Why protesting might trigger past trauma

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The killing of George Floyd has brought countless numbers of people to demonstrations around the globe. It feels like revolution is in the air, and as white person who is working to become a bona fide accomplice, I want to do my part to make it happen. I also have anxiety and am a survivor of physical trauma that involves crowds, so the reality of throngs of screaming people, no matter how peaceful, can be triggering for me. I had to leave a rally last week, not because anything went wrong with the rally — it was peaceful, well-organized, and inspiring — but because my nervous system revolted against the experience of being in a crowd.

While I was stoked on the way to the protest, and had in fact planned for the possibility of freaking out, I was surprised when it happened. One second I was clapping and cheering and the next I was totally dissociated, which is shorthand for, “I can’t keep my brain in my body and I feel like I’m not real.” At that moment, it was my unequivocal job to provide support and I was starting, instead, to need support, so I made the choice to step away. But I am not trying to give up on the movement or myself, so I asked five therapists how to manage trauma while protesting.

First, figure out if you should go to a protest

First, you need to figure out whether you have the emotional bandwidth to go to an event. “Do a mental health checkup before going on the frontlines of the protest,” says Ashley Bryant, a psychotherapist in Oklahoma. “Ask yourself if you have the emotional space to take on all the emotions that come along with protesting.” The type of trauma that you have experienced will make a difference in your capacity and can also help you figure out what aspects of the protest may be triggering, Bryant says.

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It’s important to remember that while we have a tendency to use “trauma” as an oblique phrase, there are many kinds of trauma. Some people survive physical or emotional abuse, some are survivors of sexual violence, and some survive persistent discrimination or racial trauma, to name a few. The ways that people can be triggered are as diverse as their experiences.

In the context of protest, it’s important to get in touch with whether you are triggered by being in groups or whether loud noises or shouting will be reminders of events from your past. At a demonstration, you may be unable to avoid everything that may trigger you, but knowing what your triggers are can help you develop coping strategies.

“If your trauma is related to the issues that are currently sparking the protest, you might want to ask yourself whether attending these protests is objectivity safe for you,” Bryant says. The same is true if you have had traumatic experiences in crowds or in the specific place where the rally is being held. It may seem like a paradox, but Bryant notes that the idea of going to a protest may seem scary and could actually be therapeutic.

If you can be relatively assured of your own physical safety — if, for example, the protests in your city have been largely peaceful and you are unlikely to be the victim of police brutality — and you have the resources to cope if you feel triggered, it might be okay to go to a protest even if it scares you. Bryant says that a good way to weigh out the personal risk is to ask yourself honest questions about why you are going.

Being safe does not guarantee that you will feel safe, so even if the event is non-violent, you may experience increased anxiety, dissociation, or even have a panic attack. If it feels really important to you, you may decide that protesting is worth the emotional fallout you may experience.

It may even be therapeutic. All the therapists I talked to agree that finding ways to feel empowered is important to healing from trauma. “One of the most important parts of healing trauma involves feeling connected with other people and belonging to a safe and loving community,” says Rajan Grewal, an Arizona-based psychiatrist and a researcher at the University of Arizona. “Resistance movements can absolutely create that kind of collective healing environment.”

If you decide to go, prepare

Once you’ve painted your signs, it’s time to check in with your support network. If you have a history of trauma, talk to people about what your possible reactions might be and how they can help you. “If you can, teach your coping skills to someone who‘ll be protesting with you in case you need help on site,” says Aimee Daramus, a Chicago-based psychotherapist. “Let them know that you are likely to be triggered, explain how you may act differently when triggered, and tell them what would be an effective response to help you and avoid conflict.”

If you are a person who dissociates, like me, sometimes something as simple as a snack or sitting on the ground will help put back in your body. Daramus also suggests letting people know in advance how they can tell if you need to leave and making sure you have a safe exit strategy.

Be at the protest in a way you can handle

There are tons of exciting photos of folx on the front lines, but that’s actually not the only way to participate in a protest. “Holding a sign or banner from a distance may result in less distress than protesting with the main group,” says Benson Munyan, a Florida-based psychotherapist. Daramus also suggests that you can play quieter, but equally important roles at protests, like handing out water or snacks or by making a first aid station. At the rally I went to, a woman was giving protestors a printed explanation of their legal rights as they arrived and asking if they needed any help understanding them.

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If you take all the precautions, and you still get triggered, try to remember that you have options. “Coping skills such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or grounding techniques may be helpful, Munyan says. He adds that you can also distance yourself from the other protestors. When I started to feel bad at the protest, my very trauma aware compatriot said, “Hey, do you want to go hang out by that tree?” It helped me calm down enough to realize that I needed to leave, which is also an option.

Plan for aftercare

Plan to take a day off. “It can be very emotionally draining to bear witness to everything going on in the world and still show up and perform,” Bryant says. “Sometimes we just need to take a couple of steps back and take care of ourselves before trying to continue on to business as usual.”

Compassion is good for you and it’s good for the revolution.

The day after the protest, I had a raging headache. I hadn’t planned on taking the day off, but luckily, my boss was very understanding. I ended up taking a bath, talking on the phone, and eating about two pounds of raw cookie dough. The way you take care of yourself is very personal, but make sure it includes an opportunity to process your experience with another human.

I could judge myself for leaving the protest, but frankly, harsh self criticism is one of the major pitfalls of surviving trauma, and I might add that expecting perfect performance from humans is an ideological tool that white supremacists have been using for centuries. How you talk to yourself after your participation in a demonstration is crucial to how quickly you recover. “Have compassion for yourself,” says Long Quach, a New York City-based psychotherapist. Compassion is good for you and it’s good for the revolution.

It feels important to draw a distinction between white fragility and the reality of trauma. Both of these phenomena are real, and our perseverance in the struggle depends on our ability to simultaneously confront our own failings and also be gentle with our human frailties. We must greet this moment with equal parts dedication and dexterity.

“This is where the longevity of your fight in the movement is crucial,” Quach says. “As you can see, the list of names of black people murdered is long. That means we will need you and your energy for a long time. Take care of yourself so you can continue the good fight.”