When white nationalists descended in droves upon Charlottesville, Virginia, counterprotesters showed up to take a stand against racism and anti-Semitism. There were violent clashes, which resulted in the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer and the brutal beating of Deandre Harris by a group of white supremacists with poles.
The counterprotesters who put their bodies on the frontlines to stand up against deep-rooted hate faced truly frightening violence, which can trigger stress and be difficult to heal from. Violence, whether physical or verbal, can have long-lasting effects, especially if you have already experienced other forms of trauma throughout your life.
Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, a psychologist and the creator of Therapy for Black Girls, explains how witnessing acts of violence and other traumas may result in developing symptoms consistent with acute stress disorder, which can include recurring memories, dreams, or nightmares of the event; disturbances to your mood; changes in eating habits; irritable behavior; and a difficulty with concentration.
People who have already been exposed to abuse are also more at risk of developing anxiety disorders if they witness or suffer brutality during a protest. Sexual assault victims can feel particularly vulnerable or triggered by attending events like protests. “I’d encourage anyone with a history of abuse or sexual assault to be mindful about being triggered by being in a space like a protest and to consider whether that might be healthiest for them,” says Bradford.
Therapist Katrina Pinkney explains how a person who has repeated exposure to violence can develop complex PTSD. “PTSD is being in a constant state of anxiety, stress, and fear. It’s important to remember that with constant exposure to trauma, a person’s brain is affected [which can lead to] the production of stress hormones increasing, difficulty with concentration and focus, and the ability to properly reason decreasing, [and] memory loss can occur.”
While there can be rather peaceful protests, it is good to keep in mind the different ways to help yourself heal if you were triggered or exposed to violence in one form or another. Here are some tips for protesters to keep in mind.
After witnessing acts of violence, practice mindfulness or meditation.
When you’re a part of a protest, being within a space with hundreds or even thousands of people can be taxing. After seeing brutality or being the subject of either verbal or physical violence, it’s crucial to tend to your immediate needs.
“It’s really important to participate in grounding exercises that help you to connect to the present moment and remind you that the trauma has passed,” says Dr. Bradford. “Something like sitting straight up in a chair with your feet planted firmly on the floor and repeating to yourself, ‘I am not in any danger, and I will be OK,’ or looking around the room and calling out exactly what you see. Anything that allows you to engage your senses is a good thing because it causes you to be focused on the present.”
Reflect on what happened and talk to your friends.
Working through and processing the events that you were a part of is an important way to affirm your experiences. Talking to fellow protesters or friends who were alongside you to gather your thoughts and get positive support can be a grounding exercise. Pinkney suggests that you do not isolate yourself after violent occurrences: “It’s nice to get someone else’s perspective, too. It can help with your interpretation of events.”
Practice the self-care that works for you, and if you can afford therapy, you should go.
Not everyone has access to therapy and there is still a lot of stigma attached to seeking help when you need it. It’s important for you to be mindful of how you feel. Don’t ignore symptoms of stress or anxiety, and make sure that you are able to tend to your most basic needs: Drink plenty of water, stretch when you wake up, eat regular meals, and make sure to do things that make you feel good.
If you were triggered during protests and you also happen to be a victim of sexual assault, there are hotlines available 24/7. If you can afford therapy, research therapists, psychologists, or psychiatrists who are not difficult for you to get to from where you live. If you don’t have a therapist yet, consider setting up two to three appointments to feel out who will be the best fit for you and your mental health.
“You will need a safe space to be able to talk about what you’ve seen and experienced where you will feel validated,” says Dr. Bradford. “Having a supportive person you can process things with who is understanding of and familiar with what is going on can be really helpful. This could be a fellow protester, another friend or family member, or a therapist.”
If attending future protests is too much, there are other ways to combat white supremacy and hate.
If you are white (or a nonblack person of color), tackling white supremacy and dismantling it within your own life and within your communities is crucial. White people are responsible for white supremacy and systemic racism, so white people hold the power to threaten, dismantle and crush it.
Donate funds (small or large) to grassroots organizations like Safety Pin Box, the Freedom Fighter Bond Fund, the Anti-Defamation League, Trans Lifeline, or the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, or pick individual activists to send monthly funds to.
Practice daily acts of self-love and self-care. Being kind and patient with yourself is a gratifying experience. It takes a lot of courage to confront the horrors of racism and you have to prioritize yourself once in a while.
Gaia by the Med specialise in non-invasive brain-based techniques that help clients alleviate the symptoms of PTSD, trauma and anxiety. These techniques are simple and easy to use and can be self administered once the client learns how to apply them, resulting in a powerful and beneficial long term impact.