“We are in such an unprecedented moment of global uprisings that fall against the backdrop of a global pandemic which is against the backdrop of institutionalized and historical racism and racialized oppression in this country and across the world. In the midst of that, we are trying to figure out how do we transform ourselves and our communities to make more room for justice in the world…. We can ground in the present moment but that doesn’t mean that we don’t act, that doesn’t mean we don’t move. We are not looking for a practice that is going to take us out of engagement with the world and engagement with our offering [but rather] a practice that is going to allow us to be with what is, to settle into this moment so we can perceive more choices; we can have a more embodied, a more daring vision for the world we can build.”
– Prentis Hemphill, Somatic Centering (IGTV)
Like all animals, our bodies are biologically designed to respond to threat, and once the threat is over, return to homeostasis. Each organ and neural circuit, each molecule and cell, are part of an involuntary self-regulating process by which the body attempts to maintain stability while adjusting to conditions in the outside world – moment by moment for optimal survival. The stability it desires is not one of stagnation, but of dynamic equilibrium, continuous change, and maximization of the power within.
We are also designed for mobilization. When we sense a threat, our bodies move into action. The cue for mobilization often begins with a startle response–the body goes slightly stiff and still, while the eyes and pupils widen to expand our peripheral vision. Blood flow moves away from the limbs into the core, heart rate elevates, and breathing shallows in preparation for fight or flight. Next, we orient. In the wild, mammals begin the orienting process by scanning the distance. If there is no identifiable threat, they then turn their attention closer. If a threat is identified, the body goes into action. The blood moves quickly into the limbs, giving a sudden burst of energy for running, fighting or defending. This all happens involuntarily. If fight or flight is not possible, we freeze. When a body is frozen, a predator may lose interest or we may be overlooked. The next line of self-preservation is a type of stillness called dorsal vagal–the body slows way down and blood flow decreases to minimize potential blood loss. Pain receptors also deaden. And there is a detachment from the self.
In the wild, when mammals are once free of the threat, they rejoin their group, shake it off, pronk–jump up and down–to disperse the excess adrenaline, and, eventually, reorient and then return to alert, but relaxed, state of aliveness and a sense of relative safety.
Humans are driven by the same innate survival mechanisms. The mobilization or conservation of power within our bodies and the structure of each interlocking biological system strive to return to optimal stability. For the most part though, we have lost connection with the signals our bodies are giving us. The threats we face are often more complex than the body can readily comprehend. We go into overdrive or shut down and our systems are unable to process the horrors we experience, so we store the memories, feelings, and sensations as trauma. Trauma is distinct physiologically as it is stored in our short-term rather than long-term memory. This thwarts the body in its attempt to return to equilibrium. Because of this, trauma often keeps our bodies and brains from being able to most effectively mobilize, even when we are dedicated to political mobilization.
I was politicized as a feminist, anarchist, and social ecologist in the late 1980s, and have been involved in organizational and street activism. For the past five years I have worked as a somatic-based therapist, supporting individuals and movement groups in understanding and processing trauma. As an activist, I have seen the effects of unprocessed trauma in our movement work. The threats we face are pervasive–white supremacy, police violence, and global capitalism, to name a few. The part of our brain that mobilizes against threat wants a specific target–something it can focus its eyes on–and when the threat is pervasive it can become overwhelmed. This is compounded by the close-up threat-inundation created by the hyper-focus our eyes go into when scanning on digital media. In fact, the body actually reads this as a threat that has crossed our innermost boundary, just inches away.
