A State of Trauma
In the years following 2016, longstanding forms of oppression were cruelly reinvigorated, fueled by the fear and hate stoked by callous politicians.
Oppressed communities across North America were re-traumatized and newly traumatized on multiple fronts.
Even when our particular group was not the direct target of a terrorizing legislation or violation, we experienced the vicarious trauma of the helpless witness.
Plus, we never knew when our community’s turn was coming.
Every historically marginalized community in the United States was viciously and repeatedly attacked by the 45th president and his supporters via official or covert policies.
Immigrant children and adults, Black people, Indigenous people, people of Asian, Middle Eastern and Latinx descent were targeted with brutal thoroughness.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and non-binary people were persecuted. Disabled people and sexual assault survivors were publicly mocked and betrayed.
Communities were stretched beyond capacity for months on end, fighting to exist while managing acute trauma reactions.
At the same time, 45 and his enablers spoke and acted just like violating, gaslighting parents or partners.
These abusive behaviors by people in authority reminded survivors of domestic and institutional abuse of the emotional, physical, and sexual horrors they endured.
Many were plunged back into old survival reactions and feelings of despair.
Then Covid arrived.
Institutional responses to the pandemic have exacerbated ongoing social injustices, amplified income disparities, increased financial insecurity and tacitly sacrificed working class black, brown and indigenous lives to the white status quo “economy.”
Similarly, government and corporate responses to climate catastrophe have failed to address the disproportionate impact that fires, floods, extreme storms and temperatures have on overburdened communities.
For many folks, it has been trauma upon trauma upon trauma.
Direct and vicarious.
These pervasive crises make us vulnerable to Post Traumatic hypervigilance.
When we are bombarded by frightening experiences and information, it is easy to get stuck on high alert.
In Part One I wrote about how hyper-tracking of social media can reinforce the illusory sense of a permanent, independent, personal self.
Hyper-tracking of social media–and news media–can also trigger and enflame our existing hypervigilance survival strategies.
In Part One we looked at how dopamine hooks us into social media.
Doom scrolling is equally seductive.
There is plenty of bad news to scroll, whether local or global:
Covid case numbers, anti-Black and anti-immigrant states of emergency, the epidemic of anti-Asian hate-crimes;
Threats to the lives of Indigenous elders and young women, and the growing number of indigenous children’s remains being discovered, exposing the atrocities at residential schools;
Ongoing political polarization and democratic crises, disastrous weather patterns and collapsing ecologies.
It is crucial that we stay awake to these crises and traumas, that we mourn, and that we cultivate creative, life-giving responses.
However, social media algorithms and news media cycles are neither grounded in nor capable of inspiring collective compassion and interconnection.
Reactive hypervigilance fits hand in glove with social media and news media.
Together they perpetuate our tendency to obsessively follow the details of each scary, heartbreaking event.
We can get caught in vicious cycles of hypervigilance and disempowerment.
Getting stuck in this way is understandable.
Unfortunately, it undermines our ability to access rest and restoration.
Our brain’s capacity to resilient options and decisions is hampered, as is our openness to collaborate with others.
Assessing How Much Vigilance is Essential & Practical for You
Only you can decide when it is safe enough for you to relax your hypervigilance or how much you can afford to let down and rest.
To assess this, you might consider the following:
How essential hypervigilance has been to your ancestral and community survival;
How frequently you/your communities encounter oppressive micro and macro aggressions that need to be monitored;
How you/your communities are impacted by climate chaos, Covid, and the institutional responses to these crises;
Which kinds of climate disruptions are local to you, how often they occur, and if/when you have respites or off-seasons from peril;
Which resources and equipment your community requires to weather (or evacuate from) cold snaps, power outages, heatwaves, fires or floods;
Finally, it is helpful to assess how much vigilance is sustainable for you.
How many hours, days, weeks can you hyper-track/stay on high alert before you burn out or collapse?
Exploring the above questions will help you determine the amounts and forms of tracking and hyper-tracking that you need and can sustain.
My Vigilance Self-Assessment
To assess how much hyper-tracking makes sense for me, I looked at my recent past and current context.
I reflected on my neurological, physical and financial abilities and limitations, my access to resources, and my geography and community.
A desire to be less hypervigilant was what initially drove me to move our flock of two out of Oakland, California.
My neurodivergent sensitivity to the big city, with its lights, sirens, frenzied pace, crowds and innumerable microaggressions from neuro-typical humans convinced me to give Sebastopol a try.
There I found a more rural environment, a slower pace.
With fewer social interactions to manage and less danger to navigate as a pedestrian and cyclist, I began to feel rested for the first time in years.
My chronic pain and autoimmune conditions improved.
Zee thrived in the quiet and green.
Ten years after starting a business during a recession, I was finally breaking even.
I could afford to purchase high quality air purifiers to protect Zee from wildfire smoke.
When Covid arrived, like everyone else, I became hypervigilant in a new way, wondering:
How contagious is it? Is it safe to go grocery shopping?
I had the good fortune of having worked remotely for years, and could avoid the riskiest virus exposure situations.
I began to garden, and had a relatively restful spring and summer.
August brought dry lightning and premature wildfires.
There was nowhere to escape the smoke in California; PG & E could shut off the electricity and Zee’s life-saving air filters at any moment.
(Birds are rapid breathers with delicate lungs and air sacs; smoke and pollution can be lethal. Lineolated parakeets have especially sensitive respiratory systems.)
In October 2019, Sebastopol was evacuated from an encroaching fire.
By August 2020, Northern California was already a tinderbox.
I was awakened one morning at 4 am by a Nixie notification:
An 18-wheeler had overturned on a nearby highway and burst into flames.
It was hours before I got the update that the fire had been extinguished.
