identified thus far are: fight, flight, freeze, fawn/appease, attachment cry, and collapse/submit. When there is not safety or space to move to a regulated response, fight response feels the least vulnerable and most active.

And so, each side (at least the parts that make the news) goes into fight trauma response in order to avoid pain, collapse, helplessness, etc. Moreover, toxic masculinity, and patriarchal systems of power and control, allow no other way for men and male leaders to face challenges. Fight or die. Fight or fail. Anything else is vilified as weakness, instead of a way through. And so they fight. Each side fights bigger and harder and more spectacularly until no one is left.

What if the mothers were in charge? How do you think things would be different? There would be space for mourning, lament, healing, accountability...and at least everybody go to their rooms, even if there was not full repair and repentance and reconciliation. Would somebody put the mothers in charge please? And tell these man-children to go to their rooms, and don't come out until you're ready to take accountability for what you did wrong and find a solution.

This is obviously too simplistic for the current situation, but I think it does shed light on part of the problem here. Trauma-induced fighting, supported by toxic patriarchal politics and weapons, is never going to create a solution. It is only going to bring more pain. And this is the pain we're living in right now, after millennia of this generational and historical trauma, of worldviews and fundamentalist religions and political systems and leaders that further occupy, colonize, polarize, dominate, destroy, and silence those who want to find solutions. And so we ask...

What do we do with the pain?

Now that we have some context, let's go back to how to care for ourselves through this immense pain. We are aware that we feel helpless and frozen to do anything. Don't worry, we'll get to the action part in the next section. First we have to honor our body's wisdom in how it is helping us. When something comes at us too much, too fast, our nervous systems are activated to help us cope. In moments or horror or terror, we most often go into freeze response. Shock, dissociation, numbness, feeling in a fog or like you're sleepwalking are common ways to experience this.

Our bodies cannot move out of freeze until they know they have enough safety, support, and resources to do so. We also need a break from the overwhelm. For those of us separate from the conflict, that might be taking a break from the news. For those with loved ones there, it might be harder. We all need moments of grounding by connecting to our senses, our surroundings, our bodies, and our breath. (Take some time to notice what you see, hear, smell, touch, and taste; and some time to notice the feeling of your body in your chair and the cadence of your breath.) This brings us closer to or back into nervous system regulation. Co-regulating with another person or a pet can also be helpful. Their presence and breathing can help stabilize and ground you, and keep you in the present.

"Horror and Terror" - my processing through art

Once there is enough regulation, safety, or space to process, we can acknowledge and process the pain. Sometimes this happens along with grounding, especially with expressive modalities like art, dance, tai chi, etc. Today, I moved through the horror with artistic expression (see artwork on the right). It wasn't until after that process that I was able to feel like I was present again. First I had to be present to my horror and find a way to express it.

black and red scribbles to depict terror and horror

Our bodies know how to move through emotional, social, relational, psychological, and physical pain if we give them the time and support they need to do so. I think that both personal and collective mourning and lament are essential in this process. We must let the grief move through us, rather than get stuck in us or overwhelm us. You can't outrun grief, but you also can't process it if you're in overwhelm. You have to find a way to regulate in order to process it, or it becomes unresolved trauma. And sometimes this is unavoidable. If I was in the midst of this at the moment, there would not be enough room for processing, there would only be survival, and the bulk of the healing would have to come later if and when there was enough space and safety to do so.

As we process the pain, we can move into problem-solving and action in a more effective way, rather than just jumping into a different nervous system response to get us there. As a reminder, the trauma or nervous-system responses that have been identified thus far are: fight, flight, freeze, fawn/appease, attachment cry, and collapse/submit. When there is not safety or space to move to a regulated response, fight response feels the least vulnerable and most active. And fight is not always a problem. Anger can fuel our activism, but blind trauma-rage is just a "violent act of self-soothing" (quote from Cole Arthur Riley). Because then it is a weapon for vengeance, rather than activism for justice and repair.

One of the ways to address trauma is effective action. And so we ask...

What do we do with the problem?

That for me is a harder question to answer as thoroughly. I am trained as a mental health counselor and know best how to address that aspect of things. But I can give a few suggestions from my training in healthy internal systems (IFS), which translate into healthy external systems:

  • Learn about frameworks for accountability and repair. On Repentance and Repair by Danya Ruttenberg is a good resource. I think it is important to name that it is written by an American female Rabbi, so may not feel like unbiased enough for the horrific things happening in the middle east, but she does her best to be unbiased from her position and is open to feedback, accountability, learning, and repair. I really like her recent writing on this crisis, which I also mentioned above. I am looking for more resources from other perspectives, and would love input on this.
  • Support and be in solidarity with organizations that are working for a solution and care for those in harms way. I would love any of your suggestions to include here.
  • Advocate with local officials. JVP action alerts and email forms
  • Join organizations and advocates in working for needs-honoring, solution-focused communities, such as Dr. Christena Cleveland's Center for Justice and Renewal.

As you may have noted, a lot of my education in social justice, activism, generational trauma, and accountability come from North American harms and horrors and my resources reflect that. I would love any recommendations for ones that center the harms in the middle east to include here as well.

Living, learning, healing, and advocating with you,