The Capitol riot was traumatic, even if you weren’t there

Since the white supremacist attack on the Capitol, I’ve been looking for ways to process what happened.

Turns out, what I needed most was poetry. More on that in a second.

The first helpful thing was realizing that what happened was traumatic.

Even though I’m white and experienced it by doomscrolling social media, it triggered my nervous system. Stress hormones flooded my body. My breath shortened. My muscles clenched for protection.

But there was no one to fight or run from. There was nowhere for the stress to go except gnaw at my insides.

“I know many people who feel exhausted, reactive, depressed, hypervigilant, sleepless, cloudy/dazed, and super raw,” tweeted therapist and meditation Ralph De La Rosa. “These are common traumatic reactions.”

This is why compassion has been so important.

When we’re scared, we need unconditional love. We need to be held and told not that everything will be okay but that we are okay, exactly how we are, whatever we’re feeling.

That is what good friends are for. And therapy. They provide what psychologist Carl Rogers called “unconditional positive regard.”

“For our physiology to calm down, heal, and grow we need a visceral feeling of safety,” writes psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk. “Being truly heard and seen by the people around us, feeling that we are held in someone else’s mind and heart.”

I love this Carl Rogers quote: “People are just as wonderful as sunsets if you let them be. When I look at a sunset, I don’t find myself saying, ‘Soften the orange a bit on the right-hand corner.’ I don’t try to control a sunset. I watch with awe as it unfolds.”

It’s also been helpful to meditate and move my body.

Unconditional love often isn’t enough. Trauma can stay trapped in the body. “The body,” the title of van der Kolk’s bestselling book says, “keeps the score.”

After the violence, my attention was stuck in my mind. And my mind was stuck in the future, worrying, planning, catastrophizing.

That’s why I couldn’t stop looking at social media. As De La Rosa said, “People were offloading their emotions … by refreshing and doomscrolling as if that was going to do something, as if that was going move something. And it was just the neurochemicals trying to affect the situation, [yet they were] rendered useless.”

Meditation has helped me stay with what’s happening in the present moment. What’s going on in my body. What it feels like to breathe. What it actually sounds like right here, right now, in my Baltimore apartment.

Meditation counters stress by triggering the body to stop releasing stress hormones, slow the heart rate, and deepen breathing.

I’ve noticed that even going for a short walk or stretching can take the edge off. The energy has somewhere to go instead of being redirected inside. Yoga is even better, as it‘s been shown to reset critical brain areas that get disturbed by trauma.

But, if I’m being honest, I have a therapist and plenty of close friends. And I’ve got a halfway decent meditation practice.

I’ve been needing something more. Something bigger. Something to hold not just me but all of us and the violence and trauma and this country’s history in a larger way.

Something that holds Trump and white supremacy accountable. But that also sees the humanity in all the insanity. In a word, something spiritual.

Thank goodness for adrienne maree brown’s poem, which she wrote the morning after the riot. Here’s my favorite part:

things are not getting worse
they are getting uncovered
we must hold each other tight
and continue to pull back the veil
see: we, the body, we are the wounded place

we live on a resilient earth
where change is the only constant
in bodies whose only true whiteness
is the blood cell that fights infection
and the bone that holds the marrow

remove the shrapnel, clean the wound
relinquish inflammation, let the chaos calm
the body knows how to scab like lava stone
eventually leaving the smooth marring scars
of lessons learned

Seriously, go read the whole thing right now.

I’m a writer, meditation teacher, and host of the Meditation for the 99% podcast. My weekly email newsletter helps you bring mindfulness to work, relationships, and politics. Subscribe here.

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Photo by Blink O’fanaye