Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Post Election Anxiety and The Way Out of Hell

In the movie Gandhi there is a scene in which a Hindu man approaches Gandhi and tells him, "I'm in hell".  The man was tortured by guilt for killing a Muslim boy out of revenge after Muslims killed his own son.  He was also upset that Gandhi was fasting for political reasons and feared he would die from lack of food and that his death would amplify his already heavy burden of guilt.  Gandhi tells the man that he "knows the way out of hell," and that the solution for his guilt was to find a young Muslim boy whose parents had also been killed, and raise him as his own.  But the catch was, he had to raise him as Muslim, not as a Hindu.  In other words, it was the man himself that needed to change in order for any escape from hell to happen.  He'd be required to expand his own awareness, education, and knowledge of his enemy in order to escape his heavy burden of hell.

In Hollywood it's never clear if scenes like this are based on reality or dramatized for effect, but it was known that Gandhi felt that the Hindus and Muslims were all part of the same thread and belonged to the land of India.  And though he saw them all as one, they had become deeply divided and saw one another as enemies.  Yet, his solution for this man (at least in the movie anyway), was for him to travel into the world of those he called his enemy and get to know them at the level of love, where he would learn to know them and their beliefs, and see that they are from the same human cloth as he was.

This concept of ending conflict and animosity by getting to know your enemy--even growing to love your enemy--as yourself, is not new.  Gurus and spiritual leaders throughout history have taught the importance of seeing that there is no separation between us in the large scheme of things.  To see those you disagree with as fellow human beings prevents you from dehumanizing them, and history has shown that the dehumanization of our enemies moves us to begin justifying abuse, violence and destruction against them.  Does this mean you always have to agree with others?  No.  What it means is that you must learn to live with (and even grow to love) those you disagree with.  

Here in America, where the presidential election was only a week ago, the talk of finding our way to unity has already begun, just as it did after the 2016 election.  Many in America are fatigued of the polarization and bickering between those who disagree on a broad assortment of issues, and the 50% that voted one way are discouraged by the 50% who voted the other.  But what is the metaphorical equivalent of raising your enemy's child as your own?  How do we find our "way out of hell" here in America, where half the country thinks one way, and the other half seem to always disagree?

One way to reduce our anxiety about the dilemma we Americans find ourselves in is to begin to take a closer look and ask what each one of us can do to become a part of the solution of unity that everyone seems to want.  Do we have to agree on all the issues?  No.  But a change can come within each one of us in which we step a little closer to trying to get to know those we've come to call our enemy.  Being able to agree to disagree is the radical notion that people with different views can live in peace together and don't have to insist that it's one way or the other.  Wiggle room can reveal a middle ground for compromise or polite and peaceful debate.

In his lifetime Gandhi took up the art of the charkha, which is a spinning wheel used to make thread.  It became a symbolic representation during his time in India of independence and self-reliance, as well as self-governance.  I also like to think of it as a symbolic reminder that we are all from the same thread.  We are all weaved together on this precious planet as one human race and it is imperative that we learn to get along in peace, despite our differing beliefs.

So, think about this path out of hell when you are celebrating your seasonal holidays through November and December of 2020, and as you approach the new year, consider making a resolution to step toward (instead of away) from those you consider your enemy.  Start getting to know who these other human beings are and work to see yourself in them, as you allow them to see themselves in you.  And as you travel this path out of hell, you will eventually begin to see that you, and those you disagree with, are really spun from the same cloth.

Friday, October 9, 2020

2020 Election Stress and Anxiety Reduction

Most of us are too young to have experienced the famous radio show broadcast of the "War of  the Worlds" in 1938, in which a radio theatre presented (quite realistically), the idea that Martians had invaded the world.  There was an immediate fear response based on belief that the story being broadcast was real.  There was "widespread outrage" later, and the broadcasters were heavily criticized for being deceptive.  There were even "calls for regulation by the Federal Communications Commission."

As I write this current blog entry it is only 22 days to the 2020 election.  Already the mood and energy approaching that day is stirring.  It's not exactly exciting, and not exactly even a relief.  Instead, I sense that many people are having anticipatory anxiety, or perhaps unease about another unknown-to-come and all the chain of events that will follow either outcome.  Unfortunately, like the War of the Worlds broadcast, there are all kinds of fear inducing stories being weaved throughout social media right now, and it seems anxiety and stress are high in many corners of the globe.

