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Fight, Flight, Paralysis

By Shannon Burgert

Once in a while, an event happens that shakes the emotional core of a community. In Boulder County, those events have mostly been natural disasters. The 2010 Fourmile Canyon wildfire destroyed 169 homes, and three years later Boulder County was hit by the catastrophic flooding of 2013. As a community, we rallied and rebuilt. Some of us were affected far more severely than others, but many of us, on some level, were part of a collective trauma and healing.

After the massive 2013 flood that destroyed most of the town of Jamestown, volunteers helped with cleanup chores, an effective way of coping with depression or stress caused by a disaster like a flood. Working together can create a collective energy that is invigorating. (photo by Sal DeVincenzo)

A shared mental state can show up in a variety of contexts. A collective depression is a phenomenon commonly seen in communities like prisons or ghettos. A common shock and grief reverberated nationally and beyond our borders in response to 9/11. People still talk about the stunning impact of Princess Diana’s violent death in 1997.

TOP PHOTO: People anxiously watch the smoke from the Sunshine Canyon Fire in 2017. Although no loss of life or property occurred, the community is understandably nervous about any wildfire after suffering through the Fourmile Canyon Fire in 2010, which destroyed 169 homes. (photo by Jedidiah McClurg)

Today’s political climate has provoked a range of emotions, including a collective despondency. For people on all sides of the political field, the 2016 campaign process felt harsh and unnerving, and the continuing polarization has bruised countless relationships among families and friends. Current government policy decisions are also contributing to shared distress within specific populations.

Psychotherapist Celia Bockhoff says people must figure out their own personal coping strategies. She suggests turning feelings of hopelessness or frustration into action, like helping victims, participating in a march or just going for a walk.
(photo courtesy Celia Bockhoff)

Boulder psychotherapist Celia Bockhoff, LCSW, gives an example. “For many immigrants moving toward citizenship, their futures are at risk,” she says. The anxiety broadens to include not only those who might be directly affected, but also those feeling empathy. Elementary school teachers are even hearing children express dismay about a number of current issues, including the fear of losing friends to deportation.

“It’s difficult to handle any of the natural disasters that come our way, but at least there’s a plan,” Bockhoff says. “We know how to respond: We’re going to get the planes out, we’re going to get the fire buckets out, we’re going to make a perimeter.” Yet not all problems have perimeters, she says, and “there’s a sense of unpredictability that’s pretty big right now.” Many national and global issues, like threats of nuclear war, environmental disasters and lost health care, carry palpable fear and anxiety.

Tune In, Turn Off

Bockhoff explains that while an event that triggers a collective mental state might be shared, the response is still personal. It can show up as oversleeping or sleeplessness, overeating or loss of appetite. People commonly report feeling helpless, unfocused and preoccupied. There can be a sense of isolation, and some people turn to distractions like TV or numbing agents like alcohol.

Coping strategies, too, are personal. “You have to figure it out for yourself,” Bockhoff says. But for good or for bad, people’s moods feed off each other. Bockhoff points to the heightened expression of fear and anger in social media, noting that some people are deciding to “defriend” those whose negativity is infectious.

Psychologist Erik Sween says our smartphones have become conduits for stress. He suggests putting the phone aside and taking a “news fast” when you feel overwhelmed by continuous news, popups and repetitive footage of traumatic events.
(photo courtesy Erik Sween)

Boulder psychologist Erik Sween, Psy.D., says his clients have been surprised, when they really pay attention, to realize how much time they’re spending on Facebook or checking the news. He thinks smartphones have changed our relationship with the telephone. What often used to serve as a break from work is now a conduit for stress, with continuous access to news and social media amplified by pop-up notifications.

Sween suggests dialing down your media intake for a few days if you’re anxious, or even considering a “news fast.” “How much news helps you feel informed and engaged, versus how much feels frustrating, enraging, overwhelming?” he says. He adds that particularly intrusive is footage of a traumatic event that is frequently replayed. “It has a way of affecting us at a deep level.”

