“Then came an unsettling encounter with the apparent source of that demand: a Capitol police officer who she said looked at her with “a tremendous amount of anger and hostility.” she recalled, thinking “that I was going to die.”

The Eternal Return of Trauma of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC)

I can hold in my mind an acknowledgment that this fear is perfectly understandable even though it is not factually justified. My hope is that AOC may move beyond her victimhood to become a survivor (as many of the crime-impacted — victims and perpetrators).

Photo by Jan Canty on Unsplash

“I haven’t told many people that in my life,” the Democratic congresswoman said of the revelation (regarding her prior sexual assault), which came during a harrowing recounting of her experiences amid the Capitol riot, reported The New York Times in Ocasio-Cortez Says She Is a Sexual Assault Survivor on February 1, 2021.

“Then came an unsettling encounter with the apparent source of that demand: a Capitol police officer who she said looked at her with “a tremendous amount of anger and hostility.” she recalled, thinking “that I was going to die.”

https://youtu.be/fWNWoNaImQA

The first question that comes to mind when AOC explains her January 6, 2021, Capitol mayhem in the Cannon Building (.3 miles from the actual Capitol), really?

In contrast, Representative Ro Khanna, on RollingStone’sUseful Idiots” podcast at 45:00 in the show, said:

“It was much better to stay in my office (with the door locked)…I didn’t fear for my safety in the office, but certainly the members in the Capitol — what a harrowing experience.”

There is no dispute that people in the Capitol were at risk.

Before everyone gets self-righteous and believes they would have acted heroically in this situation, I ask you to be empathic to AOC and develop an understanding of trauma-impacted triggers.

I have no doubt that AOC experienced both the initial trauma of sexual violence (rape or other sexual assault years ago) AND was ‘taken back’ to the same emotional state upon the police officer frantically knocking on her office door in the Cannon office building telling those inside to evacuate on January 6, 2021 (aka the ‘trigger).

“Then came an unsettling encounter with the apparent source of that demand: a Capitol police officer who she said looked at her with “a tremendous amount of anger and hostility.” she recalled, thinking “that I was going to die.”

I can hold in my mind an acknowledgment that this fear is perfectly understandable even though it is not factually justified. My hope is that AOC may move beyond her victimhood to become a survivor (as have many of the crime-impacted — victims and perpetrators).

May both AOC and those that belittle her ‘lived experience’ learn to distinguish and overcome triggering events that force them to emotionally relive a primary trauma. Let me be clear, AOC is certain and she was honest when she said “I thought I was going to die,” however, this emotional response was due to being triggered (back to the emotional state of her earlier sexual assault) by the police officer knocking on her offices’ front door. Again, it was perfectly understandable even though it is not factually justified (she was in no danger from the police officer).

I have seen similar reactions hundreds of times during six years at San Quentin State Prison. The body/brain holds the pattern (emotional state) of trauma and the victim is taken back to the same emotional state by a triggering event (it is literally ‘mapped’ into the brain).

Primary Trauma — Primary traumas (also called firsthand traumas) occur when significant, potentially life-altering events leave us feeling fearful, helpless, overwhelmed, and profoundly changed. These feelings result from experiences that are direct, meaning they happen to us personally or we see them happen to others. Events that cause primary trauma can be acute — in the case of a single occurrence, such as a severe car accident — or ongoing, in the case of an experience that happens over time, such as being abused or neglected as a child. As you can imagine, there are many causes of primary trauma. Secondary Trauma in the Workplace: Tools for Awareness, Self-Care, and Organizational Response in Montana

As with many others, I hope that AOC can learn to restore her nervous system to a balanced state and become a survivor of her personal trauma and not a continuing victim of it (seeing that emotional state reflected again and again by triggering events). She is a member of Congress and we all seek to have her represent her constituents to the best of her ability.

Restoring the Nervous System “Learning how trauma is stored in the body and the strategies for safely processing traumatic experiences has made me a better therapist, advocate, and supervisor to our volunteer victim advocates.” — Alanna Sherstad in Secondary Trauma in the Workplace: Tools for Awareness, Self-Care, and Organizational Response in Montana.

As discussed earlier in this book, the consequences of secondary trauma (whether from a personal experience or witnessing others in trauma) can be both mental and physical…it is important for us to track and manage what’s happening in our bodies. To do this, we can borrow techniques from an approach developed by Dr. Peter Levine called Somatic Experiencing® Trauma Resolution (sometimes called SE for short).

Somatic simply means “body-oriented,” refecting this approach’s core belief that trauma is something that imprints on the body as well as the mind. SE is used around the world to treat trauma. Secondary Trauma in the Workplace: Tools for Awareness, Self-Care, and Organizational Response in Montana

Moving from trauma-informed to trauma-responsive to implement trauma-informed care can be challenging. See resources below:

https://nicic.gov/series/becoming-trauma-informed-essential-element-justice-settings

Typically, it is clinicians who learn to use SE as part of their advanced training. For the purposes of this book, however, Kelly and Colter have worked with Dr. Abi Blakeslee, a faculty member at the Somatic Experiencing® Trauma Institute, to adapt a small part of the SE training program to help Montana providers prevent and reduce the consequences of secondary trauma.

A Brief Introduction to Somatic Experiencing® (SE), the concepts behind SE draw from neuroscience research exploring our involuntary physiological response to trauma. This research shows that our brains and bodies react to highly stressful or threatening situations much in the same way as animals do — namely, “fight, fight, or freeze,” sometimes called the defensive threat response cycle. Despite our similarity to other animals in this respect, humans seem to be unique in how the effects of our exposure to trauma can linger long after a triggering event.

Dr. Levine was particularly interested in why wild animals, unlike humans, can quickly resume their normal activities after a traumatic experience. Tink, for instance, of an elk calmly grazing in a field only minutes after being chased by a grizzly bear. Why can’t we do that?

Dr. Levine concluded that the answer lies in the involuntary regulation of our autonomic nervous system (ANS). Te ANS includes the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) — responsible for mobilizing energy during an emergency, including triggering key parts of the body’s defensive threat response cycle — and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which controls the body’s reactions during times of resting and digesting.

The PNS can also activate a “freeze” response in the face of a perceived threat.

The symptoms of the human nervous system parasympathetic nerve include: Constrict Pupils, Stimulate Saliva, Constrict Airways, Slow Heartbeat, Stimulate Activity of Stomach, Stimulate Activity of Intestines, Inhibit Release of Glucose, Stimulate Gallbladder, Contract Bladder.

From the perspective of SE, trauma is not held in the event but in the nervous system. During a traumatic event, the body springs into action, with the SNS triggering a defensive threat response. After the threat has passed, the gentle PNS can return the body to its baseline after high surges of stress hormones.

This often takes the form of trembling or the feeling of heat release. This natural cycle allows our bodies to return to a state of calm. From this relaxed and restored place, our physiology will indicate to us that the event has passed.

Unfortunately, the human brain often gets in the way. After a traumatic event, certain parts of the brain may suppress this involuntary process, thus disrupting the natural chain of reactions that allows our brains and bodies to return to their normal states. By tracking our physical sensations and how they relate to our experiences of trauma, SE helps us “complete” the interrupted process of the ANS. (emphasis added)

It is an exciting time for the field of psychology. Our understanding of what trauma is and how we can work with it is deeper now than ever before — much thanks to the field of somatics. With the help of our newfound understandings, we are well poised to make significant differences in the lives of many.

Father, attorney, essayist, thinker, and active manager who found the courage to create through the chrysalis of San Quentin prison.

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