Self-care and community care in times of trauma

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Photo by kazuend on Unsplash

Below is the message I offered Heartland Unitarian Universalist Church (Indianapolis, IN) today. I intentionally do not write about current events in the below message so we can focus our energy on ways we can care for ourselves and one another first. This is about learning and practicing models of mutual care to help us better cope and navigate the pain-stricken world we are living in. If we are to find a way through collective traumas without sacrificing one another, we must hold fast to our shared humanity. We can start by committing to peace that starts, quite literally, in our own bodies.

Please begin by breathing with me. Click the video for a guided meditation.

Soft Belly Breathing: a voice recorded breathing meditation for HUUC

Being human is messy. From the moment we are born, we are anchored in environments we didn’t choose, with people who may or may not be equipped to care for us — and usually, that’s not for lack of want.

I work in a newborn intensive care unit, so my concerns for humanity are always anchored in love for the littlest people. This also gives me great compassion for grown humans. We were all little people once…

When our most basic needs are met, our brains flourish. We go through periods of rapid development where our neural networks are growing the foundations of our future. Bonding plays a huge role in this. The first few months are critical with respect to co-regulation and security. Infants who have all their physical needs met but do not have a well-bonded caregiver are at risk for many lifelong problems — emotionally, cognitively, developmentally, interpersonally, and more. No one should ever worry about spoiling a baby with too much comforting attention; quite frankly, the greatest threat to current and future generations is not getting enough.

In the NICU, while professional expertise and life-saving equipment do miraculous work, the absolute best medicine for any infant is skin-to-skin care with their parents. The intimate skin-contact between parent and child regulates the baby’s temperature, pulse, and breathing rate. Many infants in NICU have problems with these things — so parent care is not only intimately nurturing, but can be clinically stabilizing. Studies have shown long-term developmental benefits of skin-to-skin care beyond the NICU. Parents are providing co-regulation for their infants, giving them the soothing support they need to feel safe and grow.

What’s happening? The parent-child connection literally impacts our biochemistry, soothing the autonomic nervous system responsible for our most critical life needs: breathing, blood circulation, digestion, brain function. From birth, we are wired to need each other. As adults, we still need bonded relationships to function at our best (mutual care), and we also need independent skills to cope with stress.

Our autonomic nervous system has balancing parts. Our sympathetic nervous system responds to stressors in our environment. It’s the operating system for our fight, flight, and fawn responses. If a car comes screeching toward you when you’re on a sidewalk, it’s your fight or flight response that makes you jump, your pulse race, your attention scan your environment to make its next move. It pumps out adrenaline and cortisol to fuel our escape from turmoil. We wouldn’t survive without it. Of course, all kinds of stress trigger our sympathetic nervous system. What we don’t want is to have our bodies responding to texts, emails, and media like we are being chased by an actual tiger trying to maul us. We want our baseline to be healthy regulation, to know the difference between a tiger and a text message.

We want to be able to think clearly, have compassion for ourselves and others, and tap into the best of our own skills, when needed, for mutual care and problem solving.

Our parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for providing the antidote to our stress response. It’s easy to remember the difference. “Sympathetic = stress.” “Parasympathetic — peace.”

The vagus nerve is the communication pathway for our parasympathetic response. “It wanders up from the belly, through the chest, to the brain… where it taps into the frontal part of the cerebral cortex, engaging the areas responsible for judgment, self-awareness, and compassion” (quoting the CMBM meditation). So let’s keep playing with our words here. P is for Parasympathetic nervous system, P is for Peace, P is for “Prefrontal cortex.”

Ideally, our bodies regulate when we realize a threat isn’t real. The sympathetic nervous system pumps the gas to jolt us into action, and the parasympathetic pumps the brakes to slow things down and regulate our pulse and breath back to normal.

Unfortunately, our nervous systems can become incredibly unbalanced in response to chronic stress, and we have to find methods like soft-belly breathing, regular exercise, long hugs, meditations, and other very effective tools to intentionally bring our bodies back to homeostasis. If not, we risk living out of a state of hyper-vigilance, hyper-arousal, and decreased ability to engage in healthy behaviors — especially in our relationships.

