3rd August 2016
Guest writer for Wake Up World
It’s hard to turn on the TV, check Facebook, or read a newspaper these days without an inundation of fear. Global unrest is perennial. But us Westerners can usually cope with it through our inbuilt “us and them” brain networks…
While the neural circuitry responsible for our ability to differentiate between members of our social “ingroup” and “outgroup” is the very cause of racial prejudice and cross-cultural conflict, it’s also a biologically adaptive mechanism for coping with the inevitable injustices of the world. It lets us overlook, and perpetrate, terrible things in the name of self preservation. Because, well, that’s happening to them, not us. And they are somehow fundamentally different from us, to the effect they are no longer my social responsibility, and my nervous system doesn’t feel their pain as my own.
But lately, people we think could be us, in places we assume should be safe, are no longer seemingly so. In the last month alone we’ve seen violence in Turkey, Nice, Orlando, and Dallas. There’s been attacks in Paris, Brussels, San Bernadino, and the Sydney siege. We’ve had riots and natural disasters.
As a psychologist, I see firsthand the impact this fear has on people. For days and weeks following an event, people commonly experience flare ups of anxiety and depression, relationship conflict, or drug and alcohol use. When events happen so close together, our nervous systems don’t have time to return to equilibrium. We’re left feeling afraid, overwhelmed, and disgruntled with the state of humanity.
However, people often won’t make the link between global events and mental health symptoms. In addition to the “phew, I’m not just crazy” kind of relief that comes from simply normalizing this, below are the top 3 things to know in service of your mental health during these times.
1. Look at the Big Picture
It’s easy to get caught up in the media attention these events get. TV networks want news coverage, and present things in a way that guarantees it. One-off violent events get disproportionate amounts of airtime at the expense of more positive, longer-term trends. We end up asking “What’s the world coming to?” without questioning “How bad has the world been in the past?”
In the book The Better Angels of our Nature, psychologist Steven Pinker researched the historical trend of homicide, war, genocide, and terrorism, and found despite small peaks and dips, all have dramatically reduced. Tribal warfare was 9 times deadlier than war in the 20th century. Slavery and executions for entertainment have been abolished. Rape, batterings, deadly riots, child abuse, and cruelty to animals are all substantially reducing. Violent crime in the US has fallen by over half in the last 10 years, and is a fraction of what it was in the 60’s 70’s and 80’s. There are no longer wars between developed countries, and even in the developing world, death in war has fallen a hundred percent in 25 years.
Government, literacy, and trade have reduced our need to rely on base impulses like revenge and nationalism to survive and prosper. As nonzero theory tells us, evolution knows being in a cohesive group is more advantageous to survival than being one of several competing individuals. Thus, when cooperation and “win-win” arrangements become most efficient in a social network, our capacity for empathy and compassion take over to begin identifying newcomers as members of our tribal “ingroup”. This usually takes a bit of cross pollination time, and involves some initiations. Considering the relative blip of time for which the world’s been such a globalized arena, we’re not doing too badly.
So, when you find yourself fretting about the kind of world people are bringing children into these days, speak some logic to your emotional brain, letting it know that, although atrocities are still taking place, goodness always wins, and on a whole we’re steadily evolving towards peace and compassion.
[For more on this, please see the article: Survival of the Kindest: Evidence Humankind is Evolving to Become More Compassionate.]
2. Make It Personal
The natural impulse after waking to news of another attack, is wanting to talk about it. We seek a sense of being united in the face of evil by reaching out to others who share our views in condemning the attackers. While venting may bring temporary relief, the net psychological result tends to be increased feelings of powerlessness.
The nature of, and propensity for, fear is cumulative. If you’ve been attacked by a black dog, it’s likely your pulse will race faster next time you pass a black dog than someone without this traumatic experience. The fear may also generalize to cats, or anything else that reminds you of black dogs, like going for a walk. And you might not consciously realize why you always find an excuse to avoid your evening strolls these days.
