mass action handbook
getting your community on the road and into the street

Action Emotions including Trauma

It's pretty common to have way too little sleep and a lot of stress during actions. Often we are also in unfamiliar cities, sleeping in unfamiliar places, eating unfamiliar foods, and meeting unfamiliar new friends. We may try to be more competent than usual because the stakes are higher than normal. The police use psychological warfare against us. It's not surprising our emotions sometimes go for a ride. Actions can be joyful, scary, tiring, maddening, occasionally boring, and worth every minute.

Overtly taking care of ourselves physically -- trying to get some sleep, eat a bit, stretch, perhaps find some personal time each day -- can help keep us frosty.

But sometimes we get overwhelmed, or worse, and feel we cannot perform our role at an action, or that we may be a risk to ourselves or our friends because of our mental state. The good news is the movement is diverse, and one can often find professional counsellors, social workers, people skilled in a variety of healing arts, and some very good listeners at an action. One way to connect is to find the action's healing space, which is often near the stationary medic space -- so ask a medic. The space is often coordinated by someone from the Pagan Cluster, so feel free to ask anyone from the Pagan Cluster, and if you can't get to the space, many of the pagans have some experience with healing arts and are emotionally mature and skilled enough to help, even right in the streets!


Going back to "normal" life after an action -- re-entry -- can be difficult, with some similar symptoms to mild depression. At an action we live intensely and intentionally, creating amazing caring communities and interacting with people more intentionally and continuously than we do at home. We could probably not sustain that level of intensity in our everyday lives. But the instant loss of that sweet kind of community is painful. So when the action is over it's not uncommon to feel a let down.

We've noticed depression symptoms after actions. Sometimes favorite foods and normal activities seem uninteresting. Sometimes we'll withdraw. Maybe we sleep or eat more or less than usual. To counteract re-entry blues, it seems to help to visit with friends who were at the action. Discussions and other informal gatherings like pot-lucks seem to work better for some than meetings, but even meetings help. Our after-action de-brief also helps with the transition back to everyday life.

Another thing which may help re-enter is to be a part of an intentional end-of-action gathering -- maybe a closing circle. Perhaps recount briefly what's happened, honor and thank each other, say goodbyes, and "until we meet again". Sometimes it can be sad, but it helps to close the door on what's over.


Unfortunately sometimes that door stays open in a big way, and events or recollections trigger strong feelings from the action. And for people who've lived other traumas, sometimes actions can trigger their old traumas. Sometimes people dont realize they have trauma, or are embarrassed by it. Recognizing and acknowledging it without shame speeds healing a lot! A Personal Story

Three months after FTAA/Miami someone mentioned their friend whose name is the same as a friend of mine who was brutalized by police in Miami. I immediately felt deep sadness and started to cry. I've had other troubles too, but I think that one is a good demonstration that I suffer trauma from Miami. I'm uneasy knowing my buttons can be pushed like that -- it's hard to feel vibrant and strong.

To counteract my triggers, I tell myself the bad thing isn't happening any more whenever I am triggered. So when I walk past cops and am Not arrested, I tell myself to pay attention to that, so I can un-learn that patterned fear. And next time when I hear my friend's name, I'll remind myself she's not being beaten right now, so my honorable emotion is nevertheless unnecessary.

Pavlov rang a bell when he fed his dogs, and eventually ringing the bell was enough for the dogs to salivate in anticipation of food. Trauma can work like that, except it can happen instantly. When we experience very intense emotions, especially negative ones, we sometimes associate them with something from the sights, sounds, and smells around us at the time; and that becomes a trigger. Later on when our trigger happens, just like when Pavlov rang his bell, we re-experience the intense emotion just like Pavlov's dogs experienced hunger.

It can be hard to discover your triggers, and friends can help as recommended in the references.

Lately we have been giving more after-action public presentations than in the past. It helps some to tell their story in public over and over. But that's not for everyone.

Sometimes action trauma can be serious enough to need professional help. There are some counsellors who are volunteering their time for this purpose -- see the references.

Trauma and grief and rage are normal healthy human reactions to the stuff we face in life and especially as activists. Our culture often says we are weak if we can't "control our emotions", but facing these things with our friends is not only a sign of amazing strength, it is also a strong step to healing. We can probbly do more in our community to ease re-entry blues, to heal trauma, and in general to take back control of our mental health. Maybe someday there'll be a chapter about that.

Activist/trauma references


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[an error occurred while processing this directive] table of contents

Table of Contents

  1. introduction/home page
  2. get ready! what you need to know to make your participation effective
  3. becoming an affinity group & living the world you want to see
  4. putting on a teach-in
  5. outreach is something that everyone does!
  6. trip logistics
  7. legal
  8. media
  9. at home, while the mass action is happening
  10. when you get to protest-town
  11. back home, after the action

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links you need:

international listing of major protests.


Video Activist Network,
Big Noise Films, Whispered Media, Cascadia Media, indymedia videos



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