This article is not about politics. Rather, it’s about what we experience when we watched the violence at the Capitol Building in Washington on Jan. 6 and every day we hear that there have been more COVID-19 deaths in the United States—3,500 deaths yesterday seems unimaginable. We are living through stressful times that challenge our ability to cope. The threats to what we have known in the past are real, and these threats heighten our feelings of vulnerability.
For those who remember other traumatic events in their lives, current threats can trigger past emotions which are vivid and upsetting. The obvious response would be to tune out and not expose yourself to the media blitz that surrounds us. However, this is not an easy task because we are bombarded with news—it’s no longer the nightly news, but news infiltrates our lives even when we are not seeking it out. The media helps us witness images which may trigger us to recall past traumas. While avoidance may be the best alternative coping mechanism, this is not always possible. There is also the part of us that believes we need to be informed about what is happening in the world.
Mental health experts have identified the concept “Window of Tolerance” (WOT), which is a way to identify and talk about your current mental state. Being inside your window means that you’re doing okay and can function effectively. When you’re outside the window you may have been triggered and experienced a traumatic-stress response. Your window expands as you develop tools to stabilize your feelings which increases your capacity to deal with difficult information, emotions and physical sensations.
The first step is to be aware of how you are feeling, stay in the present and not become overwhelmed. It can be helpful to communicate with others how you are feeling and the size of your window so there are realistic expectations for you and the other person. For example, when I watched crowds of individuals entering the Capitol Building looking chaotic and chanting loudly, I felt threatened and agitated by what I perceived as threatening behaviors. I had associated the Capitol Building as being a safe place. When I saw the images of people hiding under seats to protect themselves, I felt outside my window of tolerance, and as a result I became more agitated. I personalized the hurt and fear because it was happening in a place that I had the illusion was protected.
Similarly, when an individual who followed precautions is diagnosed with COVID-19, there is a frightening realization that I could be next, increasing feelings of helplessness and vulnerability.
There are many coping techniques including positive thinking, laughter, using a weighted blanket to help you sleep, breathing exercises and visualizing through use of your senses. I believe the first step of healing is acknowledging your own feelings about your trauma. It’s important to recognize that you’re reacting to a frightening experience and that feeling out of control is a normal response.
I do wonder what motivates individuals to express themselves in dehumanizing ways. Perhaps they embrace being the aggressor and this helps them feel more powerful. However, this article is about those who experience trauma, not who may create traumatic experiences.
Dehumanization can be viewed throughout history with multiple examples. It’s hard to imagine that there may be trauma seekers who see violence as invigorating rather than cruel.
This past year, we have been challenged by a global pandemic, political unrest and images of brutality. Any one of these situations would have been traumatic in itself, but the combination of these events along with our front-row seats, has impacted us all, not to mention many who have experienced social isolation. We need to protect our children from over-exposure to aggressive acts, and we need to maintain our own Window of Tolerance so that we can function as our best possible selves in the environments where we live. The Jewish concepts of Saving the World, Tikkun Olam, and Acts of Loving Kindness, Gemilut Chasidim, may be the best defense against trauma. But, first you must save yourself by recognizing that trauma is what you experience and not your fault. The healing process can be an individual or collective journey.