On traumatising effects of police (and other) violence and how we move beyond it
What is it all about?
Those who are politically active can get into situations where they themselves or friends and comrades are exposed to violence, repression, intimidation or other emotionally challenging experiences. These can be at the hands of the police and/or the state, activists who have differing goals, outcomes or values than they do, or by members of the public who do not support the action.
In times like these it is crucial that we organise in the spirit of solidarity and look after ourselves and one another. If this doesn’t happen, for instance, if we do not support the person and their individual needs, people who have a hard time dealing with their experience(s) may withdraw from their political and social circles as a form of self-care.
Part of the long term aim of violence and repression is to frighten people and make them feel helpless in confrontation with the power of the state. Learning to deal with fear, anxiety, stress, and other negative emotions in healthy ways needs to be an integral part of our individual and political radical identity.
In theory any challenging situation that leaves a person feeling helpless can cause trauma. Lack of support from friends and comrades can aggravate the negative reaction. Lacking support can even have a more devastating impact on the person than the original challenging experience. Consequences of repression, including emotional ones, are not the personal or private issue of one person. They concern all of us and we need to stand together in solidarity and support each other to move beyond them.
Possible Reactions to Challenging Situations
Re-living the experience
Not being able to stop thinking about the experience, intrusive imagery and thoughts, flashbacks (feeling like you are literally going through the same experience again), nightmares.
Increased alcohol/drug consumption, withdrawing and isolating from friends and family, avoiding social occasions, memory loss, avoiding everything that might remind one of the experience, distancing oneself from what happened, changes in eating, sleeping and sexual habits.
Insomnia, restlessness, mood swings, lashing out in anger, trouble concentrating, jumpiness, irritability, uncontrolled crying, stomach aches, indigestion, muscle tension, anxiety, hyper-vigilance.
Other Possible Reactions
- Panic attacks, feelings of guilt and shame, blaming oneself.
- Not being able to find any joy in life, feelings of loneliness and abandonment, feeling numb or switched off, trouble making decisions.
- Questioning political engagement and interpersonal experiences.
- Feeling like life has become meaningless.
- Fresh memories of previous traumatic experiences, believing you will feel this way forever, not being able to make plans for the future.
Sometimes reactions are delayed and can surface weeks, sometimes even years after the event. We can learn how to support ourselves and each other in processing challenging experiences. One of the aims is to integrate the experience into one’s life – and accept that it may change the person and cannot be undone. Every person has their unique way of dealing with and processing challenging experiences.
What you can do as a group
- BEFORE an action talk about how you are doing and where your limits are. Come to an understanding about who will support you during unforeseen circumstances, including who will come with you if you need to walk away from a situation.
- DURING the action, check in with your buddy, your affinity group, and your comrades. Look out for signs of distress or discomfort in those around you. If you see somebody who looks like they might need assistance, either physically or emotionally, offer to guide them to the Green Zone/Safer Spaces tent.
- AFTER the action, talk about how things went. Make a space for everybody who participated and wants to talk about their experience, where they were, what happened, what they saw/hear, what they think about it and how they feel about it.
Remember everybody experiences things differently. Even if you did not find a similar situation intense, distressing or emotionally challenging, it is crucial that you do not undermine the experiences and/or feelings of somebody else. Not only people with physical injuries need support, supporters as well need to be mindful of their needs and limits and sometimes need support. Trauma comes in many shapes and forms.
How to support your friend
- Rather than asking ‘How are you?’ ask ‘What do you need?’ This gives your comrade and loved one the opportunity to think about what would be most meaningful for them at that given moment. This could take the form of talking, crying, having some water/food, going for a walk, having time by themselves, or removing themselves from the space entirely.
- Don’t wait until someone reaches out for help, be proactive. Traumatised people often isolate themselves. The days afterwards are crucial times for people to share, listen and support one another.
- Remember that not everybody wants advice. Sometimes people just want an opportunity to share their experience and know that somebody is willing to be an active listener.
- Talking about what happened helps to process it. Gently, without pushing them, encourage your friend to tell you about what happened chronologically: Feelings, thoughts, sensory perceptions…
- Encourage your friend to discuss aspects of the experience that might have triggered some negative feelings, past experiences, or strong reactions. Discuss how these might have impacted their experience during the action and what a good plan for future actions might be.
- Support without judgement and remember that your friend may want these experiences to remain private. Always check in with them when discussing private matters and keep thing confidential when it is appropriate to do so.
- While processing traumatic events, taking care of every day tasks such as cooking, cleaning, shopping can become overwhelming. Helping out with running errands and general maintenance can be very supportive, but watch out to not take over and limit your friend’s agency.
- Try not to take it personally if your friend is irritable or distanced and aloof, and don’t withdraw your support because of it. These are common reactions in the aftermath of stressful events.
- Try to be patient. The only thing you achieve by telling someone: “You should be getting over it by now, you need to get a grip!” more often than not is to alienate them.
- This can be a challenging time for you as well. Make sure to take care of and be good to yourself. Remember to open up to your friends and let them know how you are doing.
- In the case of sexual assault or police brutality, these matters should be and are taken extremely seriously. Ask firstly how they would like to deal with it, and if your friend is comfortable sharing their experience, encourage them to record what happened as soon as possible.
What you can do for yourself
Remind yourself that your reactions are normal and it’s ok to reach out for support. Take your time, be patient with yourself and try not to judge yourself for feeling the way you do. Emotional wounds take time and rest to heal, just like physical wounds. This is a difficult time but it will pass.
- After a challenging experience: Try to get to a space where you can feel safe and comfortable. Try to relax and allow others to take care of you.
- Physical exercise helps your body to get rid of stress. Walking, running, dancing can be more relaxing than sitting down.
- Try not to isolate yourself. Reach out to friends you trust for support.
- A very common reaction is to feel hurt if others seem to have a much easier time dealing with what happened while you are struggling. Keep in mind that everyone reacts differently.
- How strongly you react can be connected to previous trauma. It is not a sign of weakness to experience pain after an injury.
- Blaming yourself for what happened is a common reaction to trauma. Remind yourself that it is not your fault that you were attacked. The perpetrators are the ones to blame.
- Family and friends may not know how to support you. If their behaviour is not helpful, speak to them and ask for what you need.
- Tea, e.g. Valerian, can be soothing, just like a massage or a hot bath. Try to figure out what works for you. Alcohol and drugs can affect your recovery negatively in the long run.
- To get a better understanding what is happening, read up on trauma.
Taken from Out of Action: https://outofaction.blackblogs.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/121/2017/06/ooa-a-en.pdf