This morning, as I watched the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, I kept waiting for the anxiety of the last four years to dissipate. This anxiety was only amplified during the last year because of the pandemic and then multiplied on January 6. I wanted to feel relief, happiness and hope, and while I did, to a point, the anxiety and grief I’ve been carrying were all still very present, with a new sense of… unsettled weirdness.

That weirdness? That’s what the residual emotion of trauma feels like.

The last four years can perhaps not be better encapsulated than by the events of the last couple of weeks.

Two weeks ago, fueled by anger and fear, white supremacists broke into the Capitol building. Actions ignited by lies and hate-filled rhetoric of Donald Trump, they were determined to overturn the election.

The party of so-called patriots flew the Confederate flag in the U.S. Capitol building. The flag of sedition, oppression and slavery.

The party of law-and-order committed sedition, treason and rioted in the legislature. The were determined to stop a fair election, and trampled the Constitution in the process. As the country, and the world, watched, they shouted threats about what they wanted to do to the politicians they were hunting. Justice would only be served if those politicians were put to death.

The party of “back the blue” killed a Capitol police officer. They beat him to death with a fire extinguisher and the poles carrying both American and Trump flags. They live-streamed themselves, shared selfies in real-time and clearly demonstrated no regard to the laws they were breaking.

These proclamations were made on their own video recordings. The recordings they shared on their own social media channels.

They did not wear masks. Not to hide their identity, nor to protect themselves from the deadly virus ravaging the world and that, by the end of Trump’s presidency, killed over 400,000 Americans. They wanted to be seen by the world as they saw themselves, as heroes. They were at the Capitol to “stop the steal” and “return the country to the people it belonged to.” Those people? Them. Mostly white men, who saw Trump as their leader. They saw themselves as analogous to the soldiers who crossed the Delaware in 1776, except instead of George Washington, Trump was at the helm. Instead of the British, it was the United States Congress, the will of the people and the Constitution that they were fighting. Yet they didn’t let this didn’t slow them down.

As more details emerged in the days and weeks that followed, these insurrectionists confessed their plans to capture and punish the politicians who would not overturn the election. They have said they did it because Trump told them to.

They needed to stop the steal of the election that had been taken from “real Americans” who voted with “legitimate votes.” The election that their demagogue had convinced them was stolen from them, because he lost, and continued to lie about that loss for the weeks that followed. Those lies were amplified by media pundits, politicians and other people who will likely never be held accountable for their contribution to the lies that resulted in January 6, 2021.

The footsoldiers in Trump’s insurrection however are being rounded up, put in prison and are being held accountable for following the orders of their leader, who doesn’t take responsibility for their actions, or his words that incited violence. The FBI publishes more of their names, faces and charges every day.

Context Matters

In the days that have followed, the propaganda machine has also been in full gear. Truth isn’t truth. Reality isn’t what you’re seeing. The people who broke into the Capitol weren’t supporters of Trump. They weren’t incited by his actions. What you’re seeing can’t be believed. If you read the words of his speech he didn’t say, “go break into the Capitol” so it’s not his fault right? No “true Trump supporter” would have done these things.

As rational humans we know that context is important.

The spread of misinformation, slandering of the media, and telling of lies by Trump started well before Trump’s official campaign for President. Perhaps one of the more notable lies was birther conspiracy, Trump’s effort to paint President Obama as unqualified to be president, because his birth certificate was fake. For anyone holding out hope that “Campaign Trump” would somehow give way to “Presidential Trump” were squashed by the bald faced lies made about his inauguration attendance. If you believed otherwise, your eyes deceived you. The pictures were doctored to make him look bad. The media was out to get him.

Instead of attending to the task of leading the country, the most important project for the first several weeks of the Trump Presidency was massaging his ego so he could feel better about how many people attended the inauguration.

It was a weird test of loyalty, as the world watched who in his administration would support the claims, and who would actually doctor photos to make his inauguration look larger than Obama’s. This is a simple trick for the abuser, if you take a half-step in on something innocuous, you’re much more likely to continue down that path.

Lines were also being drawn by people around the country. If you commented on the ridiculousness of this argument, you were anti-Trump and this eroded trust between people who had never cared about politics outside of an election before. It was a ridiculous waste of energy, but it consumed the airwaves and social media and only served to broaden the divide between friends and family after a contentious election.

