Cogjam Alert: Your Chance to Be Part of the Solution

It’s safe to say most everyone wouldn’t mind if all the political posturing and divisiveness took a sudden nosedive into the sunset. As mentioned in an earlier post, healing for this mental health disaster is a work in progress. Thanks to resilience, many of us have already found ways to step back, or do whatever else might tone down knee-jerk reactions from our overextended fight-or-flight chemistry.

One popular collection of strategies involves limiting input from sources that tend to pump up this type of stress:

  • Following only enough media reports to be informed
  • Being especially selective about which social media contacts’ newsfeeds to follow
  • While among others, simply not bringing up anything related to the socio-political situation

. . . and plenty more. My current draft of The Cogjam Effect includes suggestions similar to those above. Many people are discovering new ways to apply strengths, and doing it well. With this in mind, perhaps you have suggestions to add:

  • What have you noticed about your own coping?
  • What helps you calm the primitive brain’s surges of angst when toxic input crosses your path?
  • What new strengths have you discovered in yourself as you travel this journey?
  • Or, what do you see others do that seems to make things less tense?

This is your chance to share the wealth with those who are searching. Assessing your existing or newly emerging  strengths is also an important step for laying to rest your own symptoms of cogjam. Please leave suggestions or observations in the box below–a great way to be part of the cogjam solution.

 

Cogjam on the Loose

Why do we have such a hard time making sense out of what’s going on around us these days? Not just what’s coming down from the DC Beltway contingency, but how our own communities struggle so with staying coherent and connected. Why has everything become so complicated and confusing?

It’s not a new mental health affliction. It’s only cogjam on the loose.

That’s right, cogjam–the cognitive logjams that form when stress goes on for extended periods.

What’s Cogjam?

Cogjam is a word I invented to label a certain side effect of prolonged fight or flight. When we experience dire threat, our primitive brains take over, triggering instinctual and hardwired reactions that save our skins. More advanced thinking is temporarily blocked or filtered, so it will not interfere. After all, you might not escape a quickly advancing flash flood if you stop to assess which of all the trees in the forest is the best of the lot. You scramble up the first one that looks good.

Ignoring conscious thought includes ignoring learned social niceties. Getting everybody safely atop the tree of choice may require some really unsocialized behaviors–yelling, ordering, forcing, cursing, touching taboo areas of others’ bodies–as we shove everybody up to safety. Tact and sensitivities might take more time than you have to spare.

After the rowboat or helicopter rescues everyone, stress levels go down. Rational thought comes back on line, and planning begins for any long-term recovery needs. Everybody forgives and reconnects, recognizing that the earlier abrupt behaviors were survival related. Things go back to normal.

But what happens when adrenaline rushes are constant, as is true regarding the socio-political stress piling up over the last year? Sophisticated thought has had less chance to get back on board, limiting access to our best factual reasoning. Reconnecting is much more difficult, too, when episodes of posturing and polarization keep raising anxieties and driving us apart.

That’s cogjam.

How Do we Get out of This Mess?

There are many solutions. So many, that I’m penning a book about the cogjam effect, and the path to healing disrupted community and fractured science. There is hope. We can recover from mental health disaster just as we do after any disaster–one person at a time, each of us in our own way.

Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, you can start your own healing by spreading the word that there’s more on the horizon than the doom and gloom surrounding the DC Beltway contingency. There’s way too much gnashing of teeth and tearing of sackcloth going on out there. We can move beyond this. Sharing the word will also help you engage compassion, one of the cornerstones to healing both yourself and others.

And don’t forget there are many resources available on the topic of coping with disaster, such as:

Disaster Mental Health–for a Mental Health Disaster

Crazy politics have reached a new high-water mark. Or new low, depending how you look at it. The enduring mental health impact on citizens seems to run the gamut, from general malaise to falling apart at the seams. Could this be the true “disaster?”

This one old disaster mental health soldier suggests yes, it is.

But all is not lost. Simply recognizing the situation to be a disaster is the key first step in overcoming it.

What Makes It a Disaster?

Relief organizations define disaster as incidents that exceed a community’s ability to cope by usual means. Thanks to social media and traditional news outlets alike, we need not look far to find community coping that isn’t doing so hot. Chinks in our collective armor are as pervasive as during the Events of September 11th, Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. Even those convinced that a Molotov cocktail was the only answer to DC gridlock suffer from its aftermath. The malady flourishes on both sides of the fence.

Reams of guidelines address run-of-the-mill natural and man-made disasters. But the system does not have an SOP for disaster healing when the system itself causes disaster.

Identifying how to reduce this unique brand of mass suffering requires thinking outside the box. So as often happens in disaster, we punt.

Nuts and Bolts

The basic thumbnail sketch of mental health disaster recovery doesn’t change much: reduce disaster stress, pump up coping. This, we can do.

A good way to start is by looking at:

  1. lack of control over stressors, and
  2. inability to predict when they will happen.

