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What can we do to fight the rising tide of anxiety or shut down?

At the time of writing this article, the top news stories that appear when you visit BBC news are: A fatal shooting at a pub; Americans trapped in their cars in a freak winter storm that has killed more than 60 people; predictions about how the war in Ukraine may play out in 2023; Serbian troops on high alert because of rising tensions, seven people are killed in ‘horror plunge’ bus accident in Spain and three are killed in an accident in the UK while a man has also been stabbed to death in a nightclub.

Scattered among these stories are less shocking but still stressful stories of train strikes, Iran holding a family hostage, refugees left without basic necessities and UK citizens living in poverty due to a cost-of-living crisis that has no end in sight. You have to look quite hard to find anything on the news that you could conceivably spin in a positive light. This is not entirely the fault of the media. The algorithms that drive these stories to the front pages of our social media or newspapers are only responding to our patterns of engagement. That is because human beings have developed a negative bias. It is a protective mechanism that keeps current and future threats in the forefront of our minds. We can’t help but feel the need to read about death, threat, humiliation, and downfall because we are unconsciously preparing ourselves, or actively avoiding, those things that we fear may happen to us. This keeps us constantly on the lookout for looming threat; an exhausting activity and one which our bodies and minds are simply not designed for in the long term. That’s not to say that switching off the news is the solution. Let’s not forget also that the news is a reflection of what is, in fact, going on in our lives and we can’t all escape that reality. What we can do, however, is help ourselves through it by being aware of what affect it’s having on us, and those around us, because what we are not aware of cannot be changed. When we experience a stress response, our bodies are designed to shut down all non-essential processes and divert energy to those parts of the body that may need it. In extreme cases, the entire organism may shut down in an effort to conserve energy for what it feels is the end game; survival. These are natural responses that are intended to be a temporary state. With all that is going on around us in the modern world, we are all increasingly in this heightened state of alarm or alert and respite from it is getting less frequent. Every generation will have had extremely stressful periods and we seem to be living in a perfect storm of instability; fast fashion, fast food, instant news, unavoidable comparison, targeted negative social media, disconnection from nature, from people, from the physicality of our workplaces, war, illness and insecure global markets. Worst of all, we can’t seem to apply the brakes or see any way out of it. It is in no way a surprise that we are surviving, not thriving; protecting, not connecting. Over time what we end up with is a traumatised society. One of the many measurable markers of this is the significant surge in autoimmune diseases in the western world in the past few decades. Better understanding and screening for these diseases is partly responsible for this increase but environmental factors, including prolonged stress and poor dietary habits, have the largest role to play in this increase. When the body cannot fight an external stress it turns in on itself.

The first thing to go for most people whenever there is a significant stressor is self- care. That can be eating well, going to the gym, going out and seeing friends. As we contract our lives in this way, so we start to feel less connected to ourselves and to others. In the case of global stressors, as I’ve mentioned above, this happens across an entire society. It's not just that you're contracting, but I'm contracting too, and so is your friend down the road and so are their friends. Where we might normally see people being able to support one another when they're down, everyone is in survival mode; a natural biological response to threat that by its nature cannot prioritise, social engagement, creativity or rest. Below is a diagram that we use in Somatic Experiencing® therapy that shows what happens when we experience trauma. The river of life flows as it should until something traumatic (prolonged or single event) breaches the banks and some of the life energy is diverted into what we call the trauma vortex (red spiral) where we may experience acute anxiety and panic attacks, but where we may also find ourselves depressed, generally anxious, lethargic or collapsed. In here we find it difficult to find peace, normality, creativity, and connection with our fellow life travellers.

To get out of this vortex we need to create a counter vortex (the dark blue spiral). Something that will pull us back into the stream of life. The trauma vortex is strong and won’t give us up without a fight. Furthermore, for many of us, the trauma vortex is now paradoxically a source of safety. It’s where we’re used to living, so venturing out can actually be more scary than staying where we are. That’s why it’s important to do small things often, rather than aiming for big changes too soon that will result in snapping back to that perceived safety of the trauma vortex.

If you’re struggling to find peace, then practice meditation for a minute a day at first, and build it up from there. Lost your motivation to be creative? Start by getting the paints out of the cupboard and let that be a goal and an achievement in itself. If it’s music or writing then just sit down and play or write something for yourself and not for others. Do it only for a few seconds or minutes at a time and acknowledge that when you’ve done your few moments, the trauma vortex will take you back. Don’t fight it. Just notice how it happens. When you feel ready, then you visit your counter vortex again; pushing the boat out a little further or for a little longer this time. As you do so, notice how you feel in doing this and how it feels when the trauma vortex pulls you back. As your awareness increases you’ll start to notice that coming out of the trauma vortex starts to feel a little easier and you’re able to stay out of it for a little longer each time until the pullback is not as strong as it used to be and perhaps may not even call to you at all.

Remember, this plays a lot into the concept of ‘good enough’. When we’re in survival mode, our ‘good enough’ meters have to be adjusted for the present situation. Our capacity for living expansively is less than it was and so we need to adjust the expectations we have of ourselves accordingly. That doesn’t mean that we are settling for less. Just as your body is conserving energy, so too must you. Your aspirations need not change, but your immediate goals may need to; and that’s OK!

Disclaimer Please note that working with trauma is complex and different for everyone. This article is aimed at those who struggle with the 'hidden' stressors of life. While still helpful, it is not aimed at people who are struggling with specific traumatic experiences and is not intended as a quick fix. Specific therapy, such as Somatic Experiencing® is recommended if you want to delve deeper to the root of your biological responses to a traumatic event(s). Get in touch with me if that is something that you feel may be beneficial to you

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