Written by Leanne Hoffman, Partner, HealthyMinds@Work
We are living in volatile times. Some would even call it a crisis point with divisions over Brexit, distrust in our political systems, a shift towards to nationalism, a rise in terrorism, seismic changes in technology and climate change.
These worries can be hard to live with and take their toll on people’s well-being. But it is important to have the perspective of history which shows that we are simultaneously living in relatively safe times with less poverty, better health care, fewer childbirth-related deaths, lower infant mortality and many other life affirming realities.
The benefits of 21st century living were brought into focus for me by the discovery of the frozen remains of “Otzi”, a copper man found in 1991 by hikers in Italy. He was murdered with a flint through the shoulder and fell into a ravine where he bled to death. He also had a form of Lyme disease and was suffering from mercury poisoning, possibly as a result of working as a metallurgist. Otzi’s immune system had also registered a further three highly stressful situations in the last few months. His era was no bucolic ideal. Otzi’s world was beset with life threatening situations and I for one would be in no rush to go back in time.
So how do we assess a genuine crisis and separate it from terrible, but not existential, events? Brexit, whichever side you sit on, is no one’s ideal – but it is not life threatening and we need to redress the stress, powerlessness and despair that it can invoke.
In a thought provoking TED talk, Anil Seth a neuroscientist working on consciousness suggests that 70% of vision comes not from our senses, but from pre-determined beliefs and assumptions. We literally see what we believe, or as he puts it, “We don’t just passively perceive the world; we actively generate it. The world we experience comes as much from the inside-out as the outside-in”. In other words our emotional state is affected when our resilience is tested and this can create a negative feedback loop. But the corollary is that we have more influence than we might imagine over how we make sense of our world. We ourselves have the agency to take back control and stop any feelings of powerlessness. As Seth says, “We predict ourselves in existence”.
This is not simply about having a positive mindset. I don’t like the concept of positive or negative mental states as I believe they are both errors in thinking. Tell a person to look on the bright side when they are feeling awful and you can rightly expect an aggressive response or even cause them to feel worse. When people are experiencing distress the fact that others have it worse is of little consolation and it is important to be respectful of the difficult feelings that we all feel over various areas of life. But by helping someone to separate their emotive feelings from realistic observations of what is actually happening, they learn to focus on behaviours that will help them cope even make things better.
Struggle is an integral part of life and we are wired to respond more to the bad than to the good; our successful ancestors did not spend their days admiring the flora or fauna or their offspring, they were the ones anticipating and watching out for the kind of threats that killed Otzi. Bad things happen and learning to acknowledge and process difficult feelings is part of our emotional maturity. Life without the shadow, to quote Jung, is not a real world.
But in this modern, global, interconnected world it is easy to feel that we have lost control – Brexit is out of our hands. This raw feeling of helplessness can trigger us, making situations appear worse than the reality. It is what Freud refers to as the difference between ‘ordinary unhappiness’ and ‘misery’. A heavy work load or an argument with a friend results in ordinary unhappiness. But when we feel devastated or stressed i.e. in a state of misery, then our flight, fight or freeze mechanism has been triggered.
It makes no sense for modern day stresses to evoke the same chemical reaction that flooded our ancestors when a tiger leapt into view. This physical response is not negative thinking, it is an error in thinking and we need to rewire. We cannot control every situation we face, but with work we can influence our responses and the emotional state these ‘threats’ evoke. Vocabulary matters – we need to stop saying that things are a nightmare or devastating or awful unless they genuinely are.
So, what can we do when things feel hard, when the news is unrelentingly gloomy? Having an understanding of our emotional world can help us discern what is truly awful – losing a loved one, and what is simply not so good – like a boss that makes our lives hard. Doing this internal work before we are faced with adversity puts us in better shape when life takes a difficult turn; if the mental tank is empty the experience will be even worse. Being able to separate our current feelings, from past feelings can pull us out of the well of despair and stop us getting frozen in melancholia (Freud).
The last week saw a truly awful event happen in New Zealand when 50 people were mown down in a mosque. But despite the immediate feelings of revulsion, confusion and the fear, the long term memory of this tragic event will be shaped by the country’s remarkable leader Jacinda Arden whose leadership shaped the official response. Her focus was to bring the community together and support the mourners, skillfully avoiding any knee jerk reactions to blame, scapegoat or build a wall. Her humility, compassion and humanity is a lesson to us all on how to be resilient in truly volatile times.
(This article was published as an abstract for Accountancy Ireland)
Leanne is a coach, trainer and psychotherapist. She is also a founding partner of the company Healthy Minds @ Work www.healthymindsatwork.co.uk that provides organisations with consultancy and psychoeducation around emotional intelligence and mental health. Leanne has also written the CPD course on building resilience through AccountingCPD.net