In this way, global conflicts tap into old wounds we all carry to some extent around lack of safety. This can be a lack of financial security, physical safety, or social belonging. Because the brain doesn’t know the difference between what it sees in the environment and what it remembers, as the same neural nets are firing, these events trigger our bodies into defensive “fight or flight” mode, as though we’re in immediate danger, and our higher-order thinking capacities go offline. When this goes unchecked and we remain focused on external things we can’t control, we end up re-traumatizing ourselves. We become reactionary and irrational. This is why scared people say and do things, that they not only come to regret, but that don’t represent the totality of their opinion, and often end up making them part of the problem. Nerve cells that fire together wire together, meaning repeated associations between external uncontrollable circumstances and our perception of immediate danger cause a long term relationship between these things and panic and powerlessness become our identity.
On the other hand, people who don’t have a strong reaction to atrocities aren’t necessarily lacking compassion or astuteness, instead they’re more likely to have worked through their own unconscious traumas.
Thus, if you notice yourself going into a rant, stop and turn towards yourself. What impact is this having on you personally, socially, and emotionally? Are there any parts of your life where fear is creating unnecessary conflict or avoidance of something important? What’s coming up for you around a sense of safety? Look inwards and softly witness any parts of yourself reminded of times you felt threatened, while taking a minute to reassure yourself you’re safe in this moment. Do something kind for yourself. In doing this, our triggered fears offer an invaluable opportunity to bring unconscious trauma into the present for healing, in turn diffusing the desperate sense of immediacy around external circumstances.
3. Hear the Calling
We know getting intimidated is giving “them” the win, but how can we remain peaceful from the couch at 8:00am as we watch the morning news? It’s so completely irrational, it’s hard to explain to ourselves in a way we can comfortably sit with. We see so clearly how all this unnecessary fighting could be stopped, why can’t we all just get along? It’s hard not to be swallowed up in anger or fear, wishing the world was different. We may make a passive attempt at the high road, which in reality, looks more like swallowing the fear down, changing the channel, then jumping in the car hoping to drive away from our felt uneasiness. In contrast, an active counter-attack leaves us feeling empowered.
When you’re watching the news, take every pang of fear or disappointment as a call to action. The more you’re moved, the more you’re called. Interpret your potential for fear as a yardstick for the love and resources you have that are not being utilized. The first law of thermodynamics says energy can’t be created or destroyed in an isolated system, just converted. Become a converter.
Instead of letting your body shrink in fear, breathe deeply into your heart area and let it expand. Bring in gratitude for being someone, somewhere, who can envision a peaceful world. This isn’t fear-based nationalism which involves putting other nations down, but a sense of national and circumstantial pride independent of comparisons. Recent research has showed that although the former reduces our sense of compassion and empathy for others, the latter doesn’t. Warmly recall times you’ve experienced, or observed others, being treated with care and concern, and notice the sense of okay-ness this brings into your body. This can even be found among the seeming chaos. As American television personality Fred Rogers said:
Being still in the face of devastation isn’t racism or turning a blind eye. It’s energetically and emotionally channeling peace, health, and constructivity. It’s consciously rejecting the irrational limiting belief that destruction is more powerful than goodness. Science has shown us that intentionally bringing positive emotion into the body increases heart rate coherence, which instantly improves emotional resilience, increases immune function to strengthen the body, and facilitates cognitive integration, sharpening our ability to think and problem solve. These are the qualities needed for a solution.
So send prayers to people affected. There might be some creative endeavor or social service you can perform, like writing a poem, or volunteering. Or, you might just give your bus driver an extra-long smile that morning. However you respond, empower yourself in action, reminding yourself of the universally powerful love that’s never not working tirelessly behind the scenes. And the more you do, the safer you’ll feel in your own body, and the world.
About the author:
Dr. Kim Gillbee is a researcher and psychologist in private practice from Melbourne, Australia. She has completed a Masters in Psychology (Counselling) and a Ph.D at Monash University. Kim’s research looked into factors that contribute to a healing therapeutic relationship and effective psychotherapy outcomes.
Not content to simply send clients away feeling better about themselves in the short term, Kim committed to learning about what symptoms really meant, and combined her theoretical understanding and classical training with more alternative techniques that provide great outcomes. You can read more about Kim’s work here, and for private session, she can be contacted via her website nookpsychology.com