Health

We Asked Mental Health Professionals How to Cope With the Trauma of Watching Extremists Storm the Capitol

"The key here is we really have to refocus on what we can control."

Photograph by Evy Mages

After pro-Trump extremists stormed the Capitol on Wednesday, the nation has carried on in a nightmarish haze. This is especially true for DC residents: Even if you didn’t experience the mob directly, it’s still horrifying to know a coup attempt happened just a Metro ride away.

It’s understandable, then, that folks may be experiencing anxiety, depression, and trauma after Wednesday’s insurrection, say mental health professionals. And the effects of this week’s events are likely building upon the already considerable mental toll of 2020. “I think we’ve all been developing this pre-existing anxiety because we’ve been in this pandemic, and it’s so horrendous, for so long,” says Fairfax psychiatrist Susan Trachman.

The events of 2021 can be especially harmful to people who’ve experienced prior trauma or assault, says Trachman, or who have a history of substance abuse or mental illness. She also points out that people of color may be particularly traumatized after watching the mostly white rioters raid the Capitol, given the disparate police response toward them and Black Lives Matter demonstrators last summer.

Bottom line: we could all probably use some suggestions for how to cope after this week. Here are some tips from mental health professionals.

Self-monitor

If you’re unsure whether you’re experiencing anxiety, depression, or trauma, check in with yourself and keep an eye out for red flags, says Lisa Ferentz, a Maryland clinical social worker who specializes in trauma. These could include changes in behavior, such as sleeping too much or too little, disconnecting from friends and losing interest in usual activities, or experiencing unusually pessimistic thoughts. Also a red flag: experiencing chest palpitations, heart racing, body pain, or sweating, which can be physical symptoms of anxiety. And keep an eye out for “any self-destructive behavior that is done for the purpose of numbing or self-medication,” she says—this could be anything from increased alcohol or recreational drug use to over-eating.

Just log off

It may seem like the natural thing to constantly refresh Twitter while CNN plays in the background, but you’re not helping your mental health. “When our brains and our bodies are repeatedly subjected to the visual imagery, the stuff from newscasters and the talking heads and the things on social media, this really exacerbates the feelings of helplessness and hopelessness and anxiety and anger and divisiveness,” says Ferentz.

Trachman puts it a little more bluntly: “Stop watching the freaking TV.” 

Control what you can

“The key here is we really have to refocus on what we can control,” says Ferentz. “With all the stuff that’s going on, we often become hyper-aware of what’s not in our control.” 

Trachman agrees: “People get scared when they feel things are out of control,” she says. “And what can you control? Your environment.” Both point to things like exercise, eating well, limiting alcohol, getting enough sleep, and reaching out to friends and family as crucial to maintaining a healthy environment. Self-care is important, too, says Ferentz, and she suggests using aromatherapy, a gratitude journal, or positive affirmations. 

Also critical: Not being afraid to seek professional mental health help. “There’s no question that now, more than ever, people really deserve the support of therapy,” says Ferentz. This could mean scheduling an appointment with a therapist, many of whom are seeing clients virtually right now, or looking into options such as online support groups or mental health workshops.

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Mimi Montgomery Washingtonian
Associate Editor

Mimi Montgomery joined Washingtonian in 2018. Her work has appeared in Outside Magazine, Washington City Paper, DCist, and PoPVille. Originally from North Carolina, she now lives in Petworth.