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When the State of the World Overwhelms You

On Sunday night, I tucked my son into bed, cleaned my house to an atypical point of tidiness, and baked two quiches, using the exact amount of ingredients I bought at the store. My precise dominance over these utterly mundane activities gave me a sense of calm, a soft illusion of control. It didn’t last. About 10 minutes before the quiche was fully cooked, a speck of crust fell to the bottom of the oven. The corner of the dish towel I grabbed to brush it away rapidly melted upon contact, creating a hard, sticky spot that smelled of burnt rubber. I spent the rest of the night trying, in vain, to scrape off the tarry mess. In the grand scheme of life, this was not a big deal. I can afford to lose two half-baked quiches and an hour of sleep over a dirty oven. But my reaction was strange and overwhelming. I felt panicked, powerless, and frozen. The façade of control had fallen, and with the drop of one small crumb, the angry rubble of the past week’s events came pouring through the door.

It’s hard enough to sum up a week in one’s own, immediate life, but when you pair that with world news that can feel simultaneously ungraspable and deeply personal, it’s easy to become completely disoriented. The latest headlines can spark feelings of fear, anger, and shock accompanied by an indefinite idea of what to do with these feelings. Left unattended, these stirred emotions can easily mold into anxiety, depression, irritability, and panic.  They can spill into our everyday expression: tense interactions, inexplicable indecisiveness, unusual fatigue, or a fight-or-flight reaction to an innocuous baking mishap.

With technology and communication at their peak, we are arguably more informed than ever. We carry around a device that alerts us to the latest details of disease, disaster, and destruction, always a click away from a constant stream of anxiety-inducing information. Many days, it can feel like we’re awakening to a world where big, broad and scary possibilities that once loomed on the horizon are now knocking on our door. Whatever political beliefs we hold and whatever causes we hold dear, we can all agree that we’re living in a moment of grand-scale uncertainty. We aren’t the first generation to experience this, but that doesn’t alter its impact.  For some of us, our feelings are fuel for action. For others, it drives us to seek distraction or escape. Yet, whether we turn to fight or flight, the state of the world, the country, and the conversation in our culture affects us. And with new psychological symptoms come new questions about how to respond.

A  survey  from the American Psychological Association recently showed that 63 percent of Americans found the future of the nation to be a very or somewhat significant source of stress, with 59 percent of people calling this “the lowest point in U.S. history that they can remember.” According to APA’s chief executive officer Arthur C. Evans Jr., Ph.D., this trend is not one-sided and transcends party lines. “The uncertainty and unpredictability tied to the future of our nation is affecting the health and well-being of many Americans in a way that feels unique to this period in recent history,” said Evans. Another study similarly showed that Americans’ overall anxiety levels spiked last year.

In response to heightened or hyper-aroused emotions sparked by contemporary events, the first thing to consider is self-care. How can we bring ourselves to a state of calm and capability without dismissing our real feelings? How can we stay aware and connected to what matters to us without feeling helpless or overwhelmed? Here are some strategies we can adopt that can help us stay strong and centered even in trying times.

Accept your feelings – There is a strong, culturally driven inclination to try to keep it together when things feel like they’re falling apart. There are also many moments when we want to hide under a rock or bury ourselves under a blanket of distraction. And while our goal isn’t to let our emotions overpower, consume, or debilitate us, suppressing them can lead to trouble (or oven-side panic attacks.) For those of us being triggered, we’re better off finding healthy ways to express our emotions. When we don’t allow ourselves to feel our full feelings, we can become cut off in other areas of our lives. We may start to feel strange, disconnected, demoralized, or dejected. We may lose steam, as if our vitality is being subdued.

Our feelings don’t have to be rational, and unlike our actions, we can’t control them. There’s often a misconception that feeling something is counterproductive or will hinder us from taking thoughtful actions. Yet, feelings come in waves. When we suppress our emotions, the wave simply builds and spills out in other, often misplaced, ways. When we allow ourselves to release emotion, we can actually become calmer, more centered, and more self-possessed. The waters calm, and we can move forward.

There is no shame in allowing ourselves to feel sad. It’s okay to cry or shout or scream. We can share our feelings with someone we trust, a friend or a therapist, who makes us feel comfortable and safe. We can try not to ruminate or get too caught up in the content of a thought, but rather allow ourselves to feel the full rise and fall of the feeling and look for the sense of calm and relief that follows. If we don’t feel relief and get stuck in a state of feeling bad, it’s often a signal to seek help and support. At these times, seeing a counselor or therapist can be a transformative act of self-care.