In the duration period between November 3rd, 2020, and inauguration day in January, we American citizens are not going to be very much unlike a scared (but well-meaning) resident who, with good intention, buys a gun for protection in the home.  But how many times have we all read the sad story of such a citizen, having taken all the necessary safety classes about the handling and storage of that gun, who then finds themselves face to face with an apparent intruder in the night and is forced to make a decision one never thought they'd  have to.  Yet, on seeing a shadow through groggy eyes, pulls the trigger, only to discover later that they have killed their own child or spouse, or perhaps a visiting guest just moving about in the night to find the restroom.

It's probably true that, like the citizen who buys a gun for protection, most Americans have good intention to protect this home they call the United States.  But just like the groggy-eyed home-owner in the night, we are also at risk after November 3rd of accidentally and inadvertently harming members of our own communities.  So stress and anxiety levels during that time will need to be kept in check.  Preparing for this difficult pocket of time now can help you stay focused on reality, and be ready to decipher what's real and what's hype in the midst of the after-election chaos that is coming.  And ...it is coming.  

We know there is no "War of the Worlds", so how do we work now to avoid belief in such false and unnecessary fear stories.  How do we work to stay calm during the coming duration from November 3rd, 2020, to inauguration day on January 20th?  

Well, usually anxiety surfaces with the activation of the fight or flight response, and because of the highly charged political atmosphere in the country right now, we are becoming either hypervigilant (i.e., a response usually resulting from trauma), or we are becoming full of anticipatory anxiety about what's coming up next (i.e. debates, protests, elections, etc.).  One of the first things to prepare for now is deciphering sensationalized stories that are frequently promoted on social media.  So be vigilant for these as they are more unbelievable (and certainly more obvious) than many care to admit.  

In addition, be very realistic about the kinds of things that will show up in your Facebook or twitter feeds after the elections.  It goes without saying that you should not buy into anything that suggests you take up your arms and head for the streets.  Anything that promotes such kinds of behavior after the elections should be immediately suspect and dismissed.  Don't go running with your weapon to greet that "intruder in the night".  It's exactly what we don't need and is the result of a fear and belief response that is misguided and dangerous.  If we believe we are in danger, anxiety levels will rise.  So one of the most important things you can do to lower your stress and anxiety is to work very hard to decipher if your belief in sudden fear-promoting stories are realistic or not.

Regardless of the election outcome, actively participating in an ongoing set of relaxation techniques will be key in staying stress free in November, December and on into the New Year.  Increasing use of meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, breath work, art therapy, journaling and all the things you have found helpful in the past to keep your stress level down, should be ready.  Pay attention to where your "what if" thinking goes and rein in all forms of Catastrophic Thinking.  

As has been said many times in this blog, it's what we believe that leads to the rise in our anxiety.  If we truly believe there is danger, then the body will react with a fear (anxiety/stress) response.  So be very vigilant right now about what you really believe is and is not dangerous.  After the election in particular, be fully aware of what it is you are buying into and how your body is responding to those beliefs.  Be a part of the rational thinking that can take place during that time, and not a part of any false narrative that is being spun and fed to social media in the form of memes. 

Thanks to pluslexia for the great photo   *https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

Monday, September 14, 2020

The Stress and Anxiety of Uncertainty

Throughout the duration of COVID-19 a common expressed worry is one of "uncertainty".  Many people feel unease at the reality that the future is pretty much unknown.  We're not really sure how this will pan out, mainly because none of us who are alive have ever lived through anything like this before.  Those who have kids may have never had to home school or worry about their kids exposed to COVID in a school setting before.  Those of us out working in the world have never had to wonder when we will go back to the office, or if we will go back to the office, or if --in the end--employers will even keep the office we all once worked in.  We now all carry with us a sense of uncertainty about how long this will last, as well as uncertainty about what to believe in the mass of information that is not always what it seems. 