I don’t know about you, but the events of the past two weeks have my sympathetic nervous system working overdrive.

When our stress system is firing on all cylinders, or even just emitting a consistent flow of cortisol, we tend to be more defensive, less empathetic, less capable of processing new or different information, more prone to snap or say hurtful things, or more prone to freeze and maintain silence where what you really need is to have a safe space to speak.

When we recognize that we are feeling this kind of immense stress, the first thing we can do is engage in activities that will help soothe our nervous system. Not only is this important for our emotional and physical wellbeing, it is critical to tending our most important relationships and showing up to provide care for others in need.

Before we even consider engaging in a difficult conversation or walking into a volatile or grief-filled environment, we need to check our pulse. Literally.

When we are in a state of stress arousal, our amygdala acts like the boss. And it’s not nice. Its job is to help you survive scary things, not make friends or solve complex, nuanced problems. If you have a kiddo in primary school right now, you might have heard them talk about their “lizard brain.” That’s the amygdala. It’s what teachers are trying to help kiddos learn to regulate their emotions through positive coping mechanisms that activate their body’s built-in “peace” response.

If we want to have a healthy interaction with others in times of individual or shared trauma, we need to be talking prefrontal cortex to prefrontal cortex, not lizard brain to lizard brain. We have to be mindful of ourselves so we can be mindful of others. Because what happens?

If we are in our lizard brains, we’re not going to hear each other. Our stress hormones are quite literally blocking our ability to have a productive conversation. We can’t soothe, and we can’t comfort. We can’t learn, and we can’t teach when our bodies are flooded with cortisol.

Even if we start out regulated, one of the dangers of interacting with someone else who is experiencing acute stress is being pulled from our prefrontal cortex to our lizard brain. This is why we need to practice engaging our parasympathetic nervous system in non-threatening situations so we have more control over it.

That said — trauma never happens at a good time.

The BEST case scenario for mutual care in times of trauma is: we regulate our nervous systems first. We find our “P” for peace, we steady ourselves in our prefrontal cortex so we can exercise compassion and understanding, and in doing so we provide co-regulation for one another. And we prioritize this as a life-saving measure for ourselves and others, not a fluffy extra.

When we remain calm and breathe deeply through difficult conversations to keep our stress response at bay, we have the capacity to help others who are in heightened states of distress experience relief, tap into their own parasympathetic responses. And when we’re distressed, we depend on others to help us do the same. This is where we want to be: meeting one another prefrontal-cortex to prefrontal-cortex, forehead to forehead, because in that space, we are attuned to one another’s needs, we hear each other’s perspectives clearly, and we are able to access our own greatest creativity, compassion, and problem-solving together.

That said, our best attempts at mutual understanding can be extremely challenging. At any point, we might find ourselves moving from our prefrontal cortex to our lizard brain. And then, we need a pause button.

My hubs and I have an emotional safe word. It’s a super silly word. If you hear one of us exclaim, “fuzzy caterpillar”, it means one or both of us are not ok. This is a non-negotiable stop button for us. We are free to change the conversation, to go find our own calm however is best for us, or just give each other a hug, tell each other we love each other. But we DO NOT keep pressing whatever we were talking about. In the last two weeks, one or both of us has said “fuzzy caterpillar” almost daily. Quite frankly, it’s brilliant.

Things like that might work with our partners, the people we are closest to. They might even work for relationships that we are trying to repair. It’s an acknowledgment that we care for one another more than we care for “winning” an argument right now.

The stakes are extremely high for life right now.

The basics of trauma-informed care ask us to reframe a common question that we have when we are faced with other’s behaviors we can’t understand. Instead of saying “what’s wrong with you?” We ask, “What happened to you?”

This opens us to curiosity. It compels us to ask how we are going to respond to suffering, rather than who we are going to blame for it. It recognizes that we are all the sum of life experiences that we haven’t had entire control over, that have formed and shaped us, and influence how we show up for ourselves and others. It centers us in compassion.

When we commit to this attitude, we can then lean into the five components of trauma-informed care to help us center the needs of another hurting person (or group of people). Or, if we are the ones needing help, we can ask for what we need, using this language. While these are written for clinical settings, we can still take wisdom from them.