When the threat signal is immediate, relentless, and close (or perceived to be), and people don’t have a solid understanding of how to work with and coax the nervous system back into regulation, people tend to see the enemy in the people who are closest. Our relationships, groups and movements devolve into fighting, blaming. Or people turn the threat inward, becoming immobilized by depression and shame. I have seen this happen in almost every organizing project I have been part of, or heard of, and I see it happening now on the streets. In the healing professions, the effects of trauma are mostly described as the following:
- Re-experiencing(reliving what happened, feeling like it’s happening again, getting upset at reminders)
- Avoidance(trying to block it out and not think about it, feeling numb or no emotions)
- Increased arousal(always feeling afraid something bad will happen, being easily startled/jumpy, having trouble with sleep or concentration, going into fight-or-flight mode)
- Dissociation(feeling like everything is unreal or like a dream, having trouble remembering parts of what happened)
- Other(e.g., sleep issues, appetite issues, sense of hopelessness, isolation, withdrawal from others, excessive alcohol or drug use to cope, heightened irritability with others, headaches, muscle fatigue)
In order to shift this involuntary process and regain the innate power and resilience of our bodies’ drive to return to homeostasis, we have to consciously partner with our bodies and teach our brains to recognize what I like to refer to as relative safety.
Relative safety recognizes that there is no mythological safe place, and healing trauma does not require complete lack of danger. Relative safety means we find safety amidst the danger. This can look like prioritizing having a debrief with friends. It can be looking away from doom scrolling and taking in your actual surroundings. Relative safety can be a moment of silence at a protest, a minute where, as Prentis Hall describes in their IGTV Street Somatics, “if you’re out in the streets … or witnessing on livestream, something you can do to bring your body back down is find something stable. It can be a wall, the floor, just let your body press up against there, find a seat, let your body experience something stable and find your breath (and then) deepen your breath.”1
There is significant resistance to addressing trauma in our movements. To acknowledge or give time to address trauma seems to be seen as betrayal. For example, how often do we encounter sentiments like, “I’m not going to indulge my feelings about being attacked by police at the protest because it fuels my anger and we all need to be raging like hell to end the police state.” This mentality does not serve us. We need to consider building trauma resiliency as an essential and normalized part of our movements and actions. As Healing in Action: A Toolkit for Black Lives Matter Healing Justice and Direct Action states:
In high stakes or high stress situations, we are at greater risk of reacting from a place of trauma. Organizing against violence and for Black liberation can consciously or unconsciously trigger us to relive unhealed experiences in which we, our ancestors and our communities have been oppressed and violated. That revisited pain becomes the anger that motivates us into action. Yet, sourcing our wounds and trauma in this way takes a hefty toll.2
Tools for Building the Power Within
Building trauma resiliency does not have to be a separate thing from the work you are already doing. Once we understand our stress responses as physiological imperatives, we can address them as a necessity. With practice, trauma processing and prevention can become as common sense as bringing a mask and goggles to street actions. And there are many hacks for helping us to integrate trauma resiliency into everyday life.
As a trauma therapist, I help people find ways to listen to the cues of their bodies, and complete the threat response cycles that are repeatedly triggered both on the streets and in daily life. The key to all somatic trauma work is bringing curiosity to how the body is responding in a moment. I bring curiosity to whether a person is hypervigilant, or if their coping mechanism is chronic avoidance. I get curious about their fight/flight/freeze/fawn patterns and how to engage, bring awareness, and shift successfully to complete patterns that are stuck.
In this current moment, one of the recurring things that I see in my office, at protests and other movement spaces is a profound disorientation. Covid-19 has altered our daily lives in disorienting and continually stress-inducing ways. As Surviving a Pandemic: Tools for Addressing Isolation, Anxiety, and Grief captures so well: “The fabric of our daily lives was suddenly altered without warning or a clear transition. Along with loved ones who have died or may die in the pandemic, we grieve the loss of the touch of friends, seeing each other’s faces.”3
It is not just the pandemic that leads to our disorientation though, but the trauma we face every day from living under such a violent and oppressive system, including the utter disregard for Black lives and unapologetic murder of Black people by police. In protests, and demonstrations, this is further intensified by the hyper-violence of the police and white supremacists, which can make it all the more difficult to move away from hyper-vigilance into accurate orienting in these settings.
Restoring the Orienting Response
Whether in the streets or organizing in other spaces, most of us are currently struggling with trauma response in terms of how well we orient. To restore equilibrium, you can begin by simply noticing your pattern. Once you start to notice your own patterned responses, you can then use certain techniques to help better orient. Prentis Hall’s advice to sit down or press against a wall is an excellent form of orientation. It uses the sensory system’s experience of pressure on the skin and proprioceptive information to orient the body to where you are in time and space.
