2021 is just two weeks old, and watching and listening to the news has been traumatic so far. Coming off all that we experienced last year, each day right now can be more than a struggle. How to cope? BPR’s Cass Herrington spoke with Asheville therapist Omileye Achikeobi-Lewis.
I want to start, Omileye, with the events that transpired last week in the nation's Capitol. A violent mob, attacked what our country deems are the hallowed halls of our government. Over the past year, we've seen many violent acts play out over the news. But after speaking with folks in politics or educators grappling with how to talk about this with kids, even just my neighbors, this was really an assault on the senses. Even if you weren't there, just the visuals can have psychological effects. Can you talk a little bit about that?
There's a thing called, “vicarious trauma,” and that's when we witness things, but we experience it in our body. It is like the trauma is actually happening to us because our body goes directly into the “flight and fight” response. So when everyone was glued to the TV, and going through this response, they were actually in the alarm stage, the shock and alarm. The flight and fight response is actually a good stage. It can actually help you get out of a real life situation. However, we couldn't get out of a situation. And what happens is those stress hormones, they just flood around the body, and there's nowhere for them to go.
So imagine now, none of that is resolved, and you're going into deeper and basically deeper exhaustion. Plus, people are fearful about what's coming up next. If you don't have ways to cope, you're going to be getting emotionally, physically sick.
Yes, I've heard the expression, “the body keeps score.” Whatever emotions we're experiencing, they have a physical manifestation. I'm wondering about the exhaustion you describe, with all these chemicals floating around in your body with nowhere to go. You're kind of trapped in the sensation, observing something horrific. And along with that, there's a lot of feeling of hopelessness because we watched a very secure building -- or so we thought -- be violated and and representatives of government, their lives were at stake. Things that we thought could never happen did. Thankfully people were evacuated, but it could have been much worse. So for folks in government or media, or even anyone who cares and is watching this moment, they may feel like, “wow, what do we have left? What is protecting us?” How, how can people work through those feelings of hopelessness, even fatalism, in this moment where it's like, what do we have left?
So as you were talking, I felt tears coming up, which just proved to me that the trauma does sit in the body. I felt hopeless as well. And how did I get that hope back? What did I do when the floor was knocked out from underneath my feet? When it happened, I actually painted and also did a sit-down meditation. I had to find a way to go back home within myself to find the place of inner strength and inner power, a place of wonderment and belief in the wonderment of life. Again, a belief that there is something so much more than this rage, and that's something that cannot be found with the intellectual mind. You have to draw the senses and the self back within to find home.
We all have meditated. When we listen to music, when we go for a walk, what happens to the senses, is we go back within. To put it into technical terms, what happens is you got your body out of the sympathetic nervous response, which is that flight and fight response. The parasympathetic nervous response is the response the body goes into when it goes into a state of sleep, deep healing, deep relaxation, dream state. And so this is what you're doing. When you do any activity that draws you back inside, you have actually manually switched your nervous system over to a part of your body response in your brain. That believes in hope again, that believes in the magic of life. Again, that knows that there is something out there and something within that can overcome.
And knowing that that life continues just listening to the sound of your breath, it's continuing, the sun will continue to come up in the morning. It's focusing on those little simple things that keep moving us forward.
Yeah, exactly. Because I know when I woke up this morning and I was thinking about the question you asked about last week's events. That was exactly what happened. I, when I did my meditation, I actually went into this deep state of gratitude for what, for my breath, focusing on these things, restore us as a restorative practice.
I want to go back to a term that you introduced out front in this conversation -- “vicarious traumatization” -- of merely seeing a violent event, whether it, it didn't happen directly to you. You can be watching on TV or, or even in a movie, something can be traumatizing. I don't want to make a silver lining out of trauma. It's painful. It's hard. But is it an indication of our human ability to empathize, to feel other people, thousands of miles away from us?
I think that's a really good window and perspective to look at things. It is because of empathy. If you didn't have empathy, you wouldn't feel traumatized because empathy gives us a sense of connectivity to something. So when we were watching TV or hearing about the events, it's almost like we were that person we saw getting hurt. We were those people we thought may get hurt. Now, people who don't have this level of empathy, that's a whole other story. That's psychological damage. But the true state of living beings is empathy. And that's why we feel the trauma.
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