Yoga instructor Rob Loud, who teaches at the Yoga Pod in Boulder, says cutting back doesn’t mean ignoring news and issues, but we can’t let them hijack our lives. There are so many causes—social, political, environmental—that we can get overwhelmed. “It’s a full-time job. If you were to address them all you’d just run in circles,” Loud says.

Healing Your Anxious Self

“This is a good time to rededicate yourself to your core values,” Bockhoff suggests. “Times of transition are like that. What are your priorities?” Choose one cause and turn frustration or hopelessness into action, she advises. You can make phone calls, donate money or volunteer, but make your action manageable; helping even one person can make a big difference. “The bottom line is that you want to empower yourself.” That said, she notes that community action, like the way people united to help flood victims or participated in the recent women’s and science marches, can create a collective energy that is invigorating.

Rest, exercise and healthy eating support emotional resilience, too. Bockhoff reminds people to care for themselves spiritually, and notes the many local forums and resources for supporting spiritual health. Boulder County also has a strong cadre of therapists, an important route if you are feeling particularly overwhelmed or not fully functional.

Loud emphasizes the importance of spending time with friends and family as well as focusing on the small victories in the world. “There’s lots of awesomeness going on, it’s just not on the news,” he says. Attend to the hobbies you enjoy or take on a new creative endeavor.

And get outside, says Bockhoff. “One of our greatest resources is the natural beauty that we live in. Walk in nature—it’s so restorative. It also helps us connect with the big picture and remember what’s important.”

To calm your nervous system, pay attention to your breathing, says yoga instructor Rob Loud. Yoga is his salvation in these anxious times. He says learning to be comfortable with being uncomfortable is the key. (photo by Jim Campbell, OmLightPhotography.com)

For Loud, clarity comes with quiet and focusing on breathing. “Breath is key,” he says. “When you’re depressed, it’s labored. When you panic, it speeds up. Pay attention to breathing deeply; it calms the nervous system. On some level that feels like checking out, but really it’s tuning in.”

Following the election, Loud says, he observed more distress among his students than he had in all his seven years of teaching. “It’s the biggest thing in my life, aside from 9/11, when I’ve been able to witness and experience that sort of an emotional state. There was a very tangible heaviness in the air for a long time, and there still is.” His response has been twofold: to make sure his class felt like a safe place for everyone, and to increase his own self-care. “It’s like the oxygen-mask analogy on an airplane,” he says. “If you’re depleted, you can’t help anybody else.”

For Loud, yoga was the salvation for his own depression and anxiety. “For people who are depressed or anxious, the last place you want to be is present and tuned into that sensation,” he says. “Yoga is about practicing daily being OK with being uncomfortable,” starting physically with challenging poses. Loud says those skills begin to transfer to life off the yoga mat. “I still have all the fluctuations in life, but I ride the waves more gracefully.”

Not everyone wants to practice yoga, but similar effects can be achieved through challenging yourself in other ways, whether it’s on your bike or at the piano. Find strategies that work for you, Loud says, “and even on the darkest days you can still show up with a little more enthusiasm in life. It doesn’t mean you need to like it or agree with it. But you can still show up.”


Coping Strategies

  • “I sit down in my favorite chair with a new mystery and a glass of wine or bourbon. It takes me to a place where all I have to worry about is who killed that awful man that nobody liked anyway. Just the physical signal of sitting down with the book is enough to put me in a different mood.”
  • “Exercise is crucial for my mental health, but it can take a lot to get going. When I’m in that space, I tell myself to commit to just five minutes for a walk or run or weights, and I have permission to stop if I’m no more motivated after those few minutes. Usually I keep going, but giving myself that permission often gets me out the door. And of course I remind myself that I never regret exercising, I only regret sitting on the couch.”
  • “Chocolate is my friend.”