There was game I played in my childhood called, “Ooooooh, What’s This?” You needed at least three people to play and lots of objects, big and small. The goal of the game was to hand the objects to the person who was “It” and overload them with as many things as possible. The person who was “It” could only let go of an object by correctly naming it. It is very hard to keep track of individual objects being thrust at you when lots of people are handing you things all at once. It didn’t take much time for everyone playing to collapse in laughter.
I thought of that game this week watching the news. It was just one disaster on top of another as fast as the news director could put the story up. I was “It”, and I couldn’t name things fast enough to put them down. But instead of laughing, I became overwhelmed.
Used to Be Fun
What had been fun as a game in my childhood, was now a daily dose of disaster. It took a while for my internal engines to slow down after even such a short exposure to death, destruction and mayhem. The adrenaline and cortisol that had spiked during those minutes of watching one catastrophe after another unfold took some time return to normal levels.
Our biologic response systems have evolved over time BECAUSE we have faced disasters and catastrophes. Floods, fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, mudslides, droughts, extreme temperatures, wars, diseases, pandemics, mass migrations, food scarcity, lack of housing, too hot, too cold, too crowded, cut-off, death by violence, death by choice, starvation, famine, poison, ignorance, stupidity, slaughter, eugenics, annihilation, justifiable homicide, involuntary manslaughter, grief, depression, psychosis, wasting disease, malnutrition, failure to thrive, overdose, peacefully dying with your family around you. None of these are new.
We are biologically hard-wired to respond to sensory cues, especially if there is danger. If you smell skunk, you run away. If you put something bitter in your mouth, you spit it out. If you hear screams, your muscles tense. If you see the edge of a cliff, most of us will slow down and approach cautiously. (There are exceptions to all of these, you but get my drift).
Here is the thing—our brain can override how we respond to these cues, but it can’t stop the release of the neurotransmitters from happening. There are several consequences of this. A psychological consequence is that we may become numb to seeing death and destruction. Or it may freeze us in inaction. Or it may make us so mad that we swear or throw things.
Higher Levels of Stress
A physiological consequence is having higher levels of stress hormones circulating in our system for longer periods of time without a return to normal. The cumulative effect of this on-going stress frequently is depression, anxiety, fatigue, insomnia, or high blood pressure. To manage these unwanted and often uncomfortable feelings, we may find ourselves eating or drinking too much, exercising, or using substances or screens to numb ourselves out.
If we played “Ooooooh, What’s This?” with catastrophe, we would have been overwhelmed from the start. Our bodies would be awash in stress hormones, our hearts racing, and we would be doing everything in our power to escape. But there is no escape. Only different ways to manage our situations. In terms of catastrophes, I need to prioritize the things that are an immediate threat to me and put the rest on the back burner. This way I can lower my overwhelm and begin to function again.
A kaleidoscope is a helpful image to think about managing overwhelm. My kaleidoscope has lots of different pieces in it and the arrangements change with each twist and turn. But the pieces are the same. They just are arranged differently under different conditions.
Twist it one way and the physical pieces seem to dominate. Maybe it is aches and pains that get me to think I am sick. Twist another and the emotional pieces stick out. Feelings of isolation, grief, fear and impotence make me feel I am unable to get out of bed or take care of myself.
Then I twist the tube again and all of a sudden, there is a new and different configuration. I find myself inspired to exercise, to write, to call a friend. I take a drive, I watch a sunrise, I listen to the birds sing. I give myself permission to watch an old movie, or take a nap, or indulge in a forbidden food. All the same pieces are there, just organized differently.
It is understandable that you or I can become overwhelmed with the challenges we are facing right now. We can find ourselves trapped in feelings of impotence, shame, or a belief that there is no hope. Or we can find inspiration, a different model for how to respond, or affiliate with others who share our values.
I believe the ultimate relief from suffering lies in having the capacity to make a choice. I may not have a choice in where I live or how much money I have or whether or not there are sufficient resources to meet my needs. But I can choose how I think about my situation.
I was unable to find the source of the following, but it speaks to me, especially now that we are inundated with so many catastrophic events.
“The greatest challenge of being alive? To witness the injustice of this world and not allow it to consume our light.”