Healthy Mind

Feeling Numb, Angry, or Overwhelmed by Roe v. Wade News? Here’s a 10-Step Action Plan To Take Care of Yourself

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For many, this week's news of the Supreme Court’s expected decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has whipped up a whirlwind of emotions, and understandably so. In addition to compromising abortion access, the destruction of Roe would create legal precedent for regulating the bodies of people with vaginas, which experts suspect may lead to trickle-down effects, like limits on contraceptive access and criminalization of miscarriage. With these major shifts now within the realm of possibility, it's understandable if you're feeling anxious, worried, overwhelmed, or all of the above. But just because the law is outside your control doesn’t mean the way you react to it is, too. In fact, there are tangible steps you can take to manage stress about the Roe v. Wade decision right now.

First, it’s important to validate for yourself that the overturning of a nearly 50-year precedent protecting the right to abortion can be a traumatic event, point blank. “This decision is causing trauma for many, many people because it reflects a taking away of rights and a loss of rights,” says trauma therapist Shannon Moroney, author of Heal for Real. And inherent to that loss is a lot of uncertainty and unknowing about the future—not unlike the experience we’ve just gone through with the pandemic, says trauma-informed therapist Gina Moffa, LCSW: “It’s that sense of losing everything that feels safe or reliable and having no place to fall back on.”

“This decision is causing trauma for many, many people because it reflects a taking away of rights and a loss of rights.” —Shannon Moroney, trauma therapist

For others, the Roe v. Wade decision may resurrect past traumas relating to bodily autonomy, pregnancy, motherhood, or a desire for any of the above. “People may not be aware that there’s a re-traumatization happening now,” says Moffa. “What’s coming up could remind someone of when they were assaulted, or when they watched somebody lose their rights, or when they previously had an abortion or wanted one but couldn’t get one.” And in any of these cases, processing that preexisting trauma may be key to confronting the present situation.

Whatever shape your response takes, learning to manage stress about the Roe v. Wade decision starts with identifying the particular feelings you’re having, and engaging in practices that restore your control over them. Below, trauma-informed therapists and wellness practitioners share 10 specific strategies you can use to do just that.

How to manage stress about the Supreme Court’s anticipated overturning of Roe v. Wade

1. Figure out what, exactly, you’re feeling

It's key to take a beat to see what’s coming up for you. “The questions you want to ask yourself are, ‘How am I reacting right now?’ and ‘Why am I reacting this way?’” says Moroney.

Answering those questions may require some uninterrupted time and attention—so, if you're struggling to make out anything beyond generalized overwhelm, it's worth asking your manager if you can take the day off. (You don’t need to disclose it as a "mental-health day," though you certainly can if that’s something to which you suspect they’d respond well.) “Once you’ve taken sufficient time to understand where your reaction might be originating, you’ll be more capable of crafting a response that sits well with you,” says Moroney.

2. Target and address the feeling in your body

Stress—and, in particular, stress related to fear or uncertainty—comes along with a physical response. “It triggers the body’s fight-or-flight instinct,” says Moffa, “and when your body feels like it’s under attack, it’ll gear up for that.” The result is physical tension, which different people hold in different parts of the body.

To treat this, Moroney suggests trying to locate where your stress-as-tension might be residing—whether that’s in the chest, stomach, shoulders, or somewhere else entirely. “Once you’ve located it, close your eyes and see if you can visualize whatever that emotion is as moving in a spiral,” she says, referencing an exercise she practices with clients who are managing trauma. “Then, identify whether it seems to be moving clockwise or counterclockwise—and once you figure that out, attempt to move it in the opposite direction.” This subtle mind trick can have the effect of dissipating or de-energizing the negative feeling, she says.

3. Use containment

Maybe you feel like you don’t have the time or the energy to address the stress, anxiety, or other feelings that are bubbling up for you in response to the Roe v. Wade decision. Or maybe you feel tired by the mere thought of the feeling itself. In this case, Moffa suggests practicing containment, which is a mindfulness exercise that allows you to “contain” the feeling in a metaphorical box to be dealt with at a later point.

Here’s how it works: “Picture your brain channeling the worries you have about this issue into a container that you create—which could be a vault or a box or a safe,” says Moffa. “Whatever it is, be sure that it has a door or a lid, which you can freely open to add the feelings inside, and then close to keep them safe.” The idea is that you’re setting aside these feelings to be addressed at a time when you’re not preoccupied (say, at 5 p.m. or after work) and not just shoving them away. “The act of creating the container also takes your mind to a place where it’s in control of something—which can be soothing, in and of itself,” adds Moffa.

