- On July 12, 2016
The flags all around town are at half-mast….again.
It was not too long ago that half-mast was an unusual phenomenon, reserved to honor the passing of presidents and other prominent officials. In recent months it has become sadly ubiquitous, a national sign of mourning for those precious and innocent lives taken by hateful violence.
With a 24/7 news cycle to fill, it’s difficult to get away from the negative energy of the circumstances, the speculation, and the anxiety of our inadequacy to respond to horrific events we have no control over.
So from a neuro perspective, here’s what’s happening for me and how I am climbing out of the very large and sucking hole of negative energy that a horrific tragedy like the police shootings in Dallas… or numerous other crimes against humanity…engender. Maybe this is something you can use too, to understand a little better how to get yourself back on keel.
I feel worry, anxiety, and fear. I feel anger. And sometimes I feel hopelessness.
All are natural responses to horrific events we have no control over. We are hard-wired for this. It is a self-protection mechanism. Given the level of violence and the incessant coverage, the brain has a hard time distinguishing that what we are seeing on TV happening to normal people like you and me is unlikely to happen to us.
Yet, the stress response neurochemicals of Adrenaline and Cortisol are automatically generated so that we are prepared to protect ourselves—to fight, take flight, or freeze.
All very well and good, if we physically need to respond to some threat. But we don’t—at least not right now. Instead a low level stress is sustained. From an emotion standpoint, this may manifest as anger, or fear, or hopelessness. This is constantly reinforced by the inputs we get from our environment.
The release of Adrenaline and Cortisol takes energy away from the parts of the brain, such as the Pre-Frontal Cortex, responsible for higher functioning. This energy is pushed towards the fight or flight response and is intended to be of short duration.
And when it is not–when we sustain low levels of stress from our perception of a potentially threatening environment–the Adrenaline and Cortisol impede our ability to process and make decisions. Our capacity to use our higher executive functions—memory retrieval, evaluating right from wrong, setting goals and expectations, delaying gratification, capacity to understand others, and social control–severely deteriorates when we are in a state of stress. Stress interferes with production of the neurotransmitter, Norepinephrine, that the Pre-Frontal Cortex needs for optimal functioning.
And if I don’t do choose to acknowledge this reaction—the state of anxiety and stress this subconsciously creates–and do something about it, my life starts to change.
- I might begin to avoid places I enjoy.
- I become reluctant to interact with new people.
- I don’t pursue conversations with people who are different from me.
- I consciously or unconsciously turn inward, protecting myself.
- I begin to feel that things will never get any better.
- I isolate myself. I live in my own thoughts.
- I live in a subtle state of stress around anxiety, fear, frustration, helplessness.
It affects how I show up in the world.
I will show up more on edge.
- More snappy than usual.
- More impatient.
- More skeptical.
- Less open to others.
- Less flexible.
- Less tolerant.
For others who don’t recognize the ways to counter this extreme pull towards negativity, that loner-isolationist-anger may manifest with severe consequences.
Stress attracts negativity and once we start down that spiral it is hard to see any brightness ahead.
So, what do I do to get back to the brightness?
I am observer of myself.
These are sad times, and I acknowledge that it’s OK to feel sadness, anger, frustration.
I reflect on my own energy state—amount of negative versus positive energy I am feeling. If a situation is taking me down, I explore why and what impact it is having on me.
Once I name it, I can make choices around it. I remember that the only thing I have control over is what I can do myself.
I can certainly choose to let the negative feelings about the event turn into permanent states of anger, fear, and stress. But that would be clouding who I am and impacting my chances for positive and productive relationships.
I take action to feel in control again.
Choosing to take some kind of a positive intervention puts me back in control. I want to make sure that the negativity that clings like Velcro to this moment is not what colors my own life.
Maybe it’s writing a letter or signing a petition. Or joining the prayer for peace service at church.
Something as simple as weeding the garden or doing the dishes can put me back in control. There is progress to be found in the task and I am the one choosing to do it. As silly as it may sound, it is a feeling of empowerment that I need to get my mind away from the negative vortex.
I Seek out others.
When I am feeling down or distressed, I know the best thing I can do is be with others.
Sometimes it’s the anonymity of sitting in the back of a church service. Sometimes coffee with a friend. Sometimes it is contributing to a cause that creates good will in the world—donating blood or working with a community program.
Whatever it is that connects me to others in a positive way–especially if there is some kind of physical touch involved– generates the neurotransmitter Oxytocin. This is a ‘feel good’ chemical that reduces Cortisol and infuses us with positive feelings of security and hope, countering the negativity that can so easily engulf us.
View the half-mast flag as the honor it is intended to be. And also as a proud symbol that we do not to give in to the negative state that precipitated it by choosing to work towards hope and security.
Photo credit: Joseph M. Arseneau ll shutterstock231955390