James Gordon

James Gordon M.D.

Unstuck: Healing Ourselves

Moving Beyond Electoral Trauma

Clearing Your Mind, Energizing Your Body, and Acting with Wisdom and Compassion

Posted Nov 28, 2016

We’ve had a year of angry, clamorous, mean-spirited, often incoherent campaigning, increasing polarization, and now a rude electoral shock for Clinton’s supporters and a surprising vindication for Trump's.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been listening to and working with large numbers of people of all potential persuasions—in Indiana, Louisiana, California, back here in DC, and with friends and patients on the phone. I’m frequently recognizing the symptoms of posttraumatic stress: anxiety and anger, difficulty focusing and sleeping, threatening dreams, and, often enough, emotional numbness and withdrawal from friends and families-- uneasiness about the present and worries about the future.

When my Center for Mind-Body Medicine colleagues and I work with traumatized populations, or individuals, as we have for the last 20 years, we want to begin as early as possible: during rather than after wars, while the rubble is still being cleared after an earthquake or flood, just when the chemotherapy for cancer is beginning. That’s the time to most effectively address the biological, psychological, and social damage that trauma does: to reduce anxiety and agitation, relax bodies tensed against danger, help people gain perspective on what has happened and may happen, and move beyond feelings of powerlessness and despair. In published studies, our model of self-care and group support, whose basics I’m sharing here, has lowered symptoms of posttraumatic stress by 80%.

We also, and importantly, do our best to turn these crises into opportunities for self reflection. The losses and dangers traumatized people experience often make them more aware and appreciative of what really matters most to them.

An election is, of course, not a war, an earthquake, or a life threatening disease. Still, some of the approaches we’ve successfully used feel relevant now. They can help us regain the psychological and physical balance disturbed by this ugly political combat, and its unsettling aftermath, perhaps bring us together to forge a post-electoral future that will feel less contentious and more compassionate.

I'll share three ways of being, acts of doing that can help us be more fully ourselves, and act more creatively and effectively in the days and months ahead-- one in each of three blog posts. 

1. Start with slow, deep “Soft Belly” breathing: in through the nose and out through the mouth with your belly soft and relaxed. This is a non-denominational “concentrative meditation”; you’re focusing on your breath, on the words “Soft” and “Belly” and on the feeling of relaxation in your abdomen. It’s an evidence-based antidote to the fight or flight response so many of us have been feeling, the difficulty concentrating, the fear and frustration, the impulse to head to Canada or Costa Rica. Soft Belly quiets activity in the amygdala, the fear and anger center in the emotional brain, and activates areas in the frontal part of the cerebral cortex that promote self-awareness, judgment, and compassion.

Do Soft Belly for 5 or 10 minutes, two or three times a day. Your body and mind will relax. You’ll think more clearly, stop reacting and start responding. 

James S. Gordon, MD, a psychiatrist, is the author of Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression, Founder and Executive Director of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine, and a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Family Medicine at Georgetown Medical School. Soft Belly and Shaking and Dancing audios are available for download at www.cmbm.org