Additional orientation practices include the following:
This is different from the hypervigilant scan. In the soft scan, you simply allow your head and neck to move slowly, taking in what is life-affirming or pleasurable around you. For example, at a moment of relative calm in a protest, you might slowly scan–not for an escape or to check on your friends–but simply to take in the joy or creativity present, or the love you have for specific friends in the crowd. For this practice, start by scanning in the distance. Allow your eyes to take in what is farthest away. Invite curiosity. This can be done any time outside of protest settings as well. I encourage people to build a practice of orienting or looking around softly whenever entering new environments. It takes less than a minute and helps the nervous system know you are partnering with it for greater resiliency.
Increasing the periphery
Surviving a Pandemic: Tools for Addressing Isolation, Anxiety, and Grief offers this orienting exercise:
Slowly extend your arms out in front of you and move them outward to the edges of what is just within your peripheral view. Once you have found that spot, turn your palms in and slowly wiggle your fingers. As you focus on a point farthest away from you, notice how your eyes soften. Allow your eyes to rest and tap into a deeper sense of centering. Notice how you can hold relaxed vision and pay attention to the movement of your fingers at the same time. In this place, you are in balance with a relaxed alertness, ready to respond to threat from an underlying state of calm.4
Responding to Fight and Flight
When our bodies fail to recognize when we no longer need the fight-or-flight response, we get stuck in an endless production of adrenaline. To help the body regain equilibrium, if a person is able to engage the fight/flight muscles even for a moment, this can let the brain know that it is getting the message – i.e., the brain perceives a return to “safety.” These simple hacks have given a lot of relief to many people.
Fight and other boundary-protection responses tend to create a lot of physiological activation in the upper body. If you are sitting, you can put the palms of your hands on your thighs or the chair and do a series of push-and-release motions – push for a count of three or longer and then release, really paying attention to the release and lingering on it for a count of three or more. Generally, doing this three times in a row is helpful.
Similarly, flight often lands in our stomach, pelvis, and legs. Sitting down with your feet on the floor, push one foot into the floor and then the other in a slow-motion run. Pay attention to your breath as you do this, and be careful not to force deep breathing, but rather allow your natural breath to come and deepen.
Visualization with Fight and Flight
When returning from stressful or traumatic protests, taking a few minutes to do some visualization can also help to restore the body. If you are having recurring thoughts of a moment when you would have liked to fight or intervene, sit and do the pushing exercise. Then imagine the exact movements you would have acted. Notice the particular muscle systems that would have engaged in order for this to be able to happen. Bring in a fierce ally to do whatever magical thing would need to be done to allow your fight response to be successful, like a magical beast or epic wind gale backing you up as you eviscerate a cop or rescue someone you saw being harmed. The weird thing about somatic work is that when you are attending to your physiological responses, the body does not care whether you are imagining reality or not. When the visualization is done, if you are able, stand up with legs spread comfortably apart, fists on hips and chin up in a power pose, and orient to the present environment and the strength in your body.
For flight visualization, do the slow-motion running exercise while imagining yourself back at the protest, only this time able to turn and run away. Imagine there are plenty of people there to fill your spot, allowing you to turn and leave without any sense of betrayal. Turn your head slightly in both the visualization and in real life, and continue to push your feet–one and then the other– into the floor. Now, imagine the crowd parting for you with care and compassion, allowing you to slowly walk away and onto a magic carpet or bridge that can take you to your relatively safe place, where you are right now. As you are on the magic carpet or bridge, move your neck–again, both in the visualization and in real life–and imagine what you would see on either side of you as you depart the threatening area and enter a path of relative safety. For example, you may picture that you enter a path in a forest between the protests and where you are now.
