Neuroscience & Politics

The Why
I’ve been considering whether to publish this post in relationship to the recent presidential election or not. I finally landed on connecting the two themes in my writing because my work as a psychotherapist involves doing my absolute best to be an advocate and an ally. Now is a time to connect with community and feel support. I know that this election has, for many people on many different levels (including myself), sparked intense emotional, physical, and mental experiences. For me, this experience of the political system is devastating, but not surprising. This country has been suffering from abuse of power and oppression ever since the dawn of The United States. Now it’s more visible. Welcome to reality, we can no longer deny the truth of what we are swimming in. And, what are we going to do with that? How do we orient toward health? One of my most inspiring and helpful links I recently viewed is here.

My Identity
For myself in my identities, the impact has been challenging but not unmanageable. This is due to my privilege and the resiliency I have due to my privileged life and the privilege to have been able to work on myself. I’m white, cis-gender, heterosexual, able-bodied, have Christian privilege because I grew up Christian, and am economically successful enough that I have resources and my basic needs met. And, I identify as a woman and have worked through big blockages that come along with that aspect of my identity and my history with sexuality, professional life, family systems, and relationships.

My Experience
I share this in hopes of normalizing. The evening of and the day after the election, I sat in a half freeze / half resilient space. I felt emotionally dull, slightly anxious, tired and rigid in my body, but I was aware of it and felt regulated enough to feel where I was. The next day, I taught a yoga class and for the first time moved my body. As I led students through movements and invited them into openness and offered space for emotional release, my voice cracked and I almost cried through the rest of my teaching (not a regular experience for me). I drove by Planned Parenthood and felt intense fear for myself and tons of people with bodies who bleed and can carry a baby. My sleep is off, my appetite has lowered, and I haven’t been able to get over a cold for almost two weeks.

This is Why: Neuroscience
The four reactions of the nervous system to an experience that is not tolerable are: fight, flight, freeze, and faint. I saw these reactions coming up all over the place on social media, in myself, in clients, in friends and family. The urge to lash out and fight. The urge to run and leave. The frozen-ness and paralyzing fear. And the urge to check out and disappear. When those responses begin to take over the nervous system, this is where we learn about PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). There’s no judgment there, I’ve had the reactions I listed above and there is a big spectrum to those responses. Even if I didn’t go fully into these responses, my nervous system has been working hard to stay regulated and keep those reactions in check. It takes work.

Fight and Flight
An over-activated nervous system goes into fight and flight. I think of this as upward moving energy. This can manifest in the form of anger & rage, heat in the body, feeling “on edge”, easy to startle, urges to hit / kick / break things / fight / yell, insomnia, clenching in the body, rigidity and tension, digestive pain, chronic pain, anxiety, panic, and more. What I’ve listed is just a window in, I encourage you to find out how this shows itself in your system.

Freeze and Faint
An overly activated nervous system in a downward spiral goes in the opposite direction. Some of the ways this show up in the form of depression, sadness, grief, guilt, shame, sleeping too much, digestive sluggishness, numbness, confusion, feeling disoriented and “not here”, feeling out of body, loss of memory, actual fainting, hopelessness, self-harm and suicidal thoughts or behaviors, and more.

The Relationship between the ” 4 F’s ”
A person’s nervous system will sometimes go between the fight / flight phase and the freeze / faint phase in an up and down wave-like pattern. Sometimes the highs are very high and the lows are very low. Often times the bigger the high, the lower the crash and it becomes a cycle. When we are “outside the window of tolerance”, we are not able to tolerate what is happening in the moment. We are not regulated, not feeling resilient, not present, we are outside of the window of what our nervous system and body and psyche can handle. When we are activated in these ways in our bodies, the frontal area of our brain that is responsible for rational and logical thought is not available. The worse off our nervous system, the less rational and available our frontal brain. The more resilient and regulated, the more rational and logical we are able to be in challenging moments. We all get pushed outside our windows at times. When people have multiple identities that are oppressed and marginalized and / or have had traumatic experiences, there may be a smaller window of tolerance, and rightfully so. Many things can start to feel hard or unmanageable.