Triangulation, a tool of control and isolation

The context for January 6, 2021 was not just the speech that Trump gave hours prior to the storming of the Capitol, but the years of rhetoric, lies and insistence that you couldn’t trust the media or anyone he hasn’t told you to trust and, you can’t even trust your own eyes and ears. Everything was a conspiracy and facts were no longer relevant.

Everyone was against you. Well, everyone except Trump. This is the greatest trick of emotional abuse. You trust no one. Not even yourself. It’s you and your abuser (and anyone they tell you to trust) against the world. But what happens is that you end up alone.

For those of us who weren’t tricked by Trump’s lies our emotional distress was different. But for those that bought what he was selling? Many gave up everything to believe the lies, including cutting off relationships with loved ones.

But they’ve found out what we’ve all known all along, Trump’s America was about Trump, his ego and his bank account. It was not about anything else unless it served those first two purposes. We have all been gaslit and subjected to four years of abuse at his hands. He enjoyed inflicting pain. Especially at anyone who he saw as weaker than him. It wasn’t just one thing, it was a million little things AND a whole bunch of really big things.

The emotional hangover

You may feel a little unsteady and exhausted. That is completely normal considering what we’ve been through. The emotional hangover requires some TLC.

We need to give the trauma of the last four years proper context so we can heal.

If you’ve ever been in an abusive relationship, bad accident, or experienced another traumatic experience, the shock that comes after the event is over can be disconcerting. You may be experiencing that now. The adrenaline is still coursing through your body. The emotional shock may manifest as dissociation, continuing anxiety and fear, depression or sadness, exhaustion or despondence. Maybe you just feel “off” and unfocused or “fuzzy.”

Because of that trauma, reality is going to take a minute to feel real again. It’s going to take a bit to trust reality again.

The hormones that flood your body to keep you ready to fight, run or freeze to stay safe, they don’t just go away because Trump has vacated the premises. Biden and Harris will hopefully restore a sense of normalcy (and decency) to our country, but your body doesn’t know that yet. Oh- and by the way, there is still an ever-worsening pandemic, the economic fallout from that, bills to pay, kids who are doing school from home and your last nerve? It’s so frayed that it’s pretty much non-existent.

You may also be feeling the physical effects. Your heart may still race, you might get a tension headache or experience overall achiness. Other times your stomach and gut tells you that they aren’t happy. You may have a hard time sleeping or your sleep may be restless. Your body and emotions are connected and it’s typical to experience stress and anxiety physically as well as emotionally. Or complete exhaustion and emotional overwhelm and inability to handle “one more thing.”

Now is the time to breathe

Take care of yourself for the next few days. One of the ways you convince your body to trust you that the crisis has (sort of) passed is to do things that show it by doing safe things.1

Here are some simple ideas.2

  • Breathe
  • Take a break from screens
  • Go for a walk
  • Pet a dog
  • Snuggle a baby3
  • Read a book
  • Take a bubble bath
  • Talk to a friend
  • Schedule a therapy appointment
  • Journal
  • Cry
  • Do some yoga
  • Watch a cartoon or a comfort movie/show
  • Go to the mountains or the beach
  • Have a dance party by yourself or with your family
  • Fly a kite, blow some bubbles, go for a bike ride4
  • Do something creative- play an instrument, paint, draw, write
  • Make some bread, soup or other comfort food5
  • Meditate

You may also feel great today, but be hit with all the emotions in a week or two. This is also normal for traumatic experiences.

Reach out for help if you need to from a trusted professional or friend.

The work to create a country that is a place of safety and opportunity for everyone hasn’t ended. We still have a lot work to do to create systemic change. Take care of yourself so you can continue to fight for equality and justice.6

  1. Think of it like this. “Hey self! Things are getting better! If they weren’t getting better would I be doing this?!”»
  2. These are obviously not all-inclusive and if you are having a mental health crisis you should contact professionals.»
  3. If you’re lucky enough to have one handy. I don’t recommend stealing one for this purpose.»
  4. Sorry, I live in Phoenix where it’s the perfect outside weather right now»
  5. Then send some to me 😉 »
  6. I’ll come back for more on that later»