Return to the Flock
Industrial society, the genocidal violence of white supremacy, and the capitalist idealization of the nuclear family have severed many of us from ritual and community structures necessary for completing stress responses after intense situations. We may not always have a way to surround ourselves with loved ones and “shake it off.” Purposeful grounding can be a way to connect deeper and further with our bodies’ natural equilibrium, and have that depth of connection buoy and protect you from having intense stress become trauma. The Black Lives Matter Emotional and Physical Safety in Protest one-sheet suggests that along with creating a safety and/or support plan, packing a wellness bag and speaking an affirmation can help keep you grounded in purpose (such as Octavia Butler’s verse in Earthseed: “All that you touch you change / All that you change changes you / The only lasting truth / Is change).”5
If you are, in fact, able to return to a group of friends or people who care about you after a protest or stressful situation, try and allow your body to restore equilibrium by shaking it off. This helps to prevent the stress from being stored in the nervous system as trauma, and may look like shivering, laughing, crying, or just resting and letting your body collapse and restore itself.
Covid-19 has robbed us of some of the more natural ways people tend to debrief after protests. We can no longer go to the bar, gather and hug, and see expressions of fear, jubilation, sadness and love mirrored in each other’s faces. As a therapist, I hear more stories of people going to protests alone and returning home alone afterward, and then in the aftermath, feeling a profound sense of having to hold all that happened alone. People want me to help them find better coping skills for this isolating period when we don’t have access to the same kind of social supports and connections.
Healing in Action: A Toolkit for Black Lives Matter Healing Justice & Direct Action states:
The time following an action can help lay foundation for the practice of centering healing justice. In trauma research, resilience practices are those which restore us, bringing us back into our motivated and committed selves after a traumatic event. Resilience is distinct from coping. We often use coping strategies to get through or numb out following a trauma. Coping has its own utility, but growth comes from eventually addressing the trauma, initiating healing, and finding resilience.6
We need to debrief and create structures of coming together despite the extended nature of the pandemic. The toolkit suggests that debriefs focus not so much on what worked or didn’t work, but rather on what feelings are coming up, what was triggered or needs to be healed or repaired in the group, and consciously returning to individual and group purpose.
Collective Care as Resilience
We come to activism and organizing for different reasons–out of hope or anger, alienation or connection, firsthand experience of the damage caused by systems of oppression, or having witnessed that damage with a sense of helplessness and wanting to become empowered to strategically intervene. As anarchists, we want to abolish the world that is built on power over others, and instead create a world where power is held tenderly within each and every one of us and where power is openly shared with each other for the benefit of all.
Building resilience around stress and trauma is not asking us to forgo activism and turn the gaze solely inward; it is simply asking that we use all the tools available to create vibrant and sustainable resistance. Many of us have been trained to view our bodies with disdain. We miss or misunderstand the messages the body sends us. Basic understanding of trauma, the threat response cycle, and how to respond to bodily cues helps us regain an innate strength that is our birthright.
Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, in conversation with Cara Page, a founding member of the Kindred Southern Healing Justice Collective, speaks as someone who has experienced burnout, saying: “I think part of what happens is, as an organizer, especially as a black woman organizer, people think it’s ‘natural’ for us to do the work that we do. That we are exceptional and that this is just what we do there’s no care that’s needed for us, that there’s no care that’s given to us in real and thoughtful ways.”7
It is worth it for each and every one of us, as anarchists, to think critically about how we extend care in various kinds of circumstances, how we receive care, and how and why we resist care. Are you the type of person who extends care by showing up consistently? By checking in on others? By providing or organizing material support? By including members of the group who are outside the main clique? As anarchists, the world we want to build is a caring world, and as the ends cannot justify the means, we must understand that our foundations must be built on care, and that care is different from taking-care-of.
Over the years, I have repeatedly seen groups fracture and implode during times of increased stress, where trauma-induced responses are triggered. Personality differences and strategic preferences that once were tolerable become targets of the trauma induced adrenaline threat response.
It is well documented that stressful events tend to become traumatic when the systems people thought were in place to support them fail, when it feels like no one cares. This is seen in natural (or man-made) disaster recovery work, and currently starkly apparent with the unwillingness of the United States government to effectively respond to the Covid pandemic. Likewise, in grant-funded non-profit movement work, we see people driven to sacrifice their own mental and physical health to meet unsustainable levels of work, under pressure from bosses who cynically place the burden of care onto the individual under the moniker of “self-care.” We don’t want to replicate these failures.
