Transition within: mental resilience

You're not alone, the end times are freakin crazy!

You're not alone, the end times are freakin' crazy! Photo:

Almost six years ago I swallowed the little red pill of peak oil, climate change and the growing instability of the world economy. My life has never again been the same.

Like a lot of folks, my initial response was, “Oh my God, what do I do?” I was a manager in corporate America with frightfully few useful low-energy skills, so, first I just focused on basic preparation for a lower energy future. I assessed my food resources, water supply, financial choices and health care needs. Frankly, I was obsessed with becoming as prepared as I could, trying to outrun my fears, even though some part of me knew it would never be enough.

I wanted to know more about how I could prepare and I wanted to feel more in control.

Road map to resilience

What do you do when you don’t know what to do? Find out what the good old experts say.

Crash Course author Chris Martenson recently posted a series of helpful articles titled The Basics of Resilience.  He says, “We are more resilient when we have multiple sources and systems to supply a needed item, rather than being dependent on a single source.”  However, he and others also point out that all of our physical preparations are “necessary but insufficient” because we simply don’t know what exactly will happen and when, and we are totally dependent on natural resources for everything we consume every day.

So what else can we do?

I believe we should focus a significant part of our collapse preparation on developing inner resilience in addition to cultivating external, physical resilience.  Thankfully, the tools we need are already built into our nervous systems. The key is becoming aware of them.

When we have a stressful experience, our nervous system responds in one of four ways: either engagement with the stressful stimulus, or fight, flight or freeze. You instinctively respond by entering one of these states and then once the stress has passed, your system knows how to return to a resting state. It happens to all of us.

It happened to me during an oral exam I took in college when I had to present to an intimidating panel of three professors.  I was scared, with sweaty palms, shallow breathing and a hankering to be anywhere but that classroom—a flight response. My flight response turned into a freeze when all of the sudden my mind went completely blank and I couldn’t remember where I was in my presentation or what I wanted to say next.  Thankfully, I had enough presence to pause, look out the window and take a deep breath, enabling me to continue the presentation.  After the exam was over, my body shook and my head felt fuzzy as my nervous system returned to its resting state.

Cultivating inner resilience in the times of change

So why does all this matter? Understanding how the human system responds to stress illuminates an important collapse-preparation opportunity.  When we can stay consciously present with what is happening within ourselves and around us, we can make better choices about how best to respond to our runaway thoughts on the implications of peak oil, climate change and economic dislocation. You can improve your ability to be present by cultivating inner resilience within your own nervous system. Without inner resilience you may remain in the fight, flight or freeze state even when the stressful stimulus lessens. You can be scared all the time, or, you can gain mastery over your own experience.

When we live in a constantly activated, stressed state, we accumulate stress in our nervous system.  We may feel frequently anxious, angry, or depressed. In my experience it is common for those who are dealing with issues around peak oil to feel periods of anxiety or depression about what to do or uncertainty about what the future will bring in the face of societal dislocation. This can create an intense, prolonged stressors in advance of societal changes, and could lead to ongoing agitation as our fundamental way of life changes.  By getting familiar with your nervous system patterns and noticing the characteristics of these states, you can learn to restore inner balance more quickly, balance which leads to more effective action in response to myriad changes both implied and real.

Here’s a few steps you can take to cultivate inner resilience:

Give yourself a little bit of time on a regular basis to feel your feelings about what is happening in the world. Do this with a supportive loved one. Part of developing inner resilience involves feeling your emotions as a valid response to what is happening in our world. Doing so helps you move through your emotions rather than becoming crippled by them. If you can cultivate this ability now, you will bounce back faster when times really get tough.  When you get in touch with your feelings about something big and difficult, such as issues in world affairs, you release accumulated stress.  When I take the time to do this, I feel a tremendous sense of physical and emotional relief, as though I have put down a heavy load. I find myself feeling more connected to people and my world, and less isolated.  If you find yourself consistently stuck in a fight, flight or freeze state, consider getting some help cultivating this inner resilience.

