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Brain Science

There’s a Reason You Feel Numb Right Now

After nearly five years of being on edge, this is what it might take to reset our brains.

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Sitting at her kitchen table on January 20, smartphone in hand and headset over her ears, Anna McDermott watched intently as the swearing-in of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris streamed from Washington, D.C. into her home in Olympia, Washington by way of YouTube. For the 38-year-old disabled artist, the last four years have been a particularly extreme source of anxiety, as she worried constantly about the government barring her access to disability insurance and Medicare. Tuning into the inauguration of two people who were not her first choice replacements, but who nominally marked the end of a relentless four years, she hoped would create a crack just big enough to finally allow some joy to come through. Instead, she was met with only a brief spark of relief, then blankness.

“I tried so hard to connect with the thing,” she says. “I felt almost a need to pretend to be more excited than I was. I felt I owed it to Kamala to be more jubilant—like, ‘it’s a woman in the White House, it’s so good!’—but I couldn’t elevate any of that.”

Events like presidential inaugurations are professionally manufactured with the intent to inspire resonance. The displays of national grandeur, recitation of poems, and solemnly taken oaths are meant to make you feel something, whether it’s negative or positive is almost irrelevant. But what many who watched this year’s changing of the guard experienced is that to cope with the crescendo of racial violence, a deadly virus, unparalleled unemployment, and record-breaking environmental crises, their emotional senses have dulled. “I feel like my ‘momentousness’ faculties are crushed under the ticker of the dead,” says McDermott.

This adaptive response, meant to protect you from the onslaught of constant stress, is becoming a collective experience. Juliette McClendon, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine and a practicing psychologist who specializes in racial trauma, says that’s not surprising in the slightest.

“As a Black woman—who also studies racism and health—I have found myself feeling numb quite often,” she says. “It has really been a year just full of trauma after trauma after trauma. At a certain point, some people, their bodies just kind of shut down, or their feelings kind of shut down.”

The human body has evolved to withstand episodic stress—whether instigated by the sudden lunge of a wild animal or the more insidious creep of a work deadline—but not ad infinitum. In a manageable stress cycle, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in at the first sign of peril: heart rate and breathing become rapid, anxiety sometimes sets in, and the body ramps up production of cortisol, a hormone that, among other roles, helps demote bodily functions that might get in the way during a fight-or-flight situation. When the threat lifts—the animal backs away or the deadline has been met—the parasympathetic nervous system takes over and relaxes us: heartbeats level, breathing slows, and mental order returns. In small bursts like this, cortisol can even strengthen the immune system.

But imagine an animal perpetually confronting you, teeth bared, for years, decades, or your whole life. The sympathetic nervous system dominates for too long and cortisol levels stay elevated, opening the door for chronic physiological health concerns—such as heart disease and autoimmune diseases like arthritis—and a host of mental health outcomes, like unabating depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Prolonged exposure to stressors literally changes the body and the brain as they adapt to this new state of being, rather than seeing it as temporary.

“The way I conceptualize traumatic stress is that it occurs when we exceed our capacity to cope with something,” McClendon says. “I think that’s probably happened for a lot of people, especially in 2020.”

The non-profit Mental Health America found in its annual report that among 1.5 million people screened, “the number of people looking for help with anxiety and depression has skyrocketed.” Compared to 2019, there was a 93 percent increase in those seeking any level of support for anxiety and a 62 percent increase for depression, with levels of moderate to severe anxiety and depression increasing as 2020 wore on. The report clarified that while the experience of living through the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated such upticks, these patterns have been emerging for years.

Whether it’s right to call this experience genuine PTSD, McClendon says, is ultimately up to individual clinical diagnoses. “But I think there’s a general sense that the experience of the past five years has been traumatic—I think that makes a lot of sense—and that people are experiencing many of those traumatic stress symptoms,” she says.

Some hope that the broadening of this experience—what it’s like to live under constant threat, and how tough the associated symptoms of that are to shake—will beget greater empathy. The Trump administration and everything it wrought has merely put on stark display systemic issues that have always been part of the country’s fabric and that marginalized communities feel most acutely.

“I came out as trans many years ago, and the issues surrounding my experience with transphobia have been consistent across all administrations,” says Ky Hamilton, a 33-year-old in Gunnison, Colorado, referring to a period of time spanning the Obama, Trump, and now Biden administrations. She had Biden’s inauguration ceremony and related news on all day and like McDermott felt only a short-term sense of relief.

“There’s some room to breathe right now, you’re not afraid for what’s going to show up in your newsfeed or on the front of the New York Times next week, and I think that’s really important,” she says. “But at the same time, it doesn’t change that day-to-day experience.”

This slight alleviation in stress isn’t enough to overcome what Boston-based psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk describes as the “re-calibration of the brain’s alarm system” in his book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. When one source of chronic traumatic stress begins to wane, the brain, which now has a new baseline, is not immediately able to relieve the sense of numbness that comes with fight-or-flight mode. Getting out of this mode and realigning the brain and body is a process that will vary depending on a person’s history with trauma, but it often requires compassionate therapeutic support.

For people who just started experiencing daily distress under the Trump administration Hamilton says, “I think there’s a learning opportunity here for these people.”

As we collectively move into the next political era, there may be some internalized pressure to feel safe and whole overnight. McClendon says it’s a process that takes time, and it’s completely normal to still feel on-edge even when the immediate threat dissipates.

“Our sympathetic nervous system is still kind of on overdrive. People were on edge for years and years and years,” she says. “This one thing has changed for the last couple of weeks—not even a month. It’s still going to take time for our minds and our bodies to adjust to feeling like things are a little bit more predictable.”

If therapy is out of reach or doesn’t seem like a good fit, McClendon recommends a personal, three-stage approach where you re-engage the parasympathetic nervous system—that post-stress cleanup crew—by gradually turning outward again. First, start small with yourself: focus on mindful breathing or re-establishing routines around activities that have in the past brought you joy. Next, engage with a support system and share what you’re feeling. And lastly, turn to advocacy and activism as ways to reinvigorate yourself.

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