The world is a lot right now isn’t it? Maybe it always is. Always has been. Just some have the privilege at different times to not be affected by, or even notice the turmoil that tears lives apart on distant shores. But the last two hundred years have brought us ever closer together, news and people travelling faster and faster – trains, cars, planes, telegram, telephone, television, internet… What once would have taken weeks, maybe months to appear in black and white print in a newspaper only a minority of the population could read or afford, now unfolds before us as it happens in high definition technicolour on our tv screens and social media feeds.
War. Pandemic. Terrorism. Cost of Living Rising. Homelessness. Unemployment. Climate Disaster. Corruption. Social Division. Hatred. Discrimination. Bigotry. Misinformation. Slight of Hand.
It sounds like an interpretation aid for a really bad tarot card.
How much we are directly affected by some of these things varies of course. Mostly a matter of luck. Where are you born? What is your background? What circumstances does life throw in your way? Even if we are not directly affected we may be troubled or impacted, one way or another. Feel compassion for people, feel angry, frightened, threatened.
I lay awake the other night haunted by despair and anxiety. Something which used to be a nightly activity – the feeling that life is over, pointless, that all the hope and promise I saw in the future when I was younger – was a mirage. We were cheated somehow. Or I made a mistake and it sent us down this dark path, and now there is no way back. Feelings of responsibility for global calamity are a particularly masochistic kind of delusion of grandeur. I know it isn’t really true. Well. I have played my part, as have we all, in building the world we live in, flapped our butterfly wings to create the hurricane. Even if in my waking, lucid state I am able to recognise that, it doesn’t ease the anxiety. The pit in my stomach, the growing sense of dread. Which adds then to all the other anxieties, the worries, the responsibilities, the stress.
How do we keep going? To quote Midnight Oil – How do we sleep when our beds are burning? Both literally, and figuratively. Because even when we are in the centre of a danger zone, we must find a way through our very real and warranted anxiety to be able to survive, to live. Just as we must be able to function on a day to day basis even when we can see multiple crises rippling across the world, becoming ever more likely to destroy us.
Three things come to mind. And I think they apply regardless of the nature of the stressors or anxiety we are facing. I saw a comment on a linked in post yesterday – someone had delivered what sounded like wonderful training to help job seekers handle their anxiety around interviews. Most people praised and supported the initiative. But one person responded suggesting (more or less) that it was stupid to be anxious about an interview – imagine living in a war zone, fearing for your life. Now – this person from their name, and the fact that they were clearly not writing in their first language, I think may even have been based in the Ukraine or somewhere in similar turmoil. So the troubles of people in a currently peaceful nation might well seem trivial. But it is to misunderstand the nature of anxiety, to think that one is real and warranted, and another not.
It might be true to say that our anxiety response is useful in one circumstance and not another. Fight or Flight is quite appropriate in a war zone, but not much use in an interview. We might think the war zone is a “real” danger to be responded to, and an interview not – but in effect when we have that anxiety going to an interview, we are not really fearing the interview, the questions, the panel. We are fearing a) not getting the job, not getting the next job, or any job, and ending up unable to pay our rent, feed our families and ourselves, and ending up without food or shelter and safety. We are fearing being judged and rejected by the panel, and our peers, and society. Just as the person in the warzone fears. We all try to keep ourselves safe. Just from different threats. It all goes back to that bottom tier of Maslow’s hierarchy of need. It is only when we are completely safe and secure that we can truly focus on the higher elements. There is always a hierarchy of danger – we might think the bombs falling are the biggest danger, until perhaps – we are injured, and we realise that if we do not brave that danger to seek medical assistance, then we will be dead anyway. In more peaceful times or settings, the threats similarly adjust, depending on circumstances. In the last few years, people have juggled risk of infection, illness, maybe even death, with the need to earn money, the need to interact with others, the need to seek help for other illnesses or problems. One person’s priorities are not the same as another. And how we are affected very much depends on what else is going on for us, or has gone on for us in the past.