This chronic state of uncertainty leads to stress and anxiety that can fill us with irrational kinds of faulty thinking.  In other words, where there are no answers, we might make the mistake of filling in the unknown gap with what seems like a plausible answer.  However, if we are using faulty thinking styles, we can make cognitive errors and fill in those gaps with inaccurate and even mythological information.  

In addition, there is a difference between anticipatory anxiety and uncertainty.  With anticipatory anxiety we at least have a general idea of what it is we are afraid of and what might be coming.  We can anticipate a scenario in our mind of that feared thing and then prepare for it the best we can.  But when it comes to uncertainty, the mind draws a blank.  The new anxiety and stress is in not knowing what to even envision or prepare for.  In that case, an instinctual human system can become hypervigilant and become filled with a general sense of unease in trying to always be ready for it knows not what.

The best way to handle this general sense of uncertainty is to practice relaxation techniques as frequently as possible so that the body counters the chronic tendency to want to be tense all the time.  We can try to train our bodies to be mostly relaxed as frequently as possible, which in the end also prepares us for the best overall reaction to any stressor that eventually comes along.

Another way to cope with uncertainty is to not create expectations about how uncertainty "should" be or how we "wish" it to be in the end.  All that does is create a readiness for disappointment, which can be expressed in stressful emotions like anger, sadness, and more worry.  There is a difference between having a positive attitude--which aims for "hoping" for good outcomes--and the other option of setting oneself up for disappointment by expecting in advance that the outcome one wants or prefers will be the outcome that happens.

When you get right down to it, uncertainty means we don't know the answer.  When we don't know the answer to something our brains start searching for a way to fill in that uncomfortable gap.  We can put all kinds of things in that gap, but that does not mean that whatever we put in that gap is the correct answer.  If instead, we look at the reality of the uncertainty, we can act appropriately and decipher the most rational way to cope.  When the body is uncertain if it needs to prepare for danger, we can intervene and help it instead to feel a general sense of peace and relaxation, which also prepares it in the long run for any need to ready for danger, if necessary.

Thanks to Nguyen Thanh Lam for the great photo

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Healthy Resistance to Stress

If you are like most others, you were probably trying to just wait out the COVID-19 pandemic in hope of things eventually just getting back to "normal".  But it looks like whatever it is we are experiencing now "is" the new normal, and accepting that is really most of the battle regarding the stress that this real change brings. 

It's symbolic and synchronistic, I suppose, that all of this comes near the edge of seasonal change, as Fall is right around the corner and the unknown continues to lie ahead of us all.

Many folks are still sitting on another kind of edge as well, and that is the one between human survival and just trying to flourish in this life.  How do we sort out how to scramble for employment, income, safety, and basic needs while also trying to find peace, joy, harmony and a stress free life for ourselves?  For some the reality of having tied one's ego up in a job title has hurried in hard existential questions about identity, purpose, and meaning.  The problem is that to cling to anything at all--be it a job, job title, marriage, house, business, project, money, or even health--is a big mistake.  None of these will stay the same even if you manage to keep them.  Never-the-less, it's only human nature for us to do what we need to do to survive and once survival needs are met, only then do we bother to notice the stress that surviving has put on us.  

So, the way we respond to stress is very important.  It was Hans Selye who created the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) model to help us understand the stress response.  It has three stages:  The Alarm stage in which a stressor is introduced to our environment.  The Resistance stage in which we do our best to cope with that stressor (sometimes not in the healthiest of ways).  And finally the Exhaustion stage.  

Many of us are still in the Resistance stage regarding the stress brought on by COVID-19 and something that is important for us to realize is that this stage cannot be maintained forever.  If we are not coping well, then all of our resources will eventually become depleted and we will reach the stage of Exhaustion, which puts us at risk for a weakened immune system and vulnerability for illnesses we were initially trying to avoid.  Therefore, it's crucial that we work to have the healthiest coping styles we can muster up during the Resistance stage of stress.

