“Be the change you wish to see in the world” Ghandi
A week of unprecedented political turmoil can take its toll. Following last week’s referendum, the social and economic future of the country seems unclear, with a divided population and leaders on both sides of the debate fighting for control.
As individuals repeatedly bombarded by scaremongering headlines and alarmist articles shared on social media our sense of threat can naturally rise – especially for those who themselves have migrated to the United Kingdom, or were born to parents who did, and who’s future may feel particularly uncertain.
As human beings we have evolved a highly effective fight-or-flight system designed to protect us from danger: at the perception of danger (either real or imaged) this amazing system was engineered in our prehistoric past to protect us from mortal peril back in the days of sabre tooth tigers and the like. Whilst a racing heart, panting breath, tense muscles and an accompanying (very healthy) sense of danger would once have saved our lives, in our modern lives it is a little over engineered.
That’s not to say the social and economic consequences of such political turmoil are unimportant or should be ignored. However, the experience of stress or anxiety that our well-meaning nervous systems trigger to mobilise us can become self-perpetuating, keeping us alert to further perceived danger and failing to process the fact that we aren’t actually about to be eaten alive, right now.
A further problem, aside from the rather unpleasant experience of anxiety, is the way our fight-or-flight system can also make us feel as if we need to fight for our safety. This can perpetuate the sense of threat from the other side of the political debate, propagating a sense of ‘otherness’ and maintaining social division.
Psychology has recently adopted many Buddhist ideas about the nature of human suffering. From this perspective all human beings share a fundamental desire for love, safety and security – for themselves and their loved ones. Ultimately, whatever our politics we all more or less want roughly the same things for ourselves and our families.
Psychologists subscribing to this approach recommend a simple yet powerful meditation practice called Loving-Kindness meditation (“Metta Bhavana”), involving the conscious cultivation of kind feelings towards the self and others, including our so-called ‘enemies’. In so doing research has demonstrated that our brain and nervous system move out of threat-focused fight-or-flight and into a relaxation response; our stress hormones reduce and levels of oxytocin, our bonding hormone, increase.
Does this mean we stop caring about our collective future and wellbeing? That we don’t challenge injustice? Not at all: by soothing ourselves and cultivating our sense of shared humanity we are arguably better able to respond with far greater groundedness and integrity
“Today is a gift, that’s why they call it the present” Bill Keane
Brexit fallout continues as the future of European migrants living in the UK becomes unclear and the Bank of England announces risks to the financial stability of the country. Understandably many people are experiencing elevated levels of stress, anxiety and even depression in response to such uncertainty.
When faced with uncertainty and a sense of increasing danger we all cope in the best ways we know how. The human mind can be wonderful time traveller, revisiting the past and anticipating the future over and over, in an attempt to understand and gain control. Whilst this intelligent capacity to learn from past experience and problem solve is what makes us so adaptable as human beings it can have some unintended consequences.
Sometimes instead of solving the problem we can find ourselves caught up in negative and circular thinking. Our mood drops as we repeatedly go over what has happened, hoping in vain to see something different, or we become increasingly anxious as we worry about the future. This kind of thinking can trigger our fight-or-flight system, causing us to feel as if we are in imminent mortal peril, when in fact we are just having a cup of tea and watching the Channel 4 news.
One of the best ways to manage a time travelling mind is through mindfulness. Mindfulness is a way of deliberately redirecting our attention back to our present moment experience without judging what is happening as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. We can mindfully eat, drink, walk, listen or do just about anything when we bring our full attention to what we are experiencing in this moment, right now: Right now, what are you hearing? What are you smelling? What are you tasting? What are you feeling in your body? By simply noticing whatever you are experiencing with a friendly curiosity you are gently bringing your mind back to here and now.
That’s not to say it’s bad to think about the world, or to care about our individual and collective future. It’s more a case of making a conscious decision about when and how we think about the things that matter to us so that our time travelling minds don’t accidentally leave us feeling over-anxious, panicky or depressed. It’s about allowing our nervous systems to have a break from fight-or-flight mode so we are better rested and prepared for the challenges that lie ahead. And it’s about having the mental clarity to be able to think problems through and decide how best to respond if and when the time comes.