We need to think back to our stress container. Our stress bucket. Which holds within it all of the worries of our lives. From bombs to business, Covid to Cars not starting. When it gets too full, we start to see problems forming, our anxiety rises and becomes more difficult to manage. It might be the horrors we see on the world stage, on the horizon, that make our day to day stresses harder to manage. It makes the stakes seem higher – the potential for disaster closer to home. Or it just uses up some of our resources, our energy, our resilience, our head space.
If we are starting to be overwhelmed, to experience problems, to be unable to take action to deal with those stressors, then that’s when we need to take steps to try and get back in control if we can. My first step in this, after writing down everything i’m concerned about, that’s bothering me – is asking questions to see if I can pare things back to only what I need to worry about, and what I can do anything about.
My 5 Questions: 1) Is it real? 2) Is it current? 3)Is it my business? 4) Can I impact it? And if yes – 5) what can I do, what am I going to do, who can help?
On a certain level these questions are easy. Lets take a relatively trivial, if still sticky situation. If I’m thinking about running out of toilet paper for instance. Most of the time, running out of toilet paper is not a real concern – I can usually get some from somewhere, or get some delivered. But as we know, during lockdown, it became a thing. Shortages, hoarding, lack of delivery or transport options, the prospect of finding ourselves without became real in a way it maybe hasn’t been for many of us for many years in the UK. So real. But what is it in reality? Its unpleasant, but not the end of the world. Other paper, or cloth would be available to do the necessary, and sooner or later a solution would emerge.
Is it current? Maybe the thought passes your mind that you might run out – if you look in the cupboard – and there are 10 rolls – clearly no, it’s not current. There’s a long while before it’s going to be a problem, time to source replacements and plan. On the other hand, if there are 2 rolls, and we know we’re not going to be able to get out, that might be more of a concern. If we’re picking up the last roll and finding there are only 2 sheets left, it’s a clear and present danger. If we’re sitting staring at 10 rolls but feeling anxious because we remember with horror that time we did run out and had to use a sock, then the “danger” we are dwelling about is from the past – we are reminded of it to try and ensure it doesn’t happen again. But worrying too much ceases to be helpful.
Is it my business? Well if i’m the one with no paper, yes, quite literally it is my business needing to be attended to. If it’s my husband shouting down the stairs, I’m going to be the one running around finding alternatives. If it’s someone outside of my home / family – maybe I can help if possible, if I have spare, if I can get some and travel. But sometimes the toiletting mishaps of another are sad, but not really my fault or remit to address.
Can I impact it – can I do anything about it? If there is loo roll in the shops, I have money and the ability to travel – I can solve my own papery crisis. If the shelves are bare, I can’t afford it or the bus is cancelled, or I have to isolate – maybe not. Maybe I can ask for others to help, but maybe they’re powerless too. I can write to my MP, toilet roll makers, whoever, but it might not do anything. If all of town is without tissue, unless I have the right connections or funding or want to set up some kind of charity to keep our collective backsides wiped, maybe I can’t do much except wait for things to be resolved and make do in the mean time.
Sometimes the questions are not so material. Not so easy to put a tick or a cross against. War in the Ukraine. Fear of Nuclear War. Climate change. Financial Hardship. Racism / Sexism / Homophobia / Transphobia.
Is it real. Is it impacting me this minute? Is it likely to? Is it impacting those close to me? Is it impacting other human beings or creatures or our environment?
War in the Ukraine is real today. Real violent threat to life and health to those there on the ground. Current. Their business. Can they influence it? Maybe. Some can, most probably not – as in most wars.
Outside of the Ukraine – people worry on behalf of those involved, and also themselves, the prospect of escalation, expansion – and therein the spectre of Nuclear war, Cyber attacks and global devastation. Some of these worries are current – some are fearing potential futures, some are echoes of past worries, the when the wind blows fears of the Cold War.
Is it my business? As a person in Russia / Ukraine, of course. As a person in a neighbouring country. As a human being, who believes we have a moral duty to protect others and prevent harm if we can. Of course.