Fall brings with it cold and flu season, the one thing none of us want to take risks with, especially this year.  So you can start now to strengthen your coping styles for dealing with whatever stressors COVID-19 has brought your way.  Here are some ideas to notice about your own coping right now:

  • Are you eating well, taking in healthy foods?  Or are you going for the sugar and junk food?
  • Are you drinking or using other substances more?  Or using natural relaxation techniques?
  • Are you coping by shopping and spending?  Or are you journaling about your frustrations?
  • Are you closing the world off?  Or reaching out to talk with others who are also coping?
  • Are you getting enough exercise?  Or planting in front of the awful daily news stories?
  • Are  you asking for help?  Or trying to do the impossible all by yourself?
  • Are you searching for available resources?  Or playing the victim and deciding it's hopeless?
  • Are  you seeing and appreciating the possibilities around you?  Or giving up?
What's important here is to not let yourself reach the stage of Exhaustion where the immune system falls below homeostasis (that neutral place of normal functioning).  The holidays and winter can bring with them feelings of depression (Seasonal Affective Disorder) and lowered motivation.  So prepare now by upping your game to include better and healthy coping styles.  At least give yourself the upper hand to cope in the best way you possibly can.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Creativity: The Stress Reduction Solution

As the COVID situation drags on here in America, stress levels remain high, as does depression and discouragement.  But one thing human beings have that perhaps other species do not is the power of creativity.  And during this time of isolation, quarantine, work-from-home, unemployment, and illness, it's important to use that power of creativity--more than ever before--to make your world something you can live with and thrive in.

Over the years our society has become adapted to high levels of entertainment.  From the constant availability of our phones and computers, to the endless ongoing events such as concerts, nightclubs, plays, and movies.  Local community guides have typically always had things to go do and give a try, and there has rarely been even the rainiest day that we cannot find something to keep us busy.  But COVID is challenging us to come up with many of these things on our own now.  Concerts and restaurants are closed, and even if one does find an event going on, it's not quite the same with the need to wear a mask and keep a distance of at least six feet, which changes the experience of most things entirely.

So now is the time to use the creativity that comes with this unique larger brain we are so proud of.  Let's not let its propensity of survival (i.e., to think of the worst-case-scenario in order to survive) bring us to our knees with discouragement.  In fact, in this age of modern technology--which is guaranteed to keep us distracted until the extinction of our species--this is the greatest opportunity we could ever imagine of getting a shot at learning to do something other than what we've been repetitively and ceaselessly doing every day for years.

Our stress comes from wanting things to be other than what they really are.  And right now, many things are changed.  And for many of those changed things, it does not look promising that things are going to go back to the way they were.  So continuing to want them to return to the way they were only causes suffering.

Instead, it's important to move on.  Let go of what was prior to COVID arriving, and begin to get creative now about the present and how it will shape the future.  Stress levels will only rise by  hanging on to a dead corpse, but stress levels can fall with acceptance of reality, which removes the oppressive feelings brought on by a refusal to let go of the way things once were.  COVID has changed the world and it's important to lift our heads from the steady focus we've had them on just to get through it, and now look up and look around us to see this changed world.

For instance, the world of work has just changed for good.   When COVID is long gone, this change will still remain.  It's possible we've just now entered an entirely different world of work-from-home that will alter everything from the commercial office industry to traffic statistics.  A large percentage of jobs may be changed now forever, and if we aren't going back, then we must adapt.  Change is hard and frustrating at first, but once the adaptation is made, forward momentum can pick up again.

So go ahead and mourn the loss of the way your life was before COVID.  It's important to mourn and get the feelings processed.  But then it's time to also process what the losses mean.  Yes, it's disappointing to not be able to get back to where we were before this all started, and most would admit they've held that desire in the back of their mind since it all began.  But the truth is, things are on a forward moving path and there is no going back.  It's time to decide now how you will create a new life for yourself in this continually changing situation. 

Stress levels remain high, but they can be lessened by tapping into the creativity of the human brain and coming up with new ways of functioning now regardless of if that is at home or work.  Don't wait for your favorite entertainment venue to reopen so you can once again be entertained.  Better is to be creative and think outside the box for safe and enjoyable things to do on your own.  Don't let giving up be the only option.  Adapt and thrive! 

Thanks to Don Miller for the great photo

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Expecting Change: A Way to Reduce Anxiety

In Buddhism there is something called "The Three Marks of Existence".  They are:  Impermanence, Suffering, and Non-Self.  All three are interrelated and are very interesting to study, but for the sake of this blog we will focus on Impermanence. 

