- This summer's ambient threats and uncertainties are generating a variety of intense emotional states—fight, flight, and freeze often present.
- The undercurrent "climate" of threat can impact, amplify, and distort our reactions to even everyday tensions.
- Mindfulness practices can help us be more aware of this added impact on our daily reactivity.
Even back in the days before GPS and Google Maps, summer family trips meant exploration ... but with some old-school guidance. Our family used an iconic piece of cultural literature: the AAA TripTik®, a business-letter-sized folio with fold-out map panels, a handy personalized highlighter mark of the route striping the map page, and bits of vacation-friendly information about exploring the area on the back. (Nerdy side note: the name is a play on "triptych," a piece of art featuring linked panels. Clever.) When my parents weren't tussling over it about which road was marked or who missed an exit turn, they'd share it with us kids in the back seat to break up the monotony of the interstate. Those TripTiks are definitely in my memory cache of summer trips, alongside ice cream, ocean waves, and sunburns. It guided us from suburban garage to thrilling endpoint, and often to some other surprises along the way.
This summer, with its uncertainties, its threats both persistent and intermittent, and its traumatic events, has been a surprising but much more stressful trip. And it's not over yet. To torture the metaphor: yes, we could all use a TripTik for this ride. In this and the next two posts, I'll address some "bad trips" (OK, that's a different metaphor) that I'm observing in my patients, friends, colleagues, and, well, me too.
These "trips" are ways that we may react to the overhanging morass of tensions: of viral risk, dangerous weather and fires, and roiling hostility and helplessness over issues political and humanitarian. I think these reactions can be broken down for educating our patients, students (and ourselves) into a basic "outward" and "inward." And sometimes the toxic mix is too hard to hold, especially for folks already managing the effects of trauma; for them, this moment is truly challenging, even overwhelming. As this is a blog on using mindfulness tactics, some mapping of a way through the muck is in order. This edition: (re-)acting out via irritability, anger, or worse.
Most individuals have some familiarity with the basics of threat consciousness—often nicknamed "fight/flight" (and a third F, "freeze," which I'll toss in with "flight" as a flavor of avoidance ... that's the next post). These are evolutionary responses to novelty, to uncertainty, to a change from the current or expected. Like its siblings flight and freeze, the "fight" capacity is a reflexive, defensive reaction, yet an ironically "offensive" one. So while we preserve the option to respond with "offense" to clear and directed threats, we may also aim to manage a quick impulse to respond with "fight" and not mindlessly push that button at any and every grievance. It's called "anger management," after all.
In normal (heh) circumstances, most moments of grievous threat are easily enough distinguished from the overall safety and stability of the daily "climate" of our lives. My ride to work is generally safe, but that moron just now cutting me off represents a grievous but temporary bit of novelty. My work group is usually collaborative, but that surprising email from whatizname that sort of throws me under the bus sure pushes some buttons today.
The overall, current climate of 2021 is anything but normal or stable. Novelty and uncertainty reign in the weather, medical safety, trust in others, and more. I lean toward "dysphoria" as a catch-all term to best describe the psychological effect of this existential rattling of "normal" on so many levels. It's a mix-mastered state of simultaneous fear, grievance, rumination, and demoralization—but with no peaceful spot in sight yet to land in a Kubler-Rossian "acceptance."
(A potty-mouthed colleague of mine offered the novel term, "Clusterf**k Disorder, Unspecified." Perhaps DSM code F666. But I digress, and this is a family-friendly consumer publication.)
When the landscape of life itself is so uncertain, it can disturb, amplify, and distort our individual capabilities to distinguish the degree of threat and the appropriate response. We can overreact with a megaphone to tensions that would in other times deserve a whisper. With little agency to control some current uncertainty (in my combusting Northern California home area, which way the wind blows today is literally a lethal variable), we may displace that tension on another, less- or even un-deserving target. Without some mindful awareness of and attention to this ambient input, civility wanes in the whole as we read about daily.
So, yes, of course, mindfulness. No, really! We can't plop down to meditate or pause to sun-salute at every impulse or inkling of dysphoria directed at the carpet-piddling puppy or the umpteenth Zoom meeting with spotty reception. But here are a couple of options to offer to your patients, students, and, of course, yourselves:
- Sitting in Mindful "Consolation": Spending some contemplative time sitting with the immeasurable quality of gratitude is popular and helpful. It's a way of bringing to awareness, perhaps equal time, to those aspects of our daily lives that we can and do cherish, but drop away as our worries dominate the headlines. Consolation is perhaps a cryptic term here. It's a kind of self-compassion (also de rigeur), but instead defining the "self" as the whole of Us—sentient creatures, all riding these difficult waves in some way, more or less. It's not meant to gloss over the much deeper suffering that some bear and deserve our compassion and care for. Consolation nods to an equanimity of shared, difficult experience. It's not the most popular club in the yearbook. But there's a belonging there, one that can help us soften judgment for losses of cool, both our own and others'.
There's nothing fancy technically here: in a sitting, after some initial breath meditation to shake off the rust, pivot our awareness to an idea: "In this tough moment, we're together." Don't analyze, but instead see what germinates in body, heart, and thoughts. Watch when attention gets yanked—those may be tender spots to examine in coping off the cushion.
Yes, off the cushion ...
- For Intense Moments ... Take a "Mindful Breather": Dysphoric moments are unpredictable ones—no cushion or yoga mat in sight. Yet we can entrain a four-breath "check-in"—body, heart, thoughts, and a step back to witness it all—via a routine I outline in my book, Practical Mindfulness.
This endless summer can drive intense reactivity; it can also make us toss the TripTik, and bail on the trip completely. That's the next post.
Sazima MD, G.(2021) Practical Mindfulness: A Physician's No-Nonsense Guide to Meditation for Beginners. Miami, FL:Mango Publishing.