A handy guide to surviving trying times.
The world feels extra-frightening right now. What should we do?
HERE’S AN IMPOSSIBLE TASK IN 2017:
Go an entire day without hearing someone—be it on TV, on the Internet or in the office elevator—use a phrase like “in today’s world,” which we all know is code for the messed-up, scary, terrible-things-in-overdrive moment in time we live in. If you feel like there are more things than ever for you to worry about (and that’s not even including the stuff going down in your personal life), you’re not alone—and you’re definitely not wrong in feeling overwhelmed by it all.
“Before social media, we used to hear about world events in a factual context, like a newspaper,” explains Dr. Mithu Storoni, author of Stress Proof: The Scientific Solution to Building a Resilient Brain and Life. “Now, with social media, we have this instant, coordinated group reaction to negativity, which makes you feel like more things are impacting you personally.” Whether it’s terrorism, Trump or the threat of World War III, recent events mean we’re living in a particularly uncertain time—and that’s a huge stressor for us humans. “Our brains have a bigger stress response to anticipating pain—which may not even come—than they do when we’re actually hurt,” she says. “News is essentially a report on things changing, and combined with the fact that it’s presented in a more hyped-up, emotional way than ever, we’re engaging with uncertainty much more frequently.” And since isolation in a Wi-Fi-free cabin isn’t really an option, what you need is these expert-approved strategies for finding calm in Crazytown.
“A DISTURBING WORLD EVENT JUST OCCURRED, AND I’M BOTH SCARED FOR MYSELF AND OVERWHELMED WITH SADNESS FOR THOSE AFFECTED.” If you’re scared, that’s your body’s fight-or-flight response kicking in. Your brain reacts the same way whether you’re faced with a real threat or a perceived one. And given that most of us relate a world tragedy or natural disaster to our own lives—Could this happen here? What would I do? Are we safe? What if someone I love were there?—the fear floodgates open and your body tends to react in much the same way as if you were in actual danger. Think adrenalin pumping, heart beating faster, blood pressure soaring and anxiety. Breathing exercises are the best way to control this immediate response, says Dr. Ruth Lanius, director of the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) research unit at Western University in London, Ont. (They help regulate the autonomic nervous system, which controls all of the above symptoms.) Try breathing in for five counts and out for five counts, or take a deep breath, hold it for five counts and slowly exhale. If you feel sad, that’s normal too. “Being empathetic and caring are good things,” says Vivien Lee, a psychologist with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s physiological-trauma program. Volunteering or giving back can minimize the feelings of helplessness that follow these traumatic events. (We’ll get into that a bit later.) If you still feel jittery in the weeks that follow, try assigning yourself “worry time,” says Lee—15 minutes a day to bask in your anxieties. Or come up with a safety plan. Sure, it sounds like something your super-keener fifth-grade self would have organized, but a lot of our fear stems from our lack of control over a situation. So, if arranging a meeting point for family and friends in the case of an emergency or Googling a venue’s security measures or the latest travel advisories makes you feel better, that’s okay, says Lee.
“I’M FINE ALL DAY, BUT THE SECOND MY HEAD HITS THE PILLOW MY BRAIN TURNS INTO A WASTELAND OF ANXIETY, STRESS AND WORSTCASE SCENARIOS.” The Nocturnal Journal is the brainchild of Lee Crutchley, a writer who says the “tl;dr” answer to what keeps him up at night is “literally everything.” So the overthinking insomniac created a workbook of activities to help you harness the power of that other kind of woke (the kind you don’t want to be). “We have permanent, uninterrupted access to everything and everyone, and the whole time our own brains are fighting to be heard,” he says. “We constantly push our thoughts and feelings to the back of the line...unless they’re worth tweeting, of course.” When you try to sleep, however, there’s a vacuum of stimuli...and all those ignored thoughts come rushing in. Now, this book won’t necessarily put you to sleep, but it will take all of that racing, urgent inner dialogue and focus it into something positive. Take the exercise that asks you to stare into an existential black hole and write or draw what looks back at you. “These days, it’s likely an advert, a news update or someone else’s post staring back at us,” says Crutchley. “It’s rarely our own abyss. It’s so important to sit and be you, without outside influence and stimuli. It can be terrifying to have only your own brain for company, but it’s much more rewarding than staring into other people’s lives, and it’s definitely less terrifying than the news.” If you still find yourself counting sheep, Storoni recommends getting at least 30 minutes of daylight three times a day. (This regulates your body’s release of sleep-inducing melatonin.) Also, eat early (there’s a scientific explanation for this, but trust us: It’s better for your body clock) and stop scrolling Twitter in bed—the anxietyproducing news and circadian-rhythm-disrupting blue light are the perfect storm for an unplanned all-nighter.
