Here are two things I know to be true.
First, things have been unusually hard for those of us here in the US since the inauguration of the Trump presidency. It seems like every time I look at the news there’s some fresh heartbreak splashed across the front page.
Second, the body’s natural response to fear is ultimately counterproductive in situations like this.
The highest priority of body and brain are to protect you from danger and remove you from stressful situations.
Unfortunately, there is no way to remove yourself from the situation of the Trump presidency.
For better or worse, we’re stuck with him for the time being. Which means that the brain, left to its own devices, will try and remove you from the situation not by changing your circumstances, but by removing your experience of those circumstances through numbing and apathy.
The problem with this approach is that there is no way to selectively numb the body or the emotions. They only way to stop ourselves from feeling the bad things is to stop ourselves from feeling everything. And if this happens to us, we begin to lose touch with our joys alongside our sorrows, and our lives become leached of their vibrancy and vitality.
My point is not that you shouldn’t be afraid — I personally think you should be at least a little bit afraid. Your fear is there to help you pay attention. Your nervous system has correctly identified a possible threat to your well-being.
The problem is that the Trump presidency isn’t an immediate and present danger you can physically fight or flee from. And when the body’s fear response is triggered in an ongoing way and the danger can’t be fought or fled, it has only two last-ditch responses: freeze or shut down altogether.
As we move forward we need to pay attention to our fear — but we also need to recognize that if our nervous systems remain highly activated in response to an ongoing situation, we’re going to end up feeling emotionally wrecked, physically ill, and possibly even traumatized.
Because when the body is locked in fight, flight, or freeze in response to fear it turns off a lot of key functions. When our fear-response is a short-lived response, a natural reaction to a passing danger this works beautifully. But in the presence of an ongoing threat, the system starts to break down.
The good news is that if we are conscious of what is happening in our brains and in our bodies we can take proactive action to protect ourselves from stress and to create a more productive response to fear.
We can begin to do this by noticing that the threat isn’t immediate and allowing ourselves to return to the safety of the present moment. Yes, the Trump presidency is awful and many heartbreaking things will probably come to pass in the next four years. And yet, for most of us, we are as safe today as we were six months ago. The worst has not yet come to pass.
So for now we can take refuge in the recognition of this fact. We come back to our body, to our breath, in this moment in which we are still safe.
This isn’t about hiding from what’s happening and it’s not about burying our heads in the sand. It’s about returning our bodies to balance so that we can be strong enough to continue to fight.
When we return to safety in the present moment, it allows the nervous system to relax. The fight or flight response eases, the body returns to a healthy equilibrium, and we become more resilient and able to take constructive action in the future.
My preferred technique for bringing equilibrium back to the body is meditation, which is one of the most powerful tools I’ve found for reconnecting with my body and engaging with the present moment.
But here’s the thing most people don’t tell you about meditation: it’s really freaking hard! It’s sort like the black-belt of mindfulness practices — highly-effective, but not necessarily for beginners. It took me years of off-and-on practice to really see a benefit from it.
This isn’t necessarily a problem, but sometimes it means it’s best to try a different approach. If you’ve tried meditation before and feel like you “can’t meditate” or you’ve benefited from meditation before but now find yourself struggling, here are a few simple things to try.
- Focus on your heartbeat. I do this lying in bed at night sometimes when I’m having trouble sleeping. Just lie down flat on your back somewhere comfortable and put your hands over your heart and feel it’s steady thump-thump-thumping. I’m convinced there’s something primally comforting about the rhythm of a heartbeat left over from our time spent in the womb.
- Try a guided body scan. This is a mindfulness exercise that is similar to meditation but gives the mind a task to latch onto — bringing the attention to the physical sensations in the body. You can find a ton of these on the internet, so feel free to google for one you like. If you’re new to the practice I recommend starting with a ~10-minute recording such as this one, which is technically intended to help you sleep but could be used any time.
- Express yourself creatively. If you have a lot of stress and emotions flying about doing something creative can be really helpful. I’m a writer, so I turn to my journal for this, but you might try painting, coloring, dancing, singing — whatever you love to do, really.
- Practice yoga. I really like yoga because it is fundamentally an embodied practice that unites body and breath. It can be particularly helpful in situations where you might be feeling too unsettled to relax easily into meditation. Yoga encourages the body to relax into movement and into the rhythm of the breath. If you’re looking for resources, Yoga With Adriene is my favorite way to practice these days.
As we slowly and persistently practice bringing our attention back into the physical sensations in the body and to an awareness of the present moment, we accomplish two important things. We learn to find a visceral experience of safety in the body in any moment which allows the activated nervous system to relax, and we increase our tolerance for experiencing uncomfortable sensations.
We begin to teach ourselves that fear or sadness or pain are just sensations we experience in our physical bodies in response to stimulus. A lot of the struggle we experience around these emotions is our own resistance to feeling what we’re feeling.
When my chronic pain flares, I make it worse by believing that pain is something “bad” and that I shouldn’t be feeling it. The truth is that pain is just a sensation — a hot, stabbing, fire in my nerves.
When I drop my story about it and just feel the sensation in the present moment, I learn something that is obvious, but easy to overlook: I’m always able to handle my pain; I’m always already doing it. In each moment, I’m already feeling the full intensity of the sensation and I’m still breathing — I’m still fundamentally okay.
When I remember this, I find the pain eases — the sensation might remain but my resistance to feeling it diminishes and the pain becomes easier to bear.
This is what I mean by returning to a felt-sense of safety in the present moment: I might be scared or hurting, but if I sit down with myself in the moment, I realize that I can feel these things and still be okay. In fact, I’m always already doing it.
I believe that being able to return to this felt-sense of safety, to being grounded in our bodies, and aware of the present moment is the foundation from which all courage is born.
When we learn to see that we are always already handling our difficulties in the present moment, it becomes easier to see how safe we really are, to see that “bad” things can happen, that we can be hurting, and still be fundamentally okay.
It is this belief in our own safety, even in difficult situations, that makes it possible to act in ways that require our courage — because courage always requires taking the risk that things will end badly.
The coming years are going to ask each of us to be as brave as we have ever been.
The courage that we will need starts here: it starts with paying attention to our fear, returning to our safety in the present moment, and helping ourselves feel safe from the inside out, so that we can show up in the world with all the courage as we can possibly muster.