Now What?
Skills for regulating oneself are huge here. Basic safety comes first. If someone is not physically safe, there’s no point in “trying to regulate”, it’s inappropriate at that point. A band-aid over a gushing wound means nothing. Once safety is obtained, helping the nervous system to be soothed, calmed, regulated, and to release the stress of the charge can be an outlet.

If Presence is Lost
We all check out at times. If you notice yourself checked out or going towards it or are with someone you can tell is not “here”, bring presence back simply and slowly by:

– look around the room and notice colors and light / shadows
– listen to the sounds around you and the sound of your breath
– wiggle your toes and fingers and bounce your legs a few times (bending the knees)
– sit against a wall and bend your legs enough where you feel your leg muscles come online, take a few breaths
– smell an essential oil
– chew gum or take a drink of water
– squeeze your hands together or lightly tap your legs

There are many ways to do this. To list a few, we may want to contemplate:

– who are my most important support people in my life who I can reach out to at any time? Who I can call, text, email, or be in contact with somehow if I need support. Who can give space and care for all of my feelings and experiences? If I don’t have any, how can I find one (a therapist or mentor, a hotline where I can talk to someone anonymous)?

– what are my body based self care practices that help me feel better?
touch: movement practices, exercise, favorite fabrics and skin based feelings (shower, bath, blanket, cuddling with pets and people that feel safe)
sounds: music, natural world sounds, silence, white noise, pets, favorite person’s voice
visuals: the most nourishing sights either in person or in a photo, the face of a loved one, videos, humor, sports, dance pieces, artwork. Envision someone or something that feels safe to me and meditate on it
scent: favorite soothing scents, food, drinks, essential oils and lotions, flowers, familiar soothing people, natural world scents
tastes: hot tea, cool water, hydrating drinks, comfort food that also helps bodies grounded and nourished, favorite meals and snacks, chewing gum

– how can I tend to my emotions? Where are my safe spaces inside of myself and also people and containers I feel safe with and can go to for processing and releasing my emotions? Where I get to say what I feel and think without being judged or shamed? Journal. Positive internal self-talk. Friends, family, allies, groups, supports in life.

– if I am not able to access my emotions, how do I tolerate my distress? I need to find distractions that can interrupt what I’m currently in so I can put it on pause, use imagery, sensory based self care listed above, positive mental messages, take breaks from drowning by finding a resource. Hold an ice cube. Wash hands and face. Take a cool shower. Push up against a wall and feel the boundary of my body. Take a mental “break” and go somewhere safe in the mind.

When Nothing Works
If none of this lands or helps, it might be time to seek professional help. There is no shame in this, I do it and benefit from it. I am always advocating for getting professional support. Find someone who you know will be safe and open to you. Ask your community for specific referrals if you have a concern or specific need. Find a psychotherapist. A bodyworker who can hold space that is attuned and permissive to your process. A cranial sacral therapist to soothe the nervous system. A support group. If that’s not accessible, call a hotline. Walk into a crisis center at a mental health agency, many are 24 hours (in Boulder and Denver there are 24 hour crisis centers). If you feel unsafe and worried for your own safety due to worries of harming yourself or suicide, walk yourself into a crisis office or an emergency room. Talk with someone. If you need a referral, please write to me with requests. Here are a few numbers, save them to your phone if you feel like they may be helpful so you don’t have to look them up in the moment.

Trans life-line: 877-565-8860

Veterans Crisis Line: 800-273-8255

National Suicide Hotline: 800-273-8255

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-4673

This country has already been in trouble. With any elected candidate, some major issues have been needing attention for years and years. With the results of this election, we are faced with more intensity. It’s worse than many people expected. The question for all of us is, what are we going to do with that?

My Door is Open
If you are in need of support, please reach out. In every way I know how to be, I try my best to be a culturally aware and competent counselor. I would love to offer you support if you are in need. Finances need not be a prohibitive of getting help. I am happy to talk with you or to connect you with someone who will be a good fit based on your circumstance. Blessings and warmth to you in the midst of this process, with love, Alicia

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About Alicia Patterson

Alicia Patterson is a Psychotherapist / Dance Movement Therapist, Birth Doula, Energy Worker, Dance and Yoga Facilitator in the Boulder / Denver area.
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