We need to ask ourselves: What steps can we take to show up for each other with true care, even amongst our differences and our sometimes conflicting trauma responses and coping strategies? For example, if your response to stress is to move into overdrive–diving into every available activity at full force, and mine is to slow down and look toward developing deeper interpersonal ties–how do we acknowledge and hold these differences tenderly without adapting stances of moral and political superiority? And are we willing to increase self-awareness, deepen our vulnerability, and build resilience within the self as a way to build collective power?
When we trace the biological response to threat in mammals, including humans, we see that the first line of protection, before we turn to fight/flight/freeze, is to simply look for a helper. In the wild, we see young monkeys jump into their mother’s arms, deer move closer together at a sign of threat. In my office I see the effects of traumatic events mitigated in people when they have had in their life a caring, grounded adult who was able to be present with them through the trauma, without trying to “fix” it or make it go away.
A simple exercise to practice holding care for one another is as follows:
Sit next to a friend or organizing partner. Acknowledge to yourself that they have everything they need within themselves to heal. Place your hand on their shoulder or firmly press your palm against their upper arm. If no touch is preferred, just sit close together, side by side. First, play with giving too much attention – imagine pushing your helpful intention into them through your hand or look at them with excessive amounts of concern. Then play with being removed. Disconnect your energy so you can hardly feel them through your hand, or hardly notice their presence. Then focus again on just being present with them. Feel your hand on their arm and notice a firm but gentle connection that just says, “I am here.” Stay with that and really mark that feeling of presence. Next, take your time and notice their breathing slowly changing the rhythm of your breathing to match theirs. Then slowly deepen your breathing and allow them to deepen their breath in response.
This exercise allows us to explore both what it feels like to give care without being drained, and to accept simple care without avoidance or the need for immediate reciprocation. It builds trust and power on a physiological and interpersonal level. Like the other exercises offered here, it is simple although not always easy, because when we are more able to return to self-regulation and healthy co-regulation, we are also able to more fully experience vulnerability and grief along with flexibility, connection, and joy.
By doing the vulnerable work of identifying stress and trauma responses, deepening our relationships with our physiological cues, and showing up for each other in grounded and sustainable ways, we can break the historical pattern of political movements fracturing, disintegrating, and burning out. By including somatic-based tools in our arsenal, we will be able to build more resilient movements to face the coming years.
“Power Within” appears in the Power issue (No. 32) of Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, available from the Institute for Anarchist Studies by clicking here!
Cindy Crabb is a trauma therapist, author, musician, and feminist. Her zine Doris played a central role in the 1990s girl zine movement associated with third-wave feminism. Doris drew attention to sexual assault and consent along with myriad other personal and political topics. She currently resides in Pittsburgh.
1 Prentis Hall teaches with Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity (https://boldorganizing.org/) and is former Healing Justice Director at Black Lives Matter Global Network (https://blacklivesmatter.com/) and a board member for National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network (https://www.nqttcn.com).
2 Black Lives Matter, Healing in Action: A Toolkit for Black Lives Matter Healing Justice and Direct Action, October 2017, available at: https://blacklivesmatter.com/wp-content/
uploads/2017/10/BLM_HealinginAction-1-1.pdf (accessed on November 24, 2020).
3 CrimethInc., Surviving a Pandemic: Tools for Addressing Isolation, Anxiety, and Grief, May 7, 2020, available at: https://crimethinc.com/2020/05/07/surviving-a-pandemic-
tools-for-addressing-isolation-anxiety-and-grief (accessed November 24, 2020).
5 adrienne maree brown, Autumn Brown, Mark-Anthony Johnson, Naima Penniman, and Adaku Utah, Emotional and Physical Safety in Protest, December 18, 2014, available at: https://justhealing.wordpress.com/resourcing-the-work/(accessed on November 24, 2020).
6 Black Lives Matter, Healing in Action.
7 Patrisse Cullors (Co-founder of Black Lives Matter), interview with Cara Page (Founding member of the Kindred Southern Healing Justice Collective), Good Morning America. “What is ‘Healing Justice’?,” aired July 24, 2020, on ABC, https://www.goodmorningamerica.com/culture/video/healing-justice-71932989.