“I JUST SAW A RELATIVE POST SOMETHING IGNORANT ON FACEBOOK, AND I WANT TO CRY/ PUNCH SOMEONE.” Walking away from your phone is a good, obvious first step—but it’s what you do afterwards that will make all the difference to your elevated cortisol levels. “The worst thing you can do is flop on the sofa and rest,” says Storoni. “You can disengage from the situation physically, but if you’re replaying the scene over and over in your mind, your body continues to experience the stressful event because it’s triggering that same emotional reactivity.” Instead, do something that absorbs all of your attention, like Tetris or a super-intense run. “That stops your emotional brain from running away with itself and significantly shrinks the intensity of a stress episode.”
“I SAW SOMETHING AWFUL ON THE NEWS, AND 10 SECONDS LATER I WAS LAUGHING AT A GOAT VIDEO. NOW I FEEL LIKE A HORRIBLE PERSON.” Ah, yes, the classic “I feel bad for not feeling bad.” Don’t, says Storoni. Instead, congratulate yourself on having an evolved response to the hurly-burly of modern life. She compares your prefrontal cortex to a conductor who directs the orchestra of your brain and tells it where it needs to allocate its finite resources. That helps to explain why you might have had an overwhelming emotional reaction to the first terrorist attack you can remember but as time goes on you find yourself moving on quicker and quicker. That’s a good thing. “In order for you to survive as a human being—do things like get up, go to work, make decisions—you can’t have excessive emotional reactivity because it takes up resources within your brain,” explains Storoni. “Your brain copes by reducing your reactivity to the same kind of story over time. It actually saves your life by doing that because it helps you maintain control of its overall performance.”
“I WANT TO HELP, BUT IT DOESN’T FEEL LIKE THE $ 40 I THROW AT THE RED CROSS IS ENOUGH.” Yep, somehow, writing a cheque doesn’t inspire the warm fuzzies. Our experts suggest thinking smaller and volunteering locally—even if it’s for a cause that’s unrelated to global headlines. “[Any volunteer work] can help to build a sense of community, which is so important after scary and isolating events,” says Lee. Studies have shown that volunteering helps protect against depression and loneliness and even reduces the likelihood of developing high blood pressure (the latter for people over 50). Not sure where to start? The app Meetup connects you to people and causes—from knitting blankets for the homeless to linking new Canadians to community resources. n
Afterwards, Aron asked the subjects to stare into each other’s eyes for four minutes without talking. Some became close and one couple even married six months later. The experiment has now been referenced in hundreds of studies. The (general) takeaway: A connection doesn’t happen to you; you make it happen.
Mandy Len Catron definitely took the results to heart. The University of British Columbia English professor attempted an ad hoc “36 questions” with the hope of learning to “love smarter” after reflecting on her own failed romances and watching her parents’ relationship unravel. She wrote about the experience in a 2015 New York Times Modern Love column, which went viral. “I used to think that the most important thing when you’re choosing a partner is the intensity of your feelings,” says Len Catron, whose essay has since been expanded into a book, How to Fall in Love with Anyone. (She’s still with her test subject.) “I would now suggest that you’re better off finding someone you know is a good person and trusting that your feelings can and will develop.” (To be clear: This isn’t an invitation to settle down with the next person you swipe right on. Nor is it an excuse to stay in a crummy relationship.)
If this approach to dating sounds terribly unromantic, fear not: Thinking more pragmatically about romance could be better for your love life in the long run. A 2014 University of Toronto study of people in long-term relationships found that those who view themselves as being on a “journey”—not in the cheesy Bachelor sense but of the mindset that relationships can grow and be built on over time as opposed to simply feeling “destined”—are happier with their partners. That’s because they’re more accepting of the ups and downs that come with being with someone for more than five minutes. “If [the study participants] were primed to think about soulmates and then asked about even minor conflicts in a relationship, they reported less satisfaction,” says Len Catron. The implication is clear: If we believe in the idea of a perfect, strife-free match, anything else seems like a lousy substitute. Other studies suggest that those who believe in “the one” may be less likely to try to work through a rough patch—because there shouldn’t be a rough patch if you’ve met the Prince Charming to your Cinderella, right?
Still, it can be hard to resist the fantasy. Len Catron says that about half of her first-year students confess to believing in soulmates. They fear that thinking about love scientifically will ruin its inherently mysterious qualities. It’s a worthy query: Do we lose anything when we ditch the fantasy and accept that long-term love is just another job you have to show up for every day?
Carrie Jenkins, professor of philosophy at the University of British Columbia, says that, at the very least, we should stop thinking about a “standard model” for success when it comes to love. “A relationship is like a living thing, like a person: If it’s healthy, it grows and changes,” says Jenkins, who covers the subject in her new book, What Love Is and What It Could Be. “Think about what you want from the romance buffet. Instead of a set menu of scripted expectations (sex, monogamy, living together, marriage, kids, death), each relationship can be custom-built.” Because whether you believe in soulmates or not, in the end, all that really matters is that your relationship is the perfect fit for you. h
“I USED TO THINK THAT THE MOST IMPORTANT THING WHEN YOU’RE CHOOSING A PARTNER IS THE INTENSITY OF YOUR FEELINGS.”