According to social science, this dynamic duo is what most intensifies the experience of stress. It’s also much of what we’re getting these days—sudden, unpredictable, uncontrollable Twitter or other behaviors from leadership, liberally sprinkled with lashing out and confusing “alternative facts.” Little wonder we struggle.

On the bright side, establishing reliable information about what’s going on around us increases chances of both control and predictability. The following road map provides one path for seeking personal control and predictability during this not-yet-declared mental health disaster.

Stepping onto the Recovery Path

First off, set aside worries that feeling stirred up means something’s wrong with you. No inner experience following disaster is considered “abnormal,” even if it’s thoughts or feelings you’ve never before experienced. We all react and cope the best way we know how. If stress management turns into the apple cart getting uncomfortably wobbly, FEMA, the American Red Cross, mental health organizations, and many others provide excellent resources for coping with disaster. Links are listed at the end of this article.

Next, put to rest what I call the “Bob Newhart effect.” Remember his old comedy shtick, where he feels like the only sane man in an insane world? All the while appearing worried that maybe he’s really the crazy one. Well, take heart, all you Bob Newharts out there. The proverbial Ph.D. isn’t required to assess this one, and mental health professionals agree with your concerns. Something off-kilter is indeed afoot. And the problem is not with you.

This certainly isn’t an uplifting message. Nor is it comforting to have to acknowledge that something important is seriously messed up. Not to mention that we’re forced to live with it for the time being.

However, knowing where we stand is critical to predictability and control. An expected blow has less impact than a sucker punch; slings and arrows bounce off armor that has been reinforced, rather than creating new chinks. Denying existence of the incoming cannot make the reality of it go away.

Our best bet is to expect and prepare for more of the same, each in our own way. Truth be told, our natural resilience is already doing this behind the scenes, experimenting with ways to cope when traversing the unimaginable.

We can do it. And we often find ways to do it well. For trauma does not produce stress alone. It also produces post-traumatic growth. We can use this to our advantage.

Sense of Control

To revive personal empowerment, there are the usual options for when political circumstances play a role:

  • voting practices
  • volunteering with social causes
  • running for office
  • supporting others who seek office

For those so inclined, marches and peaceful demonstrations both communicate concerns and help you know you’ve done what you can. Also, sending views directly to Congress not only helps manage personal stress, but may significantly contribute to the future. Who knows? If everybody demanded that a psychiatric look-see be part of the medical evaluation for determining fitness to command-in-chief, maybe it would come to pass.

Stigma may well prevent such an outcome. But making such suggestions is one sure way to exercise control where influence can be attempted, which in itself reduces stress and revives sense of empowerment.

By the same token, choosing wisely when reacting to others’ anger helps us take control—which brings us to effective disaster coping.

Social Connections and Healing

Social connectedness is the kingpin to disaster coping and recovery, not to mention critical to good health in general, both physical and mental. Unfortunately, the divisiveness embedded in Trojan Horse messages from the top annihilate social connections, as life-long relationships get slashed to pieces by whatever verbal fencing follows. Thus such Twitter messaging delivers a double whammy: first an assault against human sensitivities and intellect, then robbing us of our greatest resource for coping with its aftermath.

Our Inner Armor

Mercifully, the most valuable coping asset we have is one that nobody can take away from us.

Compassion—compassion for those with opposing positions, for perpetrators of major discord, and especially for ourselves. Hostility and compassion cannot stand together in the same inner space. One or the other must step aside. We get the choice over which to give reign.

I can hear it now. “Yeah right, Doc. Where’s compassion to be found in this mess?”

Engaging Compassion

Compassionate caring is something you turn on, not wait for it to turn up. You find it by tapping into empathy for others’ inner states, instead of defending against their angry opinion sharing. Even if you disagree or are put off by ranting or raging, you can still find compassion for this reality: they experience so much fear, they momentarily see no choice other than to fall back on protective inner mechanisms, knee-jerk reactions that reliably spark defensiveness and pepper an angry thesis.

Consider this: How exactly would you expect current developments to affect your friends’ or family members’ inner workings, given what you know about their individual worldviews or life situations? These days so much is turbulent and uncertain, even downright scary, especially for some.

Always keep in mind that when loved ones, comrades, or even strangers on the Internet double down on defenses, it’s more to do with emotional survival than making personal attacks. It indicates fear is so great as to cause falling back on gut reactions and polar absolutes.

Nurturing Your Supportive Network

When angry encounters occur, engage empathy and compassion by stepping back and non-judgmentally listening; refrain from letting your own defensiveness step in. This path is healing for sharer and listener alike, reviving caring connectedness for both.

Likewise, consider the roots feeding anyone given to habitual angry and insensitive outbursts. What unfortunate life experiences, genetics or developmental challenges fuel this seeming absence of compassion? Why does the afflicted feel safe only by employing extreme outbursts? And, would any of us do better in his or her situation?

Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, we can empathize with the plight of being forced to live with whatever inner demons are prodding a tortured soul’s rant.