SAFETY: If we do not feel safe, we cannot heal. If we do not foster safety for one another, we cannot engage in any meaningful mutual care. This component of care recognizes that our environment matters. This can be very personal to every situation. A helpful question might be: where would you feel most comfortable and safe talking? Hint: this probably is not on social media!

TRUSTWORTHINESS: Trustworthiness means that we are dedicated to confidentiality, we are consistent in our behaviors and approach, and we respect one another’s emotional limits. Most importantly, we need to know that we have each other’s back; we are NOT going to add hurt to hurt.

CHOICE: We cannot dictate healing for anyone. This goes for matters of personal healthcare just as it goes to supporting folks who are hurt by war right now. Choice means that the people most affected by the trauma are the ones who are supported with options in autonomous decision making. One of the first things trauma takes away is choice. One of the most important things to restore is choice.

COLLABORATION: This is where we engage in active listening. We provide guidance where appropriate, and we demonstrate a commitment to shared decision-making. The opposite of collaboration is dictating next steps and ignoring the voice and needs and input of those most impacted.

EMPOWERMENT: The final component of trauma-informed care is emphasizing strengths, exploring coping strategies, and focusing on steps for well-being.

This is a lot, I know. We’ve talked about the importance of engaging in stress relief from a physiological standpoint. We have the ability to learn and practice coping strategies that will enhance our health and our ability to show up for one another. If we only talked about that today, it would be enough.

But there are devastating, complex crises in our midst, and we have no choice but to navigate in a world of trauma. Sometimes those traumas will cut very close for us, and less so for others. And vice-versa.

One of the incredible dangers I see is that we forget we belong to one another. The news and social media might as well be direct IVs pumping cortisol through our veins, and we react with fear, uncertainty, and aggressive opinions. We end up “othering” people that until now we thought we loved.

Who deserves trauma-informed care?

Everyone.

Lizard brain thinking has taken command of the world.

Our only hope is to take it back, one breath, one friendship, one outstretched hand at a time.

Closing words:

May we go forth committed to caring for ourselves and one another in good times and bad, to declaring “fuzzy caterpillar” when needed, and remaining steadfast in safeguarding our shared humanity.

Refusing to succumb to our lizard brains may be the most radical thing we can do to bring healing to our hurting world. May our resistance bring a flourishing of mutual nurturing, creativity, new ways forward, and hope.

May we honor those who are deeply committed to this work and amplify their examples.

Helpful Resources (added 10/23/23):

Center for Mind-Body Medicine Resources — Click to find self-care basics, webinars, courses, books & publications, skills groups, and more. I completed my certification as a Mind-Body Medicine practitioner through CMBM; their trainings are excellent. CMBM has been doing work in Israel and Palestine for years.

IU Trauma-Informed Care (TIC) Professional Certificate — FREE online course through IU School of Public Health. The five principles I shared above are based on this model. There are other models that include Peer Support as a core feature of TIC as well as Cultural, Historical, and Gender Issues. See CDC Infographic. Search online and you can find a lot of info!

Take care of you. Scroll past the photo below if you would like to read a prayer related to this sermon and current traumas that I included in our service. If not, love and peace, self and community care to you.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Prayer for beloved ones suffering from violence in their homelands, and for those of us who don’t know what to do:

We extend our love and care to those suffering at the heart of these traumatic times. May our Jewish, Muslim, and Arab Christian neighbors receive abundant self-care and community care from the interfaith community of which we are all a part — that their processes of healing and mutual understanding be eased by grace and co-support, especially while divisive violence rages in their homelands and across the globe. May new ways to lasting peace and justice come. May we — interfaith friends— commit to trauma-informed care values of safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration, and empowerment for every grieving and endangered human being, centering their needs, and remembering always, we belong to one another. May we show up again and again in LOVE. Amen.

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Angela Nevitt Meyer
Brownsburg Inclusive Catholic Community

Catholic priest (RCWP) all about Love & Belonging | Reproductive Dignity | 🌈 | Evolving Church | Healing Work | She/her