I spent Tuesday at the state capitol, lobbying for arts funding in Minnesota. I was with a group of friends and coworkers, and as we were walking in to the large auditorium, I wondered whether I was going to see my former partner, himself a theater artist in town, who works for a statewide theater alliance. The thought didn’t linger too long, and I was quickly back to the heightened environment, taking in the enthusiasm and messaging for the day.
Then it was time to gather into our District groups and make our way to the State Senate Building, and what do you know… As I am filing out of the assembly hall, in a crowd of hundreds of people, I hear his voice coming from the top of the stairs. Thankfully he was absorbed in a conversation with his back to the staircase, and thankfully I had a friend that I was chatting with in my group, and I passed right on by.
But my chest was on fire. Like there was a sour soup where my heart should’ve been. I got sweaty. I got jittery. And I kept that anxiety stew in my body for the rest of the morning.
Let me recap: I walked past my old boyfriend, and my body reacted like I was being attacked by a saber-toothed tiger. I did not have a conversation or make eye contact. For all I know, he didn’t even know I was walking behind him. But my body viscerally responded as though I had just been physically endangered.
Now, As a yoga therapist, I should know better than anyone that our bodies process emotional pain remarkably similar to the way that they process physical pain. The same brain centers are activated, the same fight-or-flight response can be triggered.
My body armored up, went into super protective mode, all over a breakup that happened five months ago. A disproportionate reaction, if you ask my rational mind, but it was the intensity and immediacy that surprised me and got me thinking about how difficult our emotional lives can be on our bodies.
I immediately (ok, once I was breathing normally again) thought about all of the emotional pain that we’re experiencing culturally right now. Disappointment, frustration, sadness, anger – these might not literally churn your stomach, but much like an aching low back or a tender wrist, the low- and mid-level constant soreness can be wearing.
The difference is this: when you have back pain or a sprained ankle, you get help. You take breaks. You do less. You seek out resources for healing. You cut yourself some slack.
But I wonder how many of us are doing those things with regard to our wellbeing in these challenging political times? You may have heard of “compassion fatigue,” a term for the weariness and indifference that comes from the experience of the frequency and number of appeals we get on behalf of those who are suffering. I have heard this more powerfully, and correctly, called “empathy trauma.”
How can we not all be a little fatigued in times like these? To borrow Andrew Sullivan’s metaphor, right now it’s like we’re living with an alcoholic father and all his drinking buddies. Things are unpredictable, embarrassing, and messy. We’re just waiting for the next announcement of bad news. Or consider our current moment like a breakup – grieving a future you thought you had (one of inclusion and acceptance, etc.) and mourning the loss of possibilities you were looking forward to.
And we haven’t had a break.
But our culture recognizes physical illness and impairment as the only valid pain. You can call in sick to work with the flu but not with depression. You go to the doctor for a broken bone but not for stress.
But if we look closely, we’ll see that the emotional pain we’re experiencing is physical pain. It wears us out, shortens our fuse, frightens, overwhelms, and hurts us, in all the same ways.
I wish I had more advice besides TAKE DAMN GOOD CARE OF YOURSELF. DO WHATEVER HELPS YOU. Please. But that’s all I can offer. Take a bath, take a nap, take a walk. Make some art or write some bad poetry, watch some animal best friend clips on youtube, put on music you can’t not dance to.
I wish I could say that I took good care of myself at the capitol. That I did something really therapeutic besides talking to my friend about it and having a front row seat to the freak-out. And I can make all kinds of justifications for the intensity of the reaction, like the hard week I’d been having or the stress I was under in other areas of my life. But the truth is, we are all going through a lot, and that makes the need to notice and slow down all the more important.
Of course you’re tired. Of course you’re edgy. Of course you’re worn down. Our pain is only exacerbated when we ignore it.
For as irrational as my literal heart’s reaction was to my emotional heart’s pain, in the end it makes sense. I don’t want to be hurt again. I don’t want to be in pain. I’m near-er my wits end than normal. So my body reacted as it always would in a scary situation, putting my guard up, keeping me alert, trying to keep me safe.
Your pain is real. Your fatigue is real. You are allowed to be worn down. Your body is processing this emotional pain as physical pain, and above all, those systems are wired for your protection and well-being. So take care accordingly. You deserve it.