Boulder-area therapists, spiritual leaders see Trump-era rise in stress

In a cozy, candlelit room at Cairn Christian Church, a small group of older adults, mostly members, sat together last Wednesday night with their eyes closed, quietly breathing out fear and anxiety while breathing in peace and gentleness, in a visualization...

Boulder-area therapists, spiritual leaders see Trump-era rise in stress

In a cozy, candlelit room at Cairn Christian Church, a small group of older adults, mostly members, sat together last Wednesday night with their eyes closed, quietly breathing out fear and anxiety while breathing in peace and gentleness, in a visualization led by facilitator Lise Hildebrandt.

It's midway through the first gathering of Holy Ground: Spiritual Grounding for Activism. Offering a blend of contemplation, inspiration and dialogue, the weekly group is intended to help anyone who may be feeling overwhelmed or anxious in the post-inaugural "new normal" to function, stay focused and take action.

"We'll burn out without grounding," Hildebrandt, of Louisville, said. An ordained Episcopal priest, she currently worships at Cairn, a Disciples of Christ congregation in Lafayette.

"This is a safe place to draw strength from each other and our spiritual practices," Hildebrandt said, who had opened the group by inviting people to share what brought them.

"I'm feeling helpless to what's happening and want to get ways of coping ... I want to make a difference," Jenne Wallace, a Lafayette retiree, said.

Rosie Campbell, of Longmont, said that she was already feeling worn out from being "so frantic all the time." Some came seeking inner strength or mutual support, others were challenged by varying degrees of anger, fear, helplessness and a sense of unreality. Wallace found the prayers, Biblical reading, hymns and discussion helpful, and like others she planned to return.

"I'm feeling more hopeful — that we're together, having community that acknowledges the way you're feeling," she said.

Clients are 'freaking out'

Typically, things settle down after a presidential election. But the first few weeks of the Trump administration, like the election preceding it, have been anything but settled.

For many in the Boulder area, long a progressive stronghold, current events are a cause of concern or even alarm. But in distinctly Boulder fashion, people are mobilizing, not just politically, but in support of health and wellbeing.

The intensity of post-inaugural stress, according to psychologist Julie Colwell, executive director of the Boulder Center for Conscious Community, is unsustainable. Chronic stress harms our health, she said, taxing the brain and depleting the adrenal glands, among other negative physiological impacts. Stress also affects our cognition, rendering thinking "urgent and concrete."

"What do you do? I think about that all the time. Simple answer: keep moving the dense emotions through, like a river. Getting stuck is what creates the 'yuck' in your body. Let yourself cry, shake and move," she said.

Colwell estimated that 75 percent of her clients and community are "freaking out," a state she described as putting the gas pedal and the brake on at the same time: "'I'm activated, but I don't know what to do.'"

With tools such as breathing, movement, singing or meditation, most feelings can process in 2 to 3 minutes, Colwell said, although deeper triggers are harder to work with, typically taking 15 to 30 minutes to "metabolize."

"To anchor into creative brain makes it all sustainable. Anchor like a rock climber. Of course, have the feelings, but don't anchor there ... Anchor yourself in something generative," she said.

Hope in community

The Singing Through Troubled Times gathering is a good example of a creative brain re-set activity. The events attracted more than 50 singers and musicians, who skipped the Feb. 5 Super Bowl for three hours of songs, snacks, camaraderie and conversation at Boulder's KGNU studios.

While this extended musical community has a history of playing together over the years, the sing-along is being reinvigorated as a much-needed, monthly, post-inaugural balm, according to KGNU volunteer organizer, Elena Klaver, of Niwot, a musician and Spanish language interpreter.

"A lot of people really have been feeling devastated on all different fronts ... Singing together helps us come together and do something as a community, and it's also really fun," Klaver said.

"One of the things I've been looking at, and I think so many of us have since the election — It's very important for people not to feel isolated, for people to feel connected, and singing together does that," she said.

For guitarist Linda Gore, a retired physician's assistant from Lafayette, engagement is the antidote to sitting alone at home with her husband.

"I was pretty depressed," she said.

Hearing the words of Holly Near's "I Am Willing" a month ago kicked Gore into gear. Now she's going to marches, making phone calls, and signing postcards at postcard parties. Seeing others being active gives her hope.

"I think we're all seeing each other a lot more these days, we're not as isolated," she said. "We know that we're not alone."

Trump Trauma support group forms

Like music, spirituality can also be a source of solace, connection and renewal.

"What I'm finding as a pastor is that people are asking questions about 'How do I make meaning of all this?'" Kelly Dignan, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Boulder, a social justice-oriented denomination, said.

In January, UUCB added a second Sunday morning service to accommodate post-election demand.

"The Sunday after the election we saw a 62 percent increase in attendance, and that has not dissipated. I think it's a sign that people want religion — of some kind, they want a religious community where they can come and get re-sourced, with the source of life, so that they can have energy for the week ahead," Dignan said.

For some, social or spiritual support may be enough, while others may benefit from additional services.

"This is a discontinuous aspect to reality that no one was prepared for. It's not business as usual," Julisa Adams, Boulder therapist and founder of the Trump Trauma Support Group, said. In a week the Meetup group had 50 members, although, as of Tuesday, only one RSVP for the first meeting.

"Our regular coping strategies are not adequate. We have to make serious changes and commitments in our daily life to be able to process what's going on without going into PTSD symptoms," she said.

Adams stressed the importance of self-awareness and self-care to keep from falling into "unconscious overwhelm" — a kind of automatic pilot likely to involve coping strategies such as escapism, codependency and addictions.

Brooks Witter, acting director of the Naropa Community Counseling Center in Boulder, likewise reported increased political concerns among clients.

"Whatever they had been working on before the election, they jumped track and were needing to process the shock and uncertainty of what the Trump election means for them ... a lot of fear was kicked up," he said.

Many of the sliding-scale center's clients are members of vulnerable groups. Folks who receive government support services, minorities, women, and undocumented individuals were talking about fear, anxiety and re-traumatization, Witter said.

"In particular, women who have a sexual abuse issue were talking about their shock and disbelief, their despair of seeing somebody who was a self-confessed sexual perpetrator who just got elected," he said.

While current events are collective experiences, for Witter, individual psychology is fundamental.

"We're seeking to understand how each individual is responding, how that response has been conditioned by their life experiences, and if that response is ultimately serving them," he said. "It's reductionistic to presume the stimulus of Trump is going to have the same effect on all beings."

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