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  • Angie Gunn LCSW CST

Anticipatory Trauma: What it is & How to help

For many of us, it feels unsafe to be in our bodies, our identities, our expression.... most days. It's hard to find a baseline for "normal" functioning, outside of daily oppression and intergenerational historical trauma. As we seek to find that baseline, it's helpful to understand types of trauma activation and what is old, and what is new. There's also a third category, called ANTICIPATORY TRAUMA. This is the activation from the anticipation of a repeat or reflection of a trauma experience, the impending doom surrounding planned events that we know have, or will cause harm.

This election season is and will continue to bring ANTICIPATORY TRAUMA, in addition to the potential for new trauma experiences. We are already noticing our brains and bodies ramping up and/or shutting down, repeating the inner turmoil from 2016 which extended into much of the last four years. We are re-experiencing an election cycle that might mean the subjugation of our power, our voice, our well-being.... and it feels paralyzing. But, we know it's coming, and we can therefore be prepared for what our bodies need to manage the anticipatory activation, past reflections and reminders, on top of new trauma that may occur in the present moment.



One of the hardest parts about this ANTICIPATORY TRAUMA is that it is occurring at the level of identity, activation around the fear that your core self may be destroyed. In this current place and time in America (and other places) we are being disempowered, threatened, murdered or denied access to our identity continuously. The intersecting layers of trauma are complex and much harder to sift through. While the threat to overall well-being feels astronomical, we can be prepared and continue to build up our defenses.

Here's more about how that activation process works.

Trauma shows up in our body as ACTIVATION. Something occurs, and a message is received by our nervous system to signal us to begin the process of ORIENTING (vagus nerve reading cues), MOBILIZING (fight, flight, freeze, fawn), and then hopefully IMMOBILIZING (calm, baseline).

These messages come in the form of traumatic events or experiences, or as REFLECTIONS or REMINDERS of past traumatic events or experiences. Those reflections and reminders show up in 5 ways (based on the work of peter levine). SENSORY, EMOTION, IMAGERY, BEHAVIOR, and MEANING. The most common is sensory based (things we see, smell, taste, touch, hear). The second is feelings (this emotion (chemical/ electrical signals) feels like the same as during past trauma). The third is imagery or memories that come in without warning. The fourth is behavioral, some action you engaged in or experienced with another reflected past action. And lastly is meaning or story- this new situation reflecting a similar meaning (ie: I am unsafe).

These responses become even more complex when we can then ANTICIPATE trauma, based on the reflective experiences that are pre-determined. These could be new traumatic moments or anticipation of the reminder of the past trauma, reactivated. For example, trauma occurring in a specific season will often re-merge based on the time of year. We can anticipate the ACTIVATION based on the time of year, the closeness to an important date, or the repeat of a certain event.

Here's a few ways to prepare. Think about those 5 elements of the forms the reflections/ reminders take for you (SENSORY, EMOTION, IMAGERY, BEHAVIOR, and MEANING). What did you experience in the last election cycle? Make a list for each of the 5 areas. Now think about how you moved through each at that time and write that down. Consider the fact that you're still here, and made it through the last 4 years despite countless hurdles. You're stronger, smarter and more prepared this time. What other tools have you learned or would you like to implement this time around?

Consider concrete preparation for certain dates or times, and what you may need now and leading up to it.

Dates to anticipate:

The date you're voting

11/3 (election day)

1/20 (inauguration day)

Some simple things to do- take a few days off around those times if possible, increase time in community with similarly minded folks, schedule body work and grounding rituals to support you in remembering your power, your anchors to well-being and your belonging. Give yourself a lot more space, patience, acceptance and forgiveness during this time.

Build up your defenses and your team:

-What coalitions, organizations, and communities exist already? Engaging in change can be one way to feel empowered and connected to all the parts of you.

Who can you collaborate with to create something?

What skills do you want to enhance to support liberation, community growth and healing?

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