Most people around the world right now felt (and are still feeling) the change that COVID-19 caused in our ordinary lives.  The virus was an abrupt interruption to our illusion that whatever it is we are doing, or whatever it is that is happening in our world at any given time, will just keep on going as it is. 

The reality of death and sickness interrupt (or wake) us in this way, and so does aging.  But biologically, and psychologically it seems, we humans can only handle so much change at once before we get overwhelmed and stressed out.  When change comes extremely fast we can suffer shock, such as when we are in a sudden accident or traumatized otherwise.  But other changes, such as the COVID virus, that altered the way we work, function, and live are also things that comparably have a rapid onset and force change faster than can be adjusted or adapted to.

So if you feel like you are just now coming out of a little bit of shock in regards to the sudden demand for change that has been brought on by the COVID virus, and the way it has affected the world and human behavior, you are not alone.  Many of us are beginning to shake our heads and ask..."What in the world just happened?"

But something else that stands out about the COVID situation is the change that has been demanded of us all.  If you were (are) not trying to figure out how to set up a doable ability to work from home, you were (are) at least pushed to do your grocery shopping differently.  From the way we interact, such as greeting one another with foot or elbow bumps instead of handshakes, to the way we line up now to wait our turn to just shop in a store.  Or if your hours were reduced at work, or you were laid off completely, the change is something many cannot escape, and something that has come in abundance.

So the idea behind impermanence as a "mark of existence" is that change is always going to be a part of life.  And we only suffer when we want that fact to be other than what it is.  When we find something we like, we try to grasp onto it and keep it "forever", but no matter how hard we try, it will change.  And when we find something that we dislike, we try to escape it or avoid ever coming nose-to-nose with it again.  But the truth is, we will most likely run into it again someday in a different form--be it pain, illness, financial stress, heartbreak, or any other of the harder events in life.  Our existence has both and they constantly change from one into the other.

So, COVID helps to remind us that nothing lasts forever.  Not good things, and not bad things.  It reminds us that we only suffer when we think it should be otherwise.  When we want (desire) COVID to not exist, to go away faster than it can or will, when our favorite store closes because of the virus, and when we can't do things as we are used to doing them, we only suffer by wanting the whole existence of that reality to be different than what it really is.  COVID is an incredible lesson and reminder that impermanence is indeed a "mark of our existence", and we can have less anxiety and suffer much less when we keep this in mind.

Monday, May 11, 2020

COVID-19: Psychological Defensive Driving & Anxiety

When you first learn to drive, it's inevitable that somewhere along the line someone will talk to you about the importance of defensive driving.  These driving techniques can save your life and drastically reduce your chances of injury or death.  Sadly, that they exist at all is admittance that there are some really bad drivers out there, not to mention bad conditions and situations that can't be avoided.  It's an educational way of saying, "Watch out, out there!"

We can draw analogies to these same techniques with the COVID pandemic in America, and the new pressure to "return to normal" life, while getting back to work, and returning to our shopping, dining out, and socializing with others.

Yet, there is a lot of anxiety being raised with the early push to try to get the economy back up and running, and the convincing of a society that they can resume life as it was.  Of course--as is the usual pattern these days in America--it has created yet another bipolar, bipartisan, and marital-bickering among the already polarized society dwelling in the land of the free.  Why our beloved country seems paralyzed to the ability of polite compromise anymore is a mystery to write about on another day.

Never-the-less, the drive to get folks back to the workplace and into the stores--but mostly to serving their dutiful chores of spending money and supporting the establishment--has come nearly at the barrel of a symbolic gun representing our right to bear arms, and this return to what many think will be what it was before, will require a lot of psychological and emotional defensive driving on our part.

In the same way that it would typically be a waste of time, energy and attention to argue about whether someone is a good or bad driver, you would just as equally better spend your time learning to drive defensively to protect yourself (and your loved ones) from those who might be more careless in their skills and attention to the road.