Then the ever-growing Walbridge fire approached Healdsburg.
I could not bear the dread and suspense.
I fled to Portland, Oregon.
I had enough financial and citizenship privilege to be able to head for Canada and get us to smoke-free Portland.
There we could wait for Zee’s border-crossing paperwork and our Vancouver quarantine to be ready.
I did not have enough privilege to accelerate our departure date when Oregon caught fire, inundating Portland with 600+ AQI wildfire smoke.
While we waited for our Canada travel day, Zee became increasingly listless.
The twenty-four hours before our flight was a tedious nightmare and the worst birthday of my life:
Thick smoke shut down the airport, grounding the planes.
Zee drooped; I despaired.
We waited for release from the trap our haven had become.
The airport re-opened up the next morning, and we flew to Vancouver.
Prolonged Crisis & Hyper-tracking
In California and Oregon, I had checked Purple Air, Airnow, Cal Fire alerts, Public Alerts and Nixie alerts, often throughout the night.
I read wind direction forecasts every day.
Even when we arrived in Vancouver the internal dialogue continued:
Are we safe from smoke and wildfire yet?
Can I trust the air here?
What does Purple Air say now?
How about now?
I followed the CA and OR alerts, worried about the places and people I had left behind.
Although the 200 AQI in Vancouver wasn’t great, it was an enormous improvement.
I was so grateful to be holed up with Zee in a bedroom with a small air purifier.
We were safe enough.
When our quarantine ended, the air was clean!
I took Zee out for a long walk in the city.
We got home and I opened Zee’s pack; she staggered out and collapsed, gasping.
Two days later, the bird hospital discovered her enlarged heart and liver.
I began a new kind of hyper-tracking, monitoring her breathing and pain levels until her death eight weeks later.
Most of my hypervigilant tracking in the late Summer and Fall was done to maximize safety and minimize harm to me and Zee.
I do not regret that sustained hypervigilance.
But remaining in that critical alert mode hour after hour, day after day took me to a stuck place.
It’s no surprise: repeated actions over time create habits and defaults of mood and sympathetic nervous system activation.
But hypervigilance is not how I want to live.
I had a wretched, wrenching Fall in 2020.
It is summer now; that perilous time of urgent decisions and impotence is over.
I have the blessed opportunity to take stock, grieve, and replenish my reserves.
Yet the habits of hypervigilance and hyper-survival-strategizing are still with me, amplified by my neurodivergent tendency to perseverate.
They are exhausting habits.
Hindsight reveals how little prescience or control I had with regard to the events Zee and I were caught up in–
–Who could have anticipated the severity of the Oregon wildfires in 2020, or the 500-650+ AQI smoke in Portland?
Current Health & Community Context
Since my recent ordeals and losses, I experienced a resurgence of chronic pain and hot flashes.
And a new issue: tinnitus.
Thank goodness I am fully vaccinated, finally able to see some healing practitioners in person.
I am also grateful that my current community is low-key and quasi-rural, with low covid rates.
There are multiple wildfires in British Columbia at the moment, but no imminent fire danger in my new town.
Wildfire smoke reaches Vancouver Island at times, but it is mild so far, and one of my first purchases here was two air purifiers.
I am relatively safe at the moment, and my sweet Zee is beyond all harm.
I do not need to be constantly hypervigilant anymore.
I can afford to cultivate a new default that includes relaxing and unwinding.
These days I am coaxing my trauma armor to melt by:
Letting myself cry when I miss Zee;
Swimming in Nanaimo’s beautiful lakes;
Practicing restorative yoga.
I understand that the damage and loss was/is profound;
I understand the melting cannot be rushed.
Your Vigilance Self-Assessment
I just shared my vigilance self-assessment, based on my history and current circumstances.
What about you?
How do you know when your vigilance is essential, practical self-care and loved-one care vs automatic hyper-tracking?
I invite you to assess the levels and kinds of hypervigilance and hyper-tracking that reflect your current family and community situation.
I encourage you to honor these necessities.
Then, when you get to a place of safety, however partial or temporary (safety is always partial and temporary)–
–If you can access some financial, emotional, locational, etc. safety, will you give yourself permission to rest and unwind?
Can you let your nervous system find some level of peace?
This is not just about you.
When we are regulated, we can help our families, friends and community members regulate, too.
Okay, let’s say you have completed your vigilance self-assessment.
Now it is time to find reliable ways to disengage from hyper-tracking and hypervigilance when you choose to.
Get Unstuck from Hyper-tracking
We all deserve to know how to unhook from reactive hyper-tracking and hypervigilance.
As is usual with trauma, we cannot think or talk our way out of deeply ingrained survival behavior patterns.
We need to practice new sensory-based, somatic ways of perceiving and acting.
Because, even when our circumstances have changed and safety is more accessible, our neuro-biology tends to operate under the old rules.
Our brain’s alarm system will not get the memo until we work directly with our bodily sensations.
This includes discovering which cues set off your brain’s alarms:
What sights, sounds, smells, textures, etc. inflame your post traumatic stress vigilance and hyper-tracking?
For example, perhaps the smell of wildfire smoke is a triggering sensation for you.
Maybe the sound of a police car siren, or the facial expression of a loved one sets you off.
Working directly with our body sensations also means finding out how to evoke the sensations that enable your particular body to ground and relax.
It takes trial and error to find out which techniques and hacks work for you.
You can find some regulating somatic tools to try on here:
Once you discover your preferred tools, you can begin to integrate them into your daily life.
Starting out small is best:
Try practicing one or two of your tools of choice for just five minutes a few times a week.
This will help you build a relationship with your practices, and generate momentum.
Repeated practice over time is how we create our new default behaviors and capacities.
Thanks for reading.
Let me know how it goes.