School shootings. Pandemic. Inflation. Toxic politics. Environmental collapse. Democracy on the brink. Fake news and conspiracy theories. Racism and homophobia. Resulting family rifts. Even for those who don’t watch the news as obsessively as I do, I believe all people are being affected, for as Murray Bowen, MD, wrote in 1974:
The hypothesis [of societal regression] postulates that man’s increasing anxiety is a product of population explosion, the disappearance of new habitable land to colonize, the approaching depletion of raw materials necessary to sustain life, and growing awareness that “spaceship earth” cannot indefinitely support human life in the style to which man and his technology have become accustomed. (272)
Much has been written about how to cope during these turbulent times. However, there are valuable tools missing from the pop culture self-help toolbox.
Common wisdom offers turning off the news and practicing self-care. Suggestions include exercise, meditation, time with friends, bubble baths and aromatherapy, practices have their place in quieting the anxious mind.
Yet there is another, more potent, way to counteract media fatigue and existential terror: Develop curiosity. As family systems clinician and researcher Victoria Harrison, LMFT, says, “Curiosity is the antidote to anxiety.” This is more than a slogan or technique. It’s a way of engaging the part of the brain responsible for creative problem solving. We have the power to moderate the brain’s fight/flight/freeze
survival responses by activating the uniquely human cognitive center called the neocortex.
What does it mean to get curious? I have used and recommended the following methods throughout these years of heightened societal turmoil:
1. Study a compelling aspect of a current situation. At the start of the Black Lives Matter movement, I realized I didn’t know much about what the term “systemic racism” means, so I decided to learn more about it. Understanding the thinking behind what I saw on the news has assisted me in becoming more objective and knowledgeable in my opinions.
2. Embrace an interesting topic or an activity to master. This should be something intellectually engaging that is separate from current events. Any field of study or hobby involving a learning curve will stimulate higher level thinking and modulate automatic reactivity. Mahjong and needlepoint have been my go-to pandemic companions.
3. Contact family and learn family history. Committing to learning about one’s family is perhaps the most useful way of engaging intellect and strengthening the emotional “muscles” necessary to adapt to our rapidly changing world. Engaging with family means staying in touch with immediate relatives but also developing ties with extended family. Side benefits are that these folks may live and think differently and offer different perspectives. Make a research project out of getting to know people with whom one doesn’t appear to have much in common beyond the bond of blood and shared family history. The idea isn’t necessarily to form new relationships, although this often happens. The effort to engage with extended family helps develop a capacity that will, among other benefits, aid in the ability to thrive in turbulent times. [Is this a function of engaging a wider variety of people and hearing different perspectives, or does it also have something to do with wrapping the mind around a more complex system?]
4. Advocate for one effort you believe in and want to support. This is an effective way to combat a general sense of helplessness, meet like-minded people and focus energy productively. As a happy coincidence, I came across this chalk message on my walk today: “There is nothing more fun than a purpose in life.”
5. Make a research project out of reactivity. What happens when you are especially stressed out? Do you eat or drink more? Do you quarrel with your partner or avoid friends and family? (Complaining is one of my vices.) If you have a physical condition, do the symptoms worsen when tension goes up? Do symptoms occur or worsen in your close relatives? Do your kids argue more or get clingy when you are worried?
Curiosity about personal indicators of heightened stress can be useful in self-management by serving as a reminder to use the tools in your toolbox, to increase contextual awareness of symptoms and to re-engage with the problem-solving parts of the mind.
All living beings are challenged to cope with rapidly changing conditions. Success or failure is beyond any one individual, but efforts to move forward with thoughtful intention can have a positive ripple effect through self, the family, the community and beyond – one engaged brain at a time.
Bowen, M. Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. Jason Aronson, Inc. Kindle Edition.
Harrison, V. Personal communication.