By Bart Magee, Ph.D.
Lately, it seems as if the kinds of dramatic changes that might have happened in a year’s time (or more) now occur within the span of a month. Let’s take November 2018 as an example. Climate change was big news, especially in California as the month began with the outbreak of the Camp Fire, the most destructive fire in the State’s history, which left close to 100 dead, thousands homeless, and had millions of people choking on toxic air for weeks. And the month ended with the National Climate Assessment report documenting the effects of climate change on everything from communities, to infrastructure, health, agriculture, and the economy. The report painted a bleak picture made more dismal by the lack of meaningful plans to deal with the issue. Other items in November’s news included: A woman in China who gave birth to a pair of genetically modified twins shocking scientists and medical ethicists; artificial intelligence advances creating synthetic media that can make fake videos that soon will be indistinguishable from real ones.
The accelerating pace of change poses important questions, “What is our human psychological capacity to process such rapid change?” and “What can we do to cope with it all and maintain our mental health?”
Like the body and all living systems, the mind exists in a dynamic tension between the need for homeostasis and the forces of developmental change. Just as our bodies need to maintain a stable temperature and blood pressure, psychological configurations also strive for balance. Everything from self-esteem, to mood, motivation, and perception require stability to work optimally. Just as extreme fluctuation in body temperature or heart rate can cause illness and even death, extreme mental imbalance leads to similar outcomes. None of this should be surprising considering everything we know about how mental and bodily processes are deeply intertwined.
At the same time, as with the body, our minds also are in a constant process of developmental change. Psychological development occurs in tandem as we grow and age, and as social roles, relationships and live events evolve. Because developmental change occurs gradually, we are able to process its effects and accommodate the changes without undue stress. When change occurs rapidly, intensively, or chaotically, the stress caused can overwhelm our ability to cope leading to psychological trauma.
We usually think of psychological trauma in terms of extreme and horrifying events, like war or sexual abuse. But we know that small “t” trauma can also have cumulative and toxic effects, often made more insidious because their impact remains unconscious. For me, a recent example of that came on the day that the smoke cleared in the Bay Area. I thought I’d been coping well with the experience by staying indoors, limiting exercise, wearing a mask. I hadn’t realized until things returned to normal how subtly depressed I’d become during the prior 10 days. A negative mind-set had taken over, a kind of feeling of doom. I also hadn’t recognized how physically run down I’d become and had been going through my days robotically, zombie-like.
A similar thing can happen as we are bombarded with the news of rapid changes and disturbing events in the world around us. As we work to process and cope with all that’s happening, we may not notice the cumulative and damaging effects on our minds and bodies. Without knowing it, we may start to lose our psychological and emotional balance.
Given this “new normal” of rapid change, it’s wise for us to consider the factors associated with psychological resilience. There is growing evidence that connectivity within the brain is associated with a greater capacity to tolerate stress. That is to say, when the various parts of our brain — the parts that regulate emotion, thinking, attachment, motivation, and behavior — are working together our psychological (and physical) health improves. This is why we are hearing more about the benefits of meditation and mindfulness training, along with the more traditional recommendations about sleep, aerobic exercise, and social support.
What are some practical things we can do to maintain our resilience?
1. Become more mindful of how you are coping with stress. We use a variety of strategies to cope with change. We can try to avoid or deny the stressful thing, rationalize it, sublimate it, or get angry and project the blame. It’s not that there are good or bad ways of coping, every one of them have advantages and disadvantages depending on the situation. The goal is to become more mindful of how you are coping and, by doing so, develop more flexible strategies.
2. Pause. Stressful events often spark an impulse to action. This makes sense. It’s the fight or flight response. But when there is no immediate action one can take to address the stressor, the action mode can increase our tension and anxiety. Pausing and thinking, understanding your emotional responses first will help with formulating the appropriate response.
3. Don’t go it alone. Seek support. It may seem obvious, but the simple act of sharing a stressful experience with an understanding other changes the experience of it. Empathic connection decreases anxiety and makes room for different perspectives and new courses of action.
As always, be aware of the signs of mental illness in yourself and with family and friends. Remember that professional help is available, including the services provided by Access Institute.
From everyone at Access Institute, we wish you a safe, joyful, and balanced Holiday Season.