I was cycling home last night over Waterloo bridge, around 9.30pm. I felt happy and free. I thought of going to a bar at London Bridge who make the best hot chocolate in the world (in my opinion). A minute later, I realised I felt exhausted after a long day and decided to go home.
I read the news about the London Bridge attacks when I got in. My breathing shallowed, my stomach clenched, tears surfaced. I immediately messaged friends and family who might have been in the area. My cousin had been there, but left five minutes before it happened. I thought of people hurt or killed and found it hard to get off my phone and to sleep.
When we notice a threat, the feeling parts of our brain fire up and our body is filled with stress hormones. We typically respond with Fight, Flight or Freeze. The thinking and behaviour patterns our bodies have learnt from past experiences of danger immediately kick in. If you’ve experienced trauma in the past, this response might feel quite overwhelming. We do what we can to feel safe – we barricade ourselves physically and emotionally, holding close what is familiar and pushing away everything else.
I’ve been reflecting today on what helps us in times like this, as individuals and as members of a wider diverse community and society. Here are a few thoughts – I’d love to hear yours in response.
Support yourself first
Acknowledge how you feel – if you don’t have words for it, try picking three or four words from here. Notice what’s happening in your body. Are your shoulders, neck clenched, is your breathing quick or slow? Whatever you notice, be gentle – whatever you’re feeling is OK.
Breathe. Lengthening the out-breath can slow the firing of stress hormones and support the nervous system to come back into balance. Inhale for 3, exhale for 6. Or use a rather mesmerising gif like this or this (try using these when supporting children with anxiety too). Put on a favourite song and sing or hum – it will help your breathing regulate itself. Meditate or pray, if that’s your thing.
Move. Walk, run, stretch, do some yoga. Anxiety floods our muscles with lactic acid, moving helps it to dissipate – particularly shaking out the legs and hips. Drink plenty of water.
Get off Facebook – We want to stay in touch. However, scrolling through a long newsfeed of commentary, images and videos can re-trigger your fight/flight/freeze response over and over again. It’s simultaneously addictive and harmful. I’m not suggesting de-activating your account – but try to use it mindfully.
Be in community
Our emotional responses can lead to opposing instincts within ourselves– do we barricade ourselves with PLUs (People Like Us) or we reach out and affirm our strength together as a wider community? As well as practical actions, the following can help build a sense of solidarity.
Talk with your family, friends, neighbours. Ask people how they are feeling rather than what they think about it – and listen to their response. Being listened to with patience and without judgement can feel very supportive in itself.
Reach out to others – those who are similar and those who are different, if it feels OK to. Say hello or smile to people on the bus (in London this is weird behaviour, but often it’s appreciated). Check in on your neighbours. Recognise that the UK and London Muslim community will bear the brunt of any fearful backlash after this incident. A gentle inquiry into how any Muslim friends and neighbours are or a message of support might be appreciated. Bear in mind many will be fasting currently for Ramadan until 9.15pm or so.
Commit to community over the long term. London often feels quite transient with many people passing through. Mainstream culture is to pack diaries and juggle over what feels most exciting/important to do every day. Yet there can be a magic in meeting the same group over a period of time. At the regular Tuesday night women’s singing group I run in London, creating a welcoming space for women of different backgrounds and needs is the number one priority. It’s paying off in terms of how much we learn from each other and how we are developing trust. You might have a local community association or an activity group doing music, sports, campaigning, a book club etc. Notice who is part of it and challenge any groups you are part of to be more inclusive and welcoming to all.
Notice the wider picture
We all want to be safe and to keep our loved ones safe. As we are hit with waves of fear or grief, we can develop a deeper empathy with our sisters and brothers facing state-delivered terror in places such as Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Calais… And closer to home, UK residents (including the disproportionate numbers of Black people) murdered in our UK immigration detention centres, our prisons and police cells.
‘Terror’ groups and our dominant right-wing politics (propped up by violent institutions) are both sides of the same coin. They are both extremist, un-feeling and anti-democratic. They both draw strength from others’ fear and use it to control populations.
What is fear comprised of – judgement, loneliness, being closed, feeling under siege? The opposite is love – being open, connected, generous, fair. Knowing you don’t have all the answers and trusting that we can work them out together. A recognition that none of us are free until all of us are free.
We all have forces of love and fear within each of us. Can you be curious about how these forces weave their paths within yourself today in relation to wider society? Notice about how you feel about different politicians and political priorities, as we see societal forces of fear and love playing out in the current UK election campaign. Notice where you feel scared and closed off and where you feel open and generous.
Be kind and non-judgemental with yourself as you notice – it’s human nature to have a spectrum of various emotions. When we recognise and accept ourselves as we fully are with gentleness and care, we create space for love and courage to grow.