Take action – Our stirred reactions can be powerful motivators. Allowing ourselves to feel our emotions can leave us energized and with a clear head to think about effective actions we can take. For some of us, these actions may include volunteering, outreach, and committing to causes that matter to us. For others, it may be connecting to friends and family or engaging in activities that bring us joy or meaning.

Generosity and altruism offer us effective tools to get outside our head and actually experience the impact of what we have to offer. These actions can come in kindnesses we extend to people we encounter in our daily lives or a ballot we cast on Election Day. We can feel great relief and fortitude when we align our actions with our values in ways both big and small.

It’s also okay to give ourselves permission to do whatever matters to us. We can take a break, go for a walk, meditate, visit somewhere we love, joke around, go out with friends, watch a funny show, or cook a favorite meal. We take care of ourselves and the people we care about by taking actions that make us feel fulfilled.

Connect – One of the only good things to come from painful events is our will as human beings to come together. When bad things happen, we need to lean on one another. We can use trying times to find our own personal tribe, build our team. By this, I do NOT mean narrowing our world to a group of people who all think or behave exactly alike, but looking for individuals who lift us up and inspire us. We can spend time around people who have compassion, and we can show compassion in our own interactions. We can open up and talk about our experiences more freely, so that we engage in authentic exchanges and have real feeling for one another. And we can embrace the adventure of discovering and sharing activities that energize us.

The times when we feel afraid can be the most important times to reach out. We should remember to ask other people how they’re doing. We can invite them to tell their story, and be open to telling ours. We can be sensitive to someone when they’re going through a hard time and allow others to do the same for us. The more we can connect with one another as human beings on a personal, face-to-face level, the more hope and less cynicism we carry.

Stay present – It’s easy to spend time lamenting over the past or catastrophizing about the future. But one lesson that mindfulness teaches us is how to reap the rewards of living in the present. Most of the time, our current experience doesn’t match the messages we’re sending ourselves or the scary stories we’re telling. If we check in with ourselves, we may find that, right here in this moment, we’re actually okay.

When the world starts to feel like it’s spinning out from under us, we can take a breath and think about the sensations in our body. We can try to connect to our surroundings by exploring them through each of our senses. What do we hear, see, or feel? Rather than thinking about the overwhelming journey ahead, we should ask ourselves, “what is the very next step to carry me toward my goal?” and take that small action.

Even when we do find ourselves in bad or traumatic situations, human beings tend to be more resilient than we imagine. We respond in the best way we can. Torturing ourselves when we are not in crisis about all the ‘what if’s’ that exist in the world benefits no one. Instead, we can be there for ourselves, help ourselves calm down, and believe in our own personal strength and perseverance. When we do this, we are much more capable of taking productive actions and being there for someone else.

Avoid rumination – It’s very easy to fester in a state of frustration. Our feelings can be translated into something powerful, but our persistent focus on the negative can bring us down and demotivate us. When our thoughts get stuck on repeat, and we feel trapped in a cycle of rumination, we tend to feel more easily depressed, tired, and fearful. It’s possible to stay aware and alert without torturing ourselves with destructive thought patterns or “critical inner voices” that coach us to feel helpless. There are real reasons to feel sadness, real reasons to feel anger, but there is no value in using the state of the world to remain tortured and trapped inside our minds.

We are far better off getting out of our head, seeking connection, taking actions, and interacting with the physical world around us. If we notice ourselves spiraling into a lot of counterproductive cyclical thinking, we can give ourselves a break. We can remind ourselves that our critical inner voice has taken the wheel, and is not serving us in any way. This is probably a moment to practice self-compassion, allow ourselves to feel the feeling beneath the thought, and get back to what matters to us.

In the end, finding a way to face painful truths without becoming overwhelmed or attempting to escape is one of the great challenges of the human condition. In some ways, the state of the world is the reflected fate of every one of us. But human beings are born to fight, wired to persist, and designed to come together. So, perhaps our best cure is to find what makes the fight worth it for each one of us and connect to that as much as possible – connect to it with all our might, our voice, our vote, our presence, our persistence, and our compassion. Make it known that we are here for whatever comes, and whatever comes, we are here for one another.

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