Earlier this week, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) took Instagram Live viewers on an emotional journey as she recounted details of what she experienced on Jan. 6, when a violent pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol. She also opened up about previous trauma she’s endured — including sexual assault, harassment, threats and racism. Her firsthand account clearly struck a chord with supporters and critics; by Friday, it had been viewed more than 5.6 million times.
Ocasio-Cortez’s candid video was not just a call for accountability for those responsible for the destructive and deadly riot; it was also a crash course on some healthy ways to recognize and heal from trauma — whether or not she intended it to be. And it arrived at a time when many people needed it.
Over the past year in particular, mental health professionals say, we have endured multiple, overlapping traumatic events. If you’ve been living on planet Earth, there’s a good chance you’ve experienced some form of pandemic-induced, collective trauma. If you witnessed the insurrection — even through a screen — you may also be impacted by vicarious trauma. If you’re a person of color, you may be affected by racial trauma caused by racism, racial profiling, discrimination and violence committed against people of color.
And, as we saw with Ocasio-Cortez, trauma has been dominating the news. On Monday, too, Evan Rachel Wood was one of five women to name Marilyn Manson as her abuser. People have been taking to social media to share their own stories of sexual harassment and abuse.
Trauma can take many forms, but fundamentally, “trauma is really about the loss of safety — real or perceived,” says Ajita Robinson, a grief and trauma therapist and the executive director of Friends in Transition Counseling Services. This means that it may impact you regardless of whether the event actually materializes or reaches you physically; the threat itself can be enough to set off the body’s natural trauma response.
The trauma response is intended to protect us, but it can become harmful if it stays activated even after the threat is gone. “If our trauma is untreated, we remain in that hypervigilant state,” Robinson says. “If we stay in that activated state for a prolonged period of time, the body cannot sustain that. It will have to work hard to maintain that level, and eventually we will burn out.”
Fortunately, there are things we can do to recognize and address the impacts of trauma. Here is some expert insight to help you better understand trauma and, if needed, take steps to heal.
You may be tempted to Google your way to a diagnosis, especially during the pandemic, while we’re trying to limit our interactions with others. But professionals stress that when it comes to trauma and mental health, it’s best to leave it to them.
Trauma affects everyone differently, and it’s possible to experience trauma but not develop post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition triggered by a terrifying event. The medical term has been misused colloquially in recent years to express how a mundane or bad — but not truly traumatic — experience, such as a long line at the grocery store, “gave you PTSD.” But the disorder and its related symptoms — which can include hypervigilance, severe anxiety, nightmares and flashbacks — is nothing to joke about. It also affects women disproportionately; women are more than twice as likely as men to suffer from PTSD.
Jumping to a PTSD diagnosis without the knowledge of a medical professional can be harmful, says Ashley McGirt, a trauma therapist specializing in racial trauma and founder of the Washington Therapy Fund Foundation. “A licensed medical health professional is clinically trained to assess you and identify trauma-related symptoms” and ultimately determine whether and what treatment is needed, she says.
Concerns about cost sometimes prevent people from taking the first step of talking to a licensed therapist. Inquire at community centers, nonprofit organizations that work with survivors, and therapy practices about low and no-cost services. Robinson says many therapists do pro bono work, so if you’re in need of low or no-cost services, ask about sliding fee scales or whether the therapy practice you are interested in has any pro bono spots. If none are available, ask for community referrals.
Universities are another option. “University counseling centers are an excellent place because clinicians are in training but often already have some experience that they’re bringing to that community,” Robinson says.
Left untreated, trauma can take up residence in our bodies, wreaking havoc on our health. “Unresolved trauma accumulates and compounds,” Robinson says. “It can show up in memory loss, migraines, joint pain, numbness, irritability, fatigue, depression. We might develop things like high blood pressure, muscle spasms, digestive issues. We may have heart attacks and panic attacks. It can affect your quality of life, your judgment, your ability to regulate emotion or even tap into a range of emotions that are positive.” Robinson cautions that this is not a comprehensive list and every person will not experience all of these things. Symptoms vary, and your doctor can help you navigate yours.
While experts advise against self-diagnosing, supplying your doctor with insight into your symptoms can help them determine a diagnosis and treatment plan.