And yes, the same holds true now for the manner in which we are being pressured to return for our first trial run at resuscitating our coveted-capitalistic-society, which has become part of American's sense of identity to the point that, to kill the society is to kill those who have become identified with it.  So you won't be able to hold Americans indoors for long, because in fighting for their right to be free, functioning, profit-making citizens, they need to have full reign.  That's why behavioral and psychological defensive driving is very important right now in a society hell-bent on flexing its muscle in the face of COVID-19.

So how do we utilize defensive driving techniques to help us cope with and reduce our stress and anxiety when it comes to the dropping of the first-wave of stay-at-home orders in America?    Let's take a look: 

1)  Plan ahead for the unexpected:  This means we need to think before we leave the house.  Make sure you don't leave without your mask, sanitizer, and patience because things aren't moving that fast our there right now.  Prepare in advance to have what you need to personally feel safer in a society that is trying to get back up to full speed.  Some feel safer wearing gloves and taking their own water, food and utensils, etc.  If you are thinking you can go about without a mask, you might find that you can't get into some of your favorite places anymore.  So just take it and be ready to wear it.

2)  Be prepared to react to others:  This means that you need to be ready to move out of the way if someone steps closer than 6 feet inside your personal circle right now.  Many people will be eager to get right back to the way things once were and will unintentionally step or breathe in your space.

3)  Don't make assumptions about what others "should" do:  This means that you can't just assume everyone will be courteous and stand back, cover their face, wear gloves, not cough or sneeze in your direction, etc.  So when they do, don't come undone or make a scene.  Just do what you need to do to step back and take care of your safety the same way you'd hold back a bit when seeing a reckless driver.  In addition, don't assume everyone should just drop their masks in the trash and return to pre-COVID-19 behavior.  Many of the elderly people interviewed who had survived the 1918 pandemic of the Spanish flu told interviewers that it took two to three years for people to trust again, to be able to not tense up if someone was coughing or sneezing, and to be fully able to be out in society again as they had been before the pandemic.

4)  Respect others along the way:  Respecting that others have views different from your own is very important, and is just being courteous and kind.  For one thing, it's just not cool to laugh at others or make fun of them.  So if you chose to not wear a mask and see someone who is, just smile and move on.  It's like changing the channel on the TV when you don't like what you see.  Move on!  Respect that others feel, believe, and think differently and carry on.  You don't have to be mean and bully others.  And for goodness sakes!  Put the guns away.  We're all in this together!  The art of debate still exists, so there is no need for aggression or intimidation.  Everyone knows you have the right to carry, but you don't have to scare kids by showing you have one!

5)  Be aware of special conditions:  Make sure you leave room in your emotional bank for rare situations that don't represent groups as a whole.  With defensive driving this is the sudden pothole that hammers your shock absorbers and nearly rips your bumper off with the blow.  Or a hail storm that comes upon you and other drivers out of nowhere.  For our return to society, just open your mind to knowing that stuff you didn't expect WILL happen, so just chill out when it does and keep steady to the course.  Everyone is trying to cope the best they can so as long as it's not harming you or others, try to be patient.

6)  Stay alert and avoid distractions:  This means that just because you are prepared, doesn't mean that everyone else is.  If you take your eye off the road, you might run into something, and the same is true for returning to a society coping with COVID-19.  Look ahead to see if someone is entering your personal space or if a cashier has not wiped down a self check-out register when it's your turn to use it.  Be ready for someone to forget that we are using safe practices of social distancing and be ready to speak up if you need to, but be respectful.  You might forget as well, so stay alert! 

7)  Control your speed:  This means that there are many in the country who are definitely ready NOW to return life to "normal".  But the news is that we are never going back to the normal we had before COVID-19.  Everyone is entering or re-entering (or choosing not to enter) society at their own pace.  Don't let yourself be pressured into going before you are ready and have the things you need to produce the least amount of anxiety.  If you are ready now, don't forget to go with caution.  You seriously don't want to catch this illness!  Getting back out there doesn't mean you don't need to take care of your safety, health and life, or be careless with the safety, health and lives of others.  

Don’t forget to practice safe psychological driving folk.  Be kind and courteous to each other, and use defensive psychological driving if you must drive at all.

Thanks to siddharthav for the great photo