The first full week of 2021 didn't go as planned, to put it mildly. After watching thousands of Trump supporters storm the U.S. Capitol building in a violent insurrection, many of us are feeling... a lot. Stressed, drained, traumatized. Angry, frustrated, disbelieving. Exhausted. Wired.
Many Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) are feeling especially traumatized due to race-based stress reactions, says Candice Nicole Hargons, PhD, director of the Center for Healing Racial Trauma. "Thinking from a Black perspective, remembering how everything unfolded during the [Black Lives Matter protests this] summer and in the past, and how the situation was treated so differently creates anxiety, but also anger," adds Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist with Talkspace based in the Washington D.C. area.
Everyone responds to race-based stress (and stress in general) differently. Some people might immediately start processing and thinking through the events, writing think pieces or even creating memes, a mindset Dr. Hargons calls "rising above." Others might sit with their emotions of sadness, disappointment, or anger. Or people might let those feelings out, by venting to a friend or via physical reactions. Neck and shoulder tension, shallow breathing, and tears are all somatic reactions to trauma, says Dr. Hargons. "Regardless of the thoughts or emotions, the body lets you know you're seeing something jarring.”
While we'll hopefully be able to channel our anger at this week's events into positive action, the stress can take a major toll, physically and mentally. Especially considering that the violence on Wednesday didn't occur in a vacuum; 2020 felt like a landmine, and although many people saw something like this coming, actually watching the insurrection take place — and then getting stuck in the 24/7 news cycle of reactions to it — was still incredibly draining at best, traumatizing at worst.
The truth is, you can't help improve the world unless you help yourself first. Now's a good time to book an emergency session with your therapist and to lean on your support networks. And take a look through this list of expert-backed strategies for protecting your mental health during fraught times like this week. Practise all of them, or pick your favorite one or two. And, if you are in crisis, please call Crisis Services Canada at 1-833-456-4566 at any time or text 45645 between 4 p.m. and 12 a.m. ET. Residents of Quebec, please call 1-866-277-3553.
Do a body scan
When we're stuck in our minds, we tend to ignore our bodies. But stress can manifest physically. “Our bodies are our first source of knowledge,” Dr. Hargons says. Sit or lie down, then mentally check in on each body part, moving from toes to head, she suggests: “What sensations do you notice in your body? How is your breathing? How did you sleep, much more, much less, or about the same? How's your appetite?" Listen, give your body what it's asking for, whether that's rest, food, self-massage, or a bath.
Ask yourself: How am I actually doing?
Sometimes, anxiety can cloud our minds. Try to keep things simple. “Describe your emotions in one or two words,” Dr. Hargons suggests. Keep it mental, write them down on a sticky note, or even text them to a friend or family member. Articulating how you’re doing mentally is another way of letting yourself know what steps you need to take to heal.
Try this writing exercise
Some people find free-writing in a journal cathartic. Or you can answer specific questions, notes Catchings. She suggests using these journalling prompts: How am I feeling, and why am I feeling this way? What is causing this feeling? What can I do about it? Is this affecting me in some specific or unexpected why?
Then, reread your thoughts. "Seeing what you wrote gives you a new perspective on how you feel, and you're able to process it differently," says Catchings.
Focus on gratitude
Some people love practising gratitude in tough times; other people find the idea cheesy or even offensive. But you keep hearing about it because it works. The trick is to focus on things that you actually do feel thankful for (rather than reaching for something that you should be grateful for).
“Remember that if you’re safe and sound in your home, for now, that’s a blessing that you want to count,” Alfiee Breland-Noble, PhD, a psychologist and founder of the mental health nonprofit, the AAKOMA Project, suggested in an Instagram Story. “I also invite folks to recognize and honour the good moments, like the runoff election in Georgia," adds Dr. Hargons.
Curate your news
I'm a news junkie, so I get that it can be hard to force yourself to stop watching right now. But it's a surefire stress spiker, so if you're feeling agitated and overwhelmed, it's key to find ways to take breaks. Consider trying to tune in three times a day, for 30 minutes each time, Dr. Hargons suggests. (Also smart: Schedule the last check-in for at least an hour before bed.) That way you know you're staying informed, but you get a chance to disengage too. And let's be honest: You've probably got at least one friend who'll text you if something really big happens.
Dr. Breland-Noble also suggests reading news rather than watching it on TV or scrolling through social media, because you're less likely to see an image that upsets you.
Today is doing ALOT!— Dr. JaNaè Taylor (she/her) (@Mindingmyblkbiz) January 6, 2021
You might be feeling muscle tension, headaches, reduced concentration, irritability, exhaustion.
INHALE for a count of 4.
HOLD for a count of 7.
EXHALE for a count of 8.
Repeat these steps 3 times.
Practise self-care — with a twist
Take part in activities that bring you joy. A caveat: Sometimes we label something self-care when we're actually numbing out. There's nothing wrong with having some vices, but during super-stressful times, "numbing activities" only distract us, while self-care activities actively nurture us, Dr. Hargons says. Try to prioritize the things that truly lift your spirits, whether that's a gentle workout, cooking your favourite meal, or taking a walk while chatting with a friend on the phone.
Maybe it’s not your thing, but now isn't a bad time to at least try it. Dr. Hargons suggests a guided meditation, because “thoughts are more likely to wander when you're stressed.” She herself created the Black Lives Matter Meditation for Healing Racial Trauma, and she also recommends the Liberate meditation app.
If the idea of meditating seems stressful, though, try listening to binaural beats, Mariel Buquè, PhD, a therapist and professor at Columbia University, previously suggested to Refinery29. They work by playing a different sound frequency in each ear, which helps cue your brain to create waves associated with relaxation. You can go about your usual routine while listening and, hopefully, slowly unwinding.
Talk to someone
Again, leaning on your support system is critical right now. Make an appointment with a therapist to really process your emotions around the past week and the past year, set up a Zoom call with a friend you trust, or, if you're lucky enough to be quarantining with a loved one, "cuddling with someone you love helps, too,” Dr. Hargons says.
"We need to communicate and stay in touch with the people who make us feel good, to see how everyone is doing," adds Catchings. "It helped me. My husband was in downtown D.C. working on Wednesday, and my family was concerned about what was going on and checking in with me," she says. "I also was talking to them to make sure they were safe and to see how their mental health was being affected."
While you may have seen social media posts suggesting folks check on their Black and brown friends as an ally, “I don't always advocate for this, unless they are really your friends, and you check in on each other consistently regardless of what's going on,” says Dr. Hargons. “Otherwise, it can feel weird and disingenuous."
Make a plan
"Create a plan of action that will help you process what's happened, Catchings says. It doesn't have to be directly related to the events of the last week, either. Consider what you can control and start there. You may decide to seek out a therapist, for instance. Or you may decide to start volunteering for a cause you care about.
If you are experiencing anxiety and are in need of crisis support, please call Crisis Services Canada at 1-833-456-4566 at any time or text 45645 between 4 p.m. and 12 a.m. ET. Residents of Quebec, please call 1-866-277-3553.