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:

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!

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.

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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.

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San Bernardino: Overcoming the Assault on Resilience

This time, tragedy struck in San Bernardino. Since the alleged shooters came forward without any known hint of a violent streak, implications are especially difficult to absorb.

The media bring up the usual debates that follow these incidents: gun control, access to mental health services, how to protect ourselves if we personally facerigidityd something similar. The arguments of both sides eventually fall to the wayside: The inadvisability of adopting extreme positions eventually takes hold, we sensibly agree, and we move on, letting our individual resilience take form.

But wait–what’s wrong with this picture? Isn’t that exactly what terrorists do? Look at the extreme interpretation of a position, then act accordingly? Is that truly logical, adaptive, or resilient? Does this approach place us at the same level of functioning as the terrorists?

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Paris in Perspective

Around the world, indignation runs high as news reports and social mediaParis below outline the horror of yesterday’s attacks in Paris. Unfortunately, death and destruction are not the only casualties.

Anger can suit us well during times of physical threat. It can drive us to take action to protect self and others, a critical purpose for those rare circumstances when socialized behavior will not save the day. Once the incident has passed, anger loses its main purpose. We can let go of it.

Easier said than done. Many hold on to it, as the morals of basic humanity and wanting to keep from being caught off guard take center stage. This easily becomes destructive to self or others, turning us into secondary casualties of the original incident. It not only eats away at inner peace. Hard feelings and lashing out at others also impairs relationships, the social connectedness that lies at the core of personal resilience.

As we hear about more and more incidents such as the Paris attacks, how do we counteract this unwanted consequence?

There’s one simple thing we can all do to battle the terrorists’ war against the soul.

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Helping Others Regain Their Footing

“I don’t have time to think about how I feel.” The disheveled woman gestures at tornado-ravaged debris that once had been her home. “Look at everything we’re contending with!” Her family members are aimlessly stumbling, poking at this or that. She spends the rest of her day dabbing away grime from salvaged silver.

How do we help those in such circumstances? This week our hearts go out to those learning about destruction and personal loss due to flooding in South Carolina. Where do their feelings leave them? How do we comfort, and help them move on?

When circumstances are overwhelming, it’s easy to get stuck. There is so much to attend to immediately following disaster. Especially if the damage is personally catastrophic:

  • The entire house is gone, and most of what it held.
  • What about the all that paperwork, the ID that tells the world who I am?
  • Where are my insurance papers?
  • What about my job?South Carolina Floods
  • How do I still get to work?
  • Is my place of employment still up and running?
  • My parents! Did they make it out okay?
  • Are they injured? Do they have their heart medications?
  • Where are they, anyway? Did they find a place to stay?
  • Where will my family and I sleep tonight?
  • How will we get food, or changes of clothing?
  • What do we do about money?
  • What about Suzie’s big test next week—her schoolbooks?
  • Is the school even open?

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