4. Do the “five fingers, five senses” exercise

Stressful events can sometimes trigger a dissociative state, in which you really feel like you’re not “in” your body, or you’re watching things unfold from afar. If this resonates with you, Moroney suggests trying the “five fingers, five senses” exercise: “Identify five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste,” says Moroney. “And give it lots of detail—like, 'I’m touching this couch, and I can feel the velvet,' and 'I can also feel the small tufts,' and so on.”

This sensory identification has the immediate effect of dropping you back into the present moment and grounding you in your space. “It automatically slows your heart rate down, while also taking your focus off of the anxious feelings,” says Moffa, “which can make them seem less overwhelming.”

5. Get in motion

“I always tell my clients that stressful emotions are better in motion,” says Moffa. “They’re fear-based things that live in the body, so it’s important that when you’re processing them, you involve the body, too.”

"Stressful emotions are better in motion. They’re fear-based things that live in the body, so it’s important that when you’re processing them, you involve the body, too.” —Gina Moffa, LCSW, trauma-informed therapist

By contrast, stillness or idleness can really let things stew and work to feed the energy that causes stress, says certified Pilates instructor Katie McKenzie, founder of the A La Ligne movement method. She suggests finding “any movement that allows you to move that excess fire,” which could mean something high-energy like boxing or dancing, or something slow-going like a grounding nature walk. Figuring out what works best for you could require some experimentation, but whatever modality you choose, follow it up with ample time to wind down and rest, says McKenzie.

6. Practice self-holding

Compassion can be a helpful balm for stress—but figuring out how to offer it to yourself can also feel awkward or tricky in the moment. That’s why trauma-informed yoga teacher and massage therapist Natalie McGreal suggests taking a physical approach, and letting the mental-emotional side of things follow.

Specifically, she recommends this version of a self-hug: “In a comfortable seat or lying down, cross your arms in front of your chest, placing one hand below the opposite armpit, and using the other to hold the opposite upper arm. Close your eyes if that feels comfortable, and breathe at a pace that feels nourishing, bringing your attention to the embrace of your own arms and hands,” she says. This is a literal way of holding space for yourself that can feel just as mentally soothing. To amplify the effect, couple it with a kind affirmation, such as "In this moment, I am alive and safe," she says.

7. Find a creative outlet for high-octane feelings

When stress manifests as anger or rage, it often requires a certain kind of dedicated outlet. “Anger is an emotion that takes a lot of energy,” says Moroney. “While it’s an essential emotion that can create real change, it’s also important to make sure it comes out safely, without harming anyone.” That might mean engaging in some good old scream therapy (as in, literally screaming into a pillow to release anything pent-up) or doing any sort of heart-pumping cardiovascular activity. As for Moroney’s take? She prefers to channel it into art.

“Go to the dollar store and get a canvas, or find some construction paper and some cheap paints, and paint with reckless abandon,” she says. “Expressive art is all about process, not product, so the golden rule is, ‘don’t think, just feel.’ The most important thing is that you are connected to the emotion, and just letting it present itself on whatever canvas you have.”

8. Make noise and take action

Because feelings of stress related to the overturning of Roe v. Wade are often underscored by a sense of powerlessness or voicelessness, managing that stress may require reclaiming some of your (you guessed it) power or voice, says Moroney. And yes, it is possible to do that, even as an individual. That might mean making a donation to an abortion access fund, joining a protest against the Supreme Court’s pending decision, or volunteering at a local abortion clinic. Even sharing information on social media regarding safe abortion access can help restore your sense of agency—which can go a long way toward bolstering your mental health, says Moroney.

9. Connect openly with people you trust

“We’re hardwired for co-regulation in times of distress,” says McKenzie. And finding someone to lean on, vent to, or get vulnerable with right now could be just the thing you need to regulate your own stressful feelings. “This should be a loved one or someone whom you can trust will really understand what page you’re on because they’re on the same one,” says Moffa.

Once you’ve identified that person or people in your life, it’s helpful to think about what it is that you need from them before you reach out, whether that’s advice or just an ear to listen, says Moffa. In the case of the former, you might say, “Hey, I’m just a puddle on the floor right now, and I really need a pep talk,” she suggests, or in the case of the latter, it might be, “I just really need to vent right now about how I’m feeling.”

And if you don’t know what you need? Be upfront and honest about that, too, she adds. That might just mean saying, “Hey, I don’t really know how I’m feeling or what I need from this conversation, but I wanted to share that this is what’s coming up for me right now.”

10. Seek out a therapist

If your feelings of stress or overwhelm start to mount to the point where they’re interfering with your ability to lead a productive life, it may be time to seek professional assistance. To do so swiftly, your best bet is using a virtual therapy platform, most of which have dozens of therapists at their disposal, increasing your chances that you’ll find one who’s a match for your unique background and experiences.

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