Heal Thyself

Don’t forget to spare compassion for your own state. There’s nothing weak or condescending about giving yourself an occasional “there, there, now.” We’ve been through a lot. Only sizable analysis and future history books are likely to get us to anywhere near the bottom of how this current Twilight Zone came to pass. But not knowing the final outcome does not keep us from using our strengths to provide comfort in the present.

Likewise, others’ inner demons need not be given free reign to dismantle our personal strengths. We can’t control what others say or do. But we always have choices of our own, including how we let a dysfunctional socio-political era impact ourselves and those we hold dear.

For more information on coping with disaster stress, see the following resources:

Merry Resilience to All!

Back when I worked the disaster trail, what I enjoyed most was watching resilience at play. In spite of neighborhood-flattening hurricanes, mass casualty losses, catastrophic flooding, and other mishaps, the strength of the human spirit was always quick to move in and carry people forward.

Resilience is not always obvious, at times proving quite subtle. And for everyfeather-and-earthone, it resounds in its own way. We each play our own special tune, even if we are not consciously aware of its unique melody.

Recently I’ve been struck by similarities between disaster survivors and emotional reactions to recent election fallout – yes, emotional trauma; fears and frustrations raised. It is all very much as people react to other disasters.

Yet I’m again gratified to see the many ways people move on, becoming better and stronger because of what they endured or continue to endure. For you see, trauma doesn’t just bring pain. It also brings growth. In fact, research finds post-traumatic growth more often among those who say they felt significantly affected than those who say the unfortunate incident was no big deal.

There’s no need to continue on as a traumatized nation. We are better than this, and we know it. Tapping back into connectedness is happening all around us, as we participate as both cheerful givers and receivers.

Does your resilience feel lost in translation? Here are some ways you might begin to relocate it:

  • Rekindle an old friendship with a phone call or letter
  • Start a new creative project, in whatever your medium of passion may be
  • Look for ways to “pay it forward,” even if it is something as simple as holding a door for a stranger, or putting a piece of litter in its proper place
  • Offer a smile, kind word or “hello” to someone who looks down in the dumpsjoy
  • Look into a new interest
  • Join a group focused on doing for and/or giving to others
  • Take a small step toward a simple self-improvement goal, such as taking a walk as a way to get  more exercise
  • Revisit your faith, no matter whether it stems from a higher power, joint spiritual connectedness, or awe and respect for the natural world
  • Help others deal with their fears in ways that are productive, rather than destructive: never underestimate the power of leading by example

The proof of the pudding? Examine your inner self after taking part in any of the above. Sense what is different, whether you experience it as emotional, physical, belief-oriented, or spiritual. That can be your beginning point.

And, a Merry Resilience to all!

Rio de Janeiro: A Lesson in Wholeness

Why did the competitors who finished last in the summer Olympics so often seem rioexhilarated? They dedicated entire lives to excelling at their sport. Winning was their goal. How can they be so happy in the face of defeat?

This year’s presidential election represents another type of training and competing – but not just among candidates. It also drives the hard work and dedication of those who support them, hoping to promote causes dear to their hearts.

This year toxicity achieved an all-time high, human decency and basics of logic at times tossed to the wind, the two even confused with or dismissed as mere “political correctness.” Abandoning our humanity traumatizes. It robs us of respect for self and others alike. It leaves us suffocating in a toxic waste dump of suspicion, hate, and fear.

This particular political juncture will soon end, at least for the current set of candidates. But what about the rest of us? How do we preserve our humanity and wholeness, after being bombarded with such destructive divisiveness?

Continue reading

The Healing Nature of Purpose

Stress is more than a feeling or state of mind. It is a physical condition, a neurochemical reaction designed to promote fight, flight, and basic survival.

On the other hand, prolonged stress can have the opposite effect. Ongoing stress without relief creates ongoing inflammation in the body. Long-term Inflammation is associated with a host of ills, such as heart disease and arthritis. Some argue that virtually all disease is caused by inflammation, since it interferes with the effectiveness of the immune system.

Here we are again, finding mental health and physical wellbeing closely intertwined. We can’t avoid assembly linestress in life. But we may be able to do something about stress-induced inflammation. There is some indication that feeling connected to a sense of purpose in life can reduce such inflammation.

How do we find purpose in day to day existence? So much of it can be mundane and repetitive, pursued only to make a buck, or to meet commitments that are not always personally fulfilling.

Continue reading

Think Small, Live Whole

Big things happen. Some big things are bad. So are many of their consequences.

In their aftermath, going from day to day can be challenging. Though a number of such consequences relate to state of mind, many do not. The real world pragmatic impact of disaster and adversity must also be addressed. How we proceed in these tasks may change how we see ourselves. Perhaps for the good: we find resilience we didn’t know we had, and adjust our self-view accordingly.

But change takes getting used to. Is this really me? How do I hang olooking up at treesn to any sense of “me”-ness, when the world that shaped and supported me has crumbled? Must I find something else big, some heavy-duty effort, to compete with the impact of major adversity?

Not really. It’s the little things that bring us back.

Continue reading