Fear, anxiety and the feeling we aren’t safe anywhere and our guns will be taken from us has been so inflamed, people aren’t thinking clearly. And maybe that’s the point. Claiming impending financial disasters, that immigrants are crossing the borders in droves to kill us in our sleep, spreading racist taunts and “replacement theories,” and that those who are different will corrupt our youth. Add to it misogyny, health crises, violence, book banning- it never seems to end.
Our brains aren’t equipped to deal with long term chaos. With an immediate issue, it’s great. Assess the situation and decide the best course of action- stand and fight or run away. But when neither is applicable, and the bombardment of fear and anxiety continues unabated, the sympathetic nervous system keeps dumping hormones like epinephrine into our bloodstream, increasing blood pressure and pulse, shredding our heart and skeletal muscles. Cortisol, which shuts down organs and pathways not needed to fight or flee can also be at elevated levels and impacts the gastric-intestinal system, kidneys, metabolism, and the immune system. So, we gain weight, get sick, have pain, irritable bowel and indigestion symptoms.
When in fight or flight mode, access to the areas of our brain where logic and reason reside are shut down as well. When threatened, we can’t afford the precious seconds it would take to analyze or decide the best response. It requires an immediate, reflexive action to survive. When we’re in a perpetual state of fear, mechanisms meant to keep us alive actually lock us out of the areas of the brain capable of rational thought.
Any threat, real or not, causes the same reaction. Ever had a bad nightmare and awoke short of breath, sweating, with a fast heart rate? It wasn’t a real threat, but the brain couldn’t tell the difference, so it sent out the same fight or flight hormones. That’s why bills piling up, an upcoming deadline, money issues, worrying your job isn’t safe, gun violence, or a life-threatening virus can trigger involuntary responses that make rational thinking impossible. We can’t evaluate data, look at facts or make appropriate judgement calls when we’re in survival mode. The more fears and anxieties are encouraged, the worse it becomes.
We’ve all been there. Seen a friend or loved one in such a frenzy they “couldn’t think straight” and nothing you said penetrated. Or when life seemed so crazy, unpredictable and frightening no one could talk us down. Actions and consequences are predictable when we’re in survival mode. We suspect everyone, hoard resources, hunker down and make short sighted, often dangerous decisions, all because of involuntary chemical responses to feeling threatened. It’s built into our DNA.
Those in power know exactly how this works, taking advantage whenever possible. They feed us never ending scenarios that scare us to death by inventing fantasies and half-truths that send us into survival mode. That is spewed in a constant loop via television and social media.
Every single one of us can be held hostage from our rational side by chemistry and biological factors when we are afraid and feel out of control. During the pandemic normal, caring people fought over toilet paper.
The only way to stop this cycle is to create conditions that keep the survival brain calm and feelings of safety are perpetuated. That’s when we all have incredible potential for compassion and kindness.
These are crazy, scary times. Who could have imagined the entire world shutting down due to a virus and millions would die? Sky rocketing prices, supply chain issues causing shortages of basic necessities, weather catastrophes, global financial troubles, mass shootings every week? Clearly more than enough to make us feel frightened, overwhelmed and uncertain. Add to that isolation, loneliness and the daily deluge of “the sky is falling” reporting- it’s easy to see why we’re all at the end of our rope, hanging on for dear life.
What’s the answer?
- Take stock. Do you feel fuzzy, exhausted, overwhelmed, irritable, and quick to anger? You aren’t alone. Start to understand we are all in chaos mode.
- Turn off the TV, internet, and phone.
- Connect, connect, connect to others. When passing judgment and promoting bias are no longer our go-to responses, compassion and empathy step in. As an added benefit, it will quiet our own survival reaction by helping us to see we aren’t alone and many of our fears are not grounded in reality- F.E.A.R- false evidence appearing real. The need to connect is also hard wired. Hugging, holding hands, socializing releases feel-good hormones like endorphins and oxytocin that make us feel better.
- Listen to music
- When you hear something that’s inflammatory, take a moment to analyze. Does it make sense? Can I corroborate it with other neutral sources?
- Practice gratitude for what you do have.
- Find a path forward. We don’t do well in the dark because our highly visual brains fear what we can’t see. Having a plan of action gives us hope and calms our fears.
- Get outdoors
- Give yourself a break. When overwhelmed and scared our brains seek control and predictability. Create routines. Paint, garden, draw, play a musical instrument, just moving your hands will release pent up energy.
- Clean out clutter. A clean drawer or closet can go a long way to decreasing chaos.
- Share so others know they aren’t alone.
We have proven time and again our capacity for cruelty and violence when we feel threatened and scared. But when we join together our capacity for kindness, charity and love is boundless. When those kick in there’s nothing we can’t accomplish. That can only happen when we calm the mind and stop the frenzy.