Can I influence it? Can I do anything? What can I do? It’s a sad fact that often with these big issues those with the most influence and ability to effect change choose not to. Or not to think about it. Or actively make things worse. Ordinary people? What can we do – what do we do? Within an affected country – Fight? Flee? Protest? Protect? Be a part of a resistance, a counter movement, call for peace? Outside – our options become more limited, protest, march, petitions, letters, donations, arguments – pressuring our own governments and organisations to take action. But what action is the right action? Sanctions? Weapons? War? Diplomacy. We’ve seen before the costs for all concerned when international military interventions are launched. It’s hard to know what to do. Even sometimes to know what is really going on.
What do we do with our anxiety when these questions are not simple to answer. When the problem is real, but outside of our control, or uncertain, or in the future, or affecting others more than ourselves and we don’t know how to help?
Considering that alcohol is such a common unhealthy coping mechanism for many of us, when we try to manage our stress – it is apt that Alcoholics Anonymous adopted the Serenity Prayer, which deals with these very thoughts.
God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change
Courage to change the things I can
And wisdom to know the difference.
Reinhold Niebuhr’s full version goes on – but these are key lines. Courage to change the things we can – if we can, to do what is in our power, that we have the ability, capacity, skill, privilege, resource -to do. But also knowing that there are things that no matter what we do, we cannot change, no matter how hard we try, or how much we worry, and we need to find a way to live with that knowledge. That these horrors are happening. That things might get worse. Indeed perhaps that the worst has happened sometimes. The wisdom to know the difference. To know when our efforts are wasted and would be best focussed on something else. To know when to stop. To let go.
Acceptance. Does not necessarily mean giving in. Does not necessarily mean stopping fighting or seeking change. But it may mean a moment of realisation, and shift – to a different course of action.
Many people for instance when it comes to Climate Change believe the time for trying to prevent catastrophe has passed, that it is too late – that what we should be focussed on is trying to prepare for and mitigate the inevitable impacts of the change to come. To develop new technologies to produce clean energy, to de-pollute, to cope with floods, fire and famine – to generate clean water and resilient crops.
Acceptance is an important concept in mental health – sometimes our anxieties are unwarranted, and out of proportion, and we can learn to recognise and overcome. The job seekers for instance – their self esteem and skills can be boosted, they can be taught to calm themselves and be able to present their best selves and have hope that if not this job or the next, something will come up to keep the wolf from the door.
But when the concern is more concrete. When the trauma happened, or is happening. When we do have cancer. When our loved one did die. When there is war. When we do face prejudice day after day. How do we keep that in check. Pretending it isn’t happening will only work for so long.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy brings this into treatment. We must acknowledge where we are and why, where we want to be, and commit to take action to change. I may be full of fear and anger because of something that happened – maybe an ex was abusive, or cheated on me and left me. I may be full of rage and resentment, unable to trust anyone, pushing everyone away. That rage might be righteous – justified. But might also be damaging. I can accept that it is true that I have a right to be angry because I was mistreated. A right to seek justice, if laws were broken, apology if I want it. But it can also be true that I want and deserve peace, to be loved and supported. To move on. To find a partner who will treat me as I deserve to be treated. And that in order to get that future I deserve I may need to let go of the past – whether or not I get the justice or apology I desire. Commitment to moving towards that. Doing what we can.
Acceptance that the worst has happened. The bombs are falling. I am justified in being afraid, angry, confused, betrayed. But that I need to keep safe, need to keep moving, to try and find the small moments of peace and joy that can be found even in the midst of disaster – which give us the strength to keep going. To survive.
Acceptance that I am afraid. That my voice may be small. That my ability to use it may vary from moment to moment, context to context. Commitment to doing my best, whatever that might be, in the moment, to moving towards whatever goal I have set for myself or the world.
To some extent it is a reworking of the old “Feel the fear and do it anyway”. But with more of an acknowledgement of how difficult that can be. That it can take work. But that in the right circumstances it becomes Feel the fear, and do it until you are not frightened any more. Until you realise you are strong enough. You got this. Or if you don’t – use that wisdom to let go, and focus on what you can do. What you have got.
Wishing strength, resilience, peace to all.