How To Cope With Trauma In A Time Of Civil Unrest

What even is this? This year, 2020, has been some kind of wild roller coaster ride through the darkest most twisted corners of a dystopian nightmare.  As soon as you feel like perhaps you maybe have a grasp of things and how you are going to handle them, the coaster jerks, flips and twists you into something darker and frankly weirder (murder hornets anyone?) than you could have ever previously imagined. Unsettling is an understatement. 

In the last week we have watched local demonstrations expand across the nation through to the rest of the world following the latest horrifying police murder of an unarmed Black man caught on film and shared globally on social media and traditional news outlets.  We see peaceful protests against police brutality be met with more police brutality as they make attempts to quash the movement.  This reflex to police violence against peaceful citizens highlights the fact that the protests are not in response to one incident but rather the pervasive pattern of police violence against Black and Brown people. 

The pictures from the ongoing protests are reminiscent of those from the 1960s and the atrocities reopen old wounds that likely have never fully healed.  We are sad, outraged, overwhelmed and fed up.  In some ways, it is a blessing that many of us are working from home because of the COVID-19 pandemic so that we at least do not have to put on a happy face for the office water cooler.

But what do we do when we do have to go back to the office? What do we do today to help us get to sleep tonight? There is no one size fits all option for coping.  Realize that what works for one person may not work for another and what worked for you on Tuesday may not work for you on Thursday. 

Talk it out, or don’t.  Sometimes it is helpful to vent to someone you know and trust about what you are feeling.  Just saying it out loud can be freeing.  However, please be respectful of the other person.  Ask and gauge if your loved one is up for this type of conversation before you unload on them. A friend is not your therapist. In the therapy office you get to be completely selfish and speak about whatever you want.  It is, by design, a one way relationship.  Your loved ones are likely sorting through their own set of emotions and you do not want to overwhelm or alienate them.    

Tune out.  Between television news and social media we have a 24/7/365 feed of current events all dedicated to finding the most salacious, stomach churning stories possible.  There is no reason you have to stay plugged in.  Rest assured if something major happens, they will still be talking about it whenever you decide to tune back in.

Set limits. Well-meaning allies might be approaching you wanting to speak about the events of the day.  It is not your job to educate or console.  Politely but firmly tell them if you prefer not to discuss it right now/at work/at all.

Constructive outlets.  Whether it is with political activism or doing home projects it can be grounding to focus on concrete tasks.  The tasks need not be heroic but they should push you to do a more than you typically would on a given day.  

Develop a safety plan.  So much of what is happening feels out of our control.  Take back some control and make a plan for you and your family should things go awry.  If you are protesting in a group, have an exit plan and a meetup location some distance away from the protest.  Have emergency phone numbers memorized or written down in case you are detained by police.  The ACLU has a list of rights and tips to keep in mind for those of us choosing to exercise our right to protest.

Take care of your physical health.  Eat healthy and exercise.  If you are filling your body with junk and not exercising you will begin to feel sad and sluggish.  Not to mention, the COVID-19 virus is still here and you want your immune system in tip-top shape should you fall ill.

Keep doing the things that you love. Your every moment cannot be about the struggle. Pamper yourself, listen to music, go to the park and read a book of pure fiction and fantasy. Don’t feel pressured to think that if you post a frivolous meme it means you don’t care about the ongoing crisis. 

These are some tips around self-help but if you are finding yourself feeling like it is too much to handle on your own, professional help is available in many different forms. There are individual, group, telephone, video and online therapy services. There is no shame in asking for help. This is a physically, mentally and spiritually taxing time and each and every one of us is struggling.  We can only help others as much as we are helping ourselves. 

Aderonke Oguntoye, MD is a double board certified psychiatrist in adult and forensic psychiatry. She is the owner and Chief Medical Officer of Evolve Psychiatric Services, PC.  Her offices are in Midtown Manhattan where she provides psychotherapy and psychopharmacology treatment as well as forensic consultation to adults in the NYC metropolitan area.  In addition to clinical care, she is available for public speaking and media engagements domestically and abroad.  For more information or to contact directly, please visit her website at