All or Nothing? Listening for Our Common Grief
Anti-Anxiety Tool of the Week: Whispered Ahhhhhhh
The basic "ahhhhhhh" from the first toolkit is very simple--a long, relaxed, voiced sigh. According to neuroscientist Alex Korb, when your exhale is longer than your inhale it sends a message of safety to the brain. (Korb's book, The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time , is a great resource. Many of his suggestions work for anxiety as well.)
Good news: you can also do a whispered ahhhhhhh instead of voicing it--anything from a breathy sigh to a very airy, almost inaudible breath. That way, you can ahhhhh while padding around the grocery store or walking down the street and people won't think you're strange! Or in bed so you won't wake up your partner. Or whenever you want to be a little quieter or a little more private. Whisper it three to four times, then stop and pay attention to how you feel, physically and emotionally. Do it again if you want. It can be very calming.
All or Nothing? Listening for Our Common Grief
When we were newborn, our nervous systems were not fully developed. Not having very developed brains or any mature thought processes meant we couldn't calm ourselves down--we were easily stressed, even by very small things.
We've all had that very uncomfortable experience of hearing the desperate cries of an infant who seems to be simply hungry or wet or cold. For an adult, that level of stress normally leads to fight or flight. But an infant cannot fight or flee. So this all-or-nothing desperation serves a purpose--the little one needs to raise a ruckus in order to survive, because infants are so totally dependent on others for survival. That cry is designed to make us uncomfortable so we'll intervene. Because an infant's nervous system believes, without thought, without words, that this morning's discomfort could easily become this evening's life-threatening lack. Life truly feels like all or nothing to an infant. This is magnified unimaginably if a caretaker is unable to provide the comfort and reassurance necessary for an infant to feel safe here and learn, very gradually, to calm herself or himself.
When we hear about or experience trauma later in our lives, even as adults, our nervous systems tend to revert back--oh so easily--to those stressed, all-or-nothing places. Again, this is especially true for those who as infants did not have adequate support and love.
How might this show itself in our lives? Among other things, I think it plays a very important role in the polarization we have been experiencing as a country in relation to two huge issues, both of which are literally life and death: mass shootings as in Buffalo and Uvalde, and the pandemic (which I'll leave for another day).
I would say that with very rare exception, all of us, no matter where we are on the spectrum of gun issues, are deeply traumatized and grieved when there is a mass shooting, especially when it involves kids. And I would also hazard a guess that, again with extremely rare exception, all of us desire very, very deeply to protect our kids--our own, those in our towns and villages and cities, and those around the world.
But the trauma of those events probably pushes the vast majority of us into, or much closer to, those old all-or-nothing places. When we're in all-or-nothing mode we're likely to be much more sensitive to very small changes or suggestions of change, because we see tiny changes as huge. That's because the world feels unsafe on a very basic, nervous system level. There is no middle ground to a very stressed nervous system. It is either 100% "yes" or 100% "no" because we fear any change will lead to total change. And total change feels totally unsafe.
Of course we are afraid! Of course we are angry. We are dealing with the very lives of our kids, for goodness sake! And ourselves, our friends, our families and our neighbors. No wonder we revert to all-or-nothing mode. We're human. It's normal. We're wired that way.
Unfortunately, people have very different ideas of what will help prevent these horrors from happening again. But because of this fundamental pain and our subsequent tendency to land in all-or-nothing places, we have an extremely difficult time listening to each other. So then we tend to further traumatize each other with urgent demands for change and action that feel alien or wrong to each other. 100%. Because that is the undercurrent, the undertow, running in our brains.
Perhaps...possibly...hopefully, dear God, we can become more aware of, even respectful of our common humanity, our common trauma, our common grief, our common tendencies to slide into all-or-nothing in the aftermath of these life or death events.
I am no stranger to this--I struggle with it a lot. That's why I'm writing about it.
So please, consider being aware of any traumatized, all-or-nothing parts of yourself in response to these live and death issues, and having compassion on them, treating them tenderly, reassuring them of safety, helping them back to equilibrium. Then see if you can remember that others, those who offer different solutions from those you feel safe with, are also struggling with the same all-or-nothing side effects of trauma. And see if you can consider letting go of that 100% just a little--aim for a little leeway, a little flexibility. See if 100% can become, maybe, 95%.
I think this awareness of our common humanity, our common trauma, our common fallibility, is one of the few ways we can hope to find the paths we must find towards some kind of solutions to these problems.
Is it possible to bring this basis for discourse into the public arena too, where it is so desperately needed? Only if we practice it within ourselves, and with those we know and don't know, and then together call for it publicly.
Let's start that process today. Our kids lives, and our collective sanity and health, depends on it.
Until next time,
Boat, Dominic Realife, unSplash