Practice frequently orienting to your surroundings. Make a game of it, and laugh a bit, too.

To orient, take a moment and simply just let your eyes go where they want to.  They will eventually linger on something interesting to you in your environment.  Try it right now. Next, observe what you like about what you see.  Maybe you’re looking out the window at a beautiful tree.  Describe in detail to yourself what you like about the tree, maybe its shape. Additionally, recognize any inner sensations you notice as you look at the tree; perhaps you feel warmth in your chest or a loosening in your shoulders.  Alternatively, an image may arise of some other time when you were underneath that tree.

Give your nerves a break

An innate behavior, humans use orienting to assess the safety of our environment.  However, this behavior gets thwarted by cultural habits, such as repetitive work that calls for us to focus on one thing, like a computer screen or particular bodily motion, both of which require that we keep our heads held in a fixed position looking in only one direction for long periods of time.  Learning to orient and practicing doing so offers a tool toward great consciousness that you can use anytime and anywhere to find your center when you notice yourself going into or coming out of a fight, flight or freeze state.

Spend some time on a regular basis getting to know your own rhythm.  Our lives are very full, often with activities dictated by external demands.  Many of us have completely lost touch with our own basic rhythms — when we want to sleep, eat, or play.  Getting to know your rhythms helps you cultivate inner resilience because this familiarity increases your knowledge of your self, your style, preferences, and the mechanics of your own nervous system states.

To maintain balance, our internal rhythms depend on experiencing nature’s light and dark cycles. Yet these days we’re surrounded by electric lighting at all hours both outside and inside the home. By making your bedroom as dark as possible through removing lighted clocks, electronic displays and other electric devices with lights on them, you can restore a much needed sense and physical experience of the dark part of the light/dark equation. Try this to see if it helps you feel a greater balance.

Take electronics breaks – no TV, iPod, computer, wireless network or cell phone.  Our nervous systems need down time.  A recent study from the University of California at San Francisco even shows that constant electronic stimulation interferes with our ability to learn.  The coming changes require us to be very adaptive and hence we need all of our learning capacity intact right now.

Spend time in nature frequently.  Nature offers the ultimate down time.  Really let yourself explore your natural surroundings, even if it’s a small patch of grass in a suburban yard or an urban park.  Do it without taking any reading material.  Just be.

Take time each day to do even one of these things. The process of self-nurturance will help you stay in touch with yourself, and through that, to develop greater awareness and resilience.

Uncertainty needn’t lead to insanity

Energy descent, climate change and financial system dislocation offer a particular kind of stressor: uncertainty.  If  you’re being chased by someone, the threat is pretty well defined.  While we can make predictions about possible future outcomes from these converging crises, the X factors are simply too great. We simply can’t create certainty around exactly how it will go down, and how each of us will be affected.  At the end of the day, the only resource we can truly count on is the skills we have cultivated and our ability to use them effectively.  We can’t rely on the availability of any of our physical resources and while many of us have developed very strong communities that support us, we don’t know who will be with us in specific situations.  Unpredictable events and significant changes call for the ability to adapt quickly.

Laurence Gonzales illustrates repeatedly in his outstanding book Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why that the common denominator among people who survive against impossible odds is their ability to identify mentally and emotionally as a survivor rather than a victim.  Embodying this survivor identity offers much more than just helplessly hoping that things will be okay.  I believe cultivating inner resilience will help all of us identify as survivors as we navigate industrial civilization’s collapse.

I close with a poem from Derek Walcott.  May we all find the pathway to feast on our life in this shifting, quaking, who knows what will happen next, time.

Love After Love
By Derek Walcott

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome, and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart to itself, to the stranger who has loved you all your life, whom you ignored for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf, the photographs, the desperate notes, peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

For more information on the physiology of the nervous system as it responds to stress, I recommend Stephen W. Porges’ excellent article “Neuroception: A Subsystem for Detecting Threats & Safety” (2004).

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