McGirt says one way that you can check in with yourself after a traumatic event or gather valuable information before an appointment with your mental-health-care provider is by doing a head-to-toe assessment. “Ask yourself how you feel and if you notice anything different, starting at the top and going all the way to your toes. For example, you can ask, ‘How does my head feel? Have I been having any migraines? Is there any tension in my temples or around my sinuses? Is my throat sore?’”
She also recommends taking note of other changes, such as loss of appetite, muscle spasming, trouble sleeping or heightened anxiety: “Your body will tell you when something’s wrong. If you walk into a certain room and your chest tightens up, for example. Pay attention and keep track of it.”
The body provides clues to help you understand whether, where and how trauma may be showing up. But you have to slow down long enough to notice — which can be an added challenge for some people impacted by trauma.
“High-functioning behavior is a lesser-known symptom of PTSD,” says Yasmine Cheyenne, an Air Force veteran, mental health advocate, teacher and host of the Sugar Jar Podcast. “When you’re not actively working on your trauma [with the help of a therapist, coach or group, for example], then it can feel like this burden that you’re carrying around but don’t know what to do with.” Throwing yourself into work or other activities may feel like it’s helping because it distracts you. But, Cheyenne says, it doesn’t actually address or alleviate the pain that you’re carrying.
“Many trauma survivors struggle with [seeking] support because we’re incredibly resilient,” Robinson says. “We run on autopilot; we disconnect from our bodies in order to engage, work, take care of our kids.” But while that may help us temporarily forge ahead day-to-day, there is the risk that the chasm between body and mind will grow, and we may overcompensate and overbook our schedules to avoid facing the pain that’s there.
To reestablish the connection between the mind and body, “we have to have space to safely process the trauma,” Robinson says. “Processing the trauma allows us to develop coping mechanisms and metabolize the experience so that healing is possible.”
When searching for a therapist, she recommends zeroing in on those that specialize in trauma and combine talk therapy with other types of therapy that address the mind-body connection. “That is what is necessary for long-term healing and emotion regulation,” Robinson says. She suggests seeking out therapists who have training in trauma-related therapies such as EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), brain spotting and trauma-focused CPT (cognitive processing therapy).
In addition, experts recommend reaching out to groups that work with survivors. While a great deal of progress can be made in individual therapy, the group piece can be critical to healing, particularly for trauma survivors who often feel isolated in the shame, pain or fear they may feel as a result of the trauma. “There are things that you’ll experience in one-on-one therapy that a group will affirm for you in ways that an individual therapist cannot,” Robinson says. “Seeing yourself in other people’s stories can be really, really empowering.”
When people tell their stories — whether to a trusted friend, therapist, group or otherwise, they have an opportunity to “regain control over how our experience is told” and shed light on the parts that don’t belong, so they can release them, Robinson says. Keeping stories hidden can cause people to internalize the shame and pain. Bringing them out of the dark and “naming the experience” allows for healing. As Robinson puts it, the traumatic experience “happened to you, but it does not belong to you.”
Sharing stories also allows people to receive support and potentially help others, too, as it happened with Ocasio-Cortez and Wood this week.
“Helping others in that way — being able to use our story and what we have survived to empower someone else that may not have previously realized there was a way out or through — can enhance our healing,” Robinson says.
But Robinson cautions that helping someone else shouldn’t be your primary motivation for working through your trauma, joining a group or sharing your story.
For many people, a public social media setting may not feel safe or conducive to healing. “Do what honors you,” Robinson says. “AOC exercised autonomy in deciding how, where and when she told her story,” and it’s up to you how you choose to share yours.
Take your time deciding what will best serve you and set your own parameters, Cheyenne says: “We can be there for other people and it’s important for us to bear witness to others’ stories, but allow yourself to take care of yourself. Know your limits and give yourself permission to not be present to every single traumatic thing that’s happening around you. Be gentle with yourself.”
And, McGirt says, if there are practices that are important to you and your culture, incorporate them in your healing journey. “I will always advocate for therapy, but I also recognize there are practices — like movement, dance, reiki and acupuncture — that have helped people heal from trauma before the field was established,” she says. McGirt often uses movement and “tapping” (a type of psychological acupressure) with her clients.
What’s important is that you do what feels right for you. “We can decide in our healing journey what we carry forward and what we leave behind,” Robinson says.
Her ultimate message is that while it can be a challenging process at times, it’s paramount to have hope.
“Humans are incredibly resilient,” she says. “And one of the beautiful things about brains is that they are malleable.” In other words, just as trauma can negatively affect your brain and body, you also have the ability to rewire and heal them.