That is the way Fear serves us: it always sides with the things we are afraid of
The Princess And The Goblin
Dear Everyone: October first means it is finally Halloween!
Too soon, you say? Fight me.
I love everything about this time of year: cooler days, longer nights, harvest soup, fires at night, and the official launch of our longstanding family tradition of scaring each other silly.
(Yes. Of course I am the reigning champion. No one has ever bested the response I elicited from Jeff when I oh-so-carefully replaced Me with a full skeleton in our bed in the middle of the night...)
I briefly considered whether we should give our tradition a pass this year. It's been a long haul of real horrors, after all. But the fun and screams and laughter and joy that surround deliberately created scary moments during the Month Of Halloween are different from the swamp of Fear and uncertainty we've collectively endured.
Chronic fear is problematic. And this is worthy of recognizing, noticing, naming, and understanding.
Let's start with this: We are hardwired for threat detection. Our exquisite threat detection system scans our environment continuously, receiving and sorting and processing and categorizing and making predictions based on millions of bits of sensory information. It uses this input to instantly construct a story – to, in fact, construct our reality – based on interpretive, predictive patterns from past data and lived experience. It’s an immeasurably complex network that provides near-instantaneous response to real or perceived threats with only one goal: To stay alive. That’s it. Our threat detection system does not consider our emotional well-being when it activates a reaction. It does not consider the perception of others. It isn’t interested in preservation of marriage, friendship, interpersonal relationships, social status, or professional careers. It only is concerned with reacting to the immediate threat. This system is adaptively brilliant, designed to protect us when we encounter, for example, a Face Eating Bear in the woods. In a nanosecond, sensory input brings our entire system online, ready to do whatever it takes, at whatever the cost, to stay alive. A near-perfect system for encounters with Face Eating Bear Unfortunately, this system also abhors complexity and does not differentiate between social and physical threat. It can quickly amplify an otherwise benign social disagreement into a highly charged, dangerous situation.
Unrelenting scanning for threat in the midst of the toxic stress of these times has led to overstimulated and very, very tired brains. Exhausted. The kind of mental, psychological, emotional, and physical depletion that settles into the bones, takes up residence, and becomes the background hum of our days. This cognitive overload is showing up as anger, apathy, avoidance, disillusionment, detachment, and disdain. It is harming relationships and derailing or ending careers. Unchecked and unmitigated, it primes us to react disproportionately and dangerously. Out of context, it amplifies and expands harm, compounding the cumulative toxic stress of the times. Unpacking the stories we tell about our experiences is critical, and requires we engage with context and complexity. What is the story I’m telling myself right now? Is it objectively true? How do I know? How wide is the window of my experience? Who can help make it broader? How long is the timeline I'm using, and at what point in the storyline am I stepping into it? To be human is to be vulnerable, and this is both the best and the worst of us. That we can be wounded and broken – worse, that those we love most fiercely and desperately can likewise be injured – taps into the deepest and darkest corners of our souls.
Fear is both masterful thief and professional manipulator; a powerful paralytic and the ultimate stimulant. Few things push us to act as irrationally and impulsively -- or paralyze us in the face of horror and injustice – faster than Fear. It can lead to bewildering inaction, or to reflexive, reckless, retaliatory actions that ripple indefinitely. Fear seductively promises safety, but is the gateway to hate.
Fear sides with whatever we fear most.
Knowing this lets us tend our guardrails. Are we recognizing and engaging with our fear when it presents? Are we managing our bandwidth? What steps are we taking to restore our resilience? How, when, and with whom are we resting our nervous system? Yes, we're hardwired for threat detection, and we are hardwired for connection. Our overtaxed system may insist that we can't to do the very thing we need most, but resilience is relational.
Connect with someone you like. Connect with someone who makes you laugh. Connect with someone who loves you. Connect with several someones.
And yes - little connections count. Send memes, share a song, write a card, spontaneously zoom and dance it out. Practice these holy words: I’m here with you. Extend grace - especially to yourself. Seek awe. And joy. And Halloween goodness. Hydrate. Hydrate more. Stay kind and brave. More soon, Dr. K
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