Thoughts / connection
It has been argued that the modern world we are living in, makes social connection difficult, just by the nature of the way it is. And it doesn't help that we might all be turning into narcissists. Cue, horror and shock!
Over the past few decades we may have witnessed a societal shift from a commitment to the collective to a focus on the individual or the self. We witnessed the self-esteem movement – which had much value – but determined that self-esteem was the key to success in life. Educators and parents started telling their children how special and unique they are to make them feel more confident. Parents and educators tried to “confer” self-esteem upon their children, rather than letting them achieve it through hard work.
The rise of individualism (with its focus on the self and inner feelings) and decline in social norms that accompanied the modernisation of society also meant that the community and the family were no longer able to provide the same support for individuals as they once did. And as I’ve repeatedly pointed out (like here and here and here), research has shown that being embedded in social networks – for example, being actively engaged in your community and connected with friends and family – has major health benefits.
As we have watched our social fabric reduce, it's possible that it's just harder now for each of us to meet the basic need for meaningful connection. The question has shifted from what is best for other people and the family to what is best for me. The modernisation of society can be seen to prize fame, wealth, celebrity above all else. All this, combined with the breakdown in social ties has created an individual self, empty of social meaning.
And then to complicate things further, we have had the rise of technology and the development of social networking, changing the way in which we spend our free time and communicate. Today, there are nearly 936 million active Facebook users each day worldwide. More than 80 