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Five Ways to Carry Trauma Well

These are heavy days.

Our bodies and brains aren’t equipped to carry the kind of elevated urgency we’re immersed in and to hold the scale of pain that we’re exposed to each day.

Anxiety and depression, grief and fear, emotional and physical pain, doubt, regret, anger: these are all manifested inside our physical bodies as we have the experience of being human.

And so, we find the outside world reaching inside of us, becoming the headaches that won’t go away and our aching necks and our clenched jaws and the knot in our stomachs. Trauma becomes our racing minds at night that make it difficult to sleep and our elevated heart rates and our difficulty concentrating and our eruptive impatience.

Every day more is understood about the link between our thoughts and emotions—and our physical bodies: the ways that we carry what we experience (and what we see and feel about the experience of others). We don’t just think or feel things, but those things we think and feel become measurable symptoms, they have quantifiable effects on us.

All this to say, we are not (as much as we’d like to be or believe we are), objective bystanders to what is happening around us, because what is happening around us is happening within us. As functioning human beings we are doomed to let the outside in. That is a beautiful reality but it can be a costly one if we allow ourselves to be systemically compromised.

I’ve often talk to my community about being aware of two wounds: the wounds of the world and the wounds we sustain attending to them. We don’t want to ignore the former but we also need to greatly respect the latter. As we move through the world, we have to count the cost on us emotionally, mentally, and physically of being a human being.

Doing this work I meet a lot of people who are really tired of feeling, tired of caring, just over being compassionate human beings because it takes too much out of them. They may have drifted into apathy or try to avoid the news or they may try to numb themselves with medications or libations or retail therapy in order to feel less. But that isn’t the answer. We don’t want to feel less. We want to stay as human as we can. We want to human sustainably.

So, what are some things we can do to?

Try to be an observer of your feelings. Many understand this as the concept of Mindfulness—but it’s really just paying attention. Notice what you are experiencing and what emotions are being kicked up within you, especially during times of anger or stress or sadness. This can happen in real time or in the recent past, at the end of a day. Don’t judge feelings as bad or pile guilt onto yourself for what you feel, but begin to compare your response with the reality. Does this merit how much emotion you’re giving it? Are proportionally reacting? Be mindful of the places where you tend to struggle with clarity.

Work purposeful pauses into your life. Most of us have calendars that need to go on a diet and paces that are toxic in their velocity. We need to create intentional spaces for silence, solitude, stillness, meditation, prayer, nature, resting and allow those interruptions of our normally frenetic pace and activity to give us a space to breathe and step back and recalibrate. The myth is that we are too busy, but there are always choices to be made. Our presence reveals our priorities.

Ask yourself good questions. With regard to whatever we are worried about or dwelling on, it’s helpful to ask ourselves, “Is this mine to carry? Am I trying to shoulder something that I shouldn’t be, something that I am incapable of holding? Is this any of my business? Do I have any power here? Is this worry helpful or is my attention better placed elsewhere?”

Find empathetic community. The practices of mindfulness and these purposeful pauses can be challenging for those of us prone to loneliness or depression or isolation, because we may be unable to navigate the sadness stirred up on our own. For some of us, we need relational support to help us consider the story we tell ourselves. That might consist of talk therapy or group counseling or coffee with a friend you feel you can be authentic with. Community is medicinal.

Remember who you aren’t. I often share this with caregivers and activists who find meaning or sometimes their very identity in caring. They can put themselves in harm’s way if they aren’t able to control how much of the world they let in. It’s like being in a house with windows in a relentless storm. Through those windows we can see the outside and know when help is needed. We are these houses in these turbulent days and our eyes give us a window into the world so we can see what is happening around us. But if allow too much of the storm inside we can drown in the flood of grief.

Our ability to feel the pain around us, to be aware of, not just our danger but the danger to others is an incredible gift. Our capacity to love and connect and know and be known is the whole point of being here, but it comes with risk and it comes with damage that we need to be mindful of.

We weren’t prepared for this life. None of us asked to be here, and we didn’t have any choice about when and where we arrived, the kind of people who would welcome and shape us, or most of what happened for the first two decades of our lives. And even after that, we never really have control over very much, despite sometimes imagining that we do. We come wired for all sorts of fears and worries and phobias, we’re saddled with individual quirks and idiosyncrasies that so easily derail our progress, and we have persistent voices in our heads that criticize and condemn us and can be nearly impossible to turn off.

And when we step do out of our heads and into the world, we expose ourselves to unthinkable suffering there too.

People we let close to us sometimes betray us and do us harm.
Strangers purposefully and unintentionally do us damage.
We lose those we love in brutal, senseless, excruciating ways.
We encounter illness and injustice and cruelty.
Despite our best plans and preparations and intentions, things sometimes fall apart.

We wrestle continually with unanswerable questions about the hows and whys of our existence.

Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

“People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle but I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment and feeling truly alive.”

Let’s not be human beings who want to be less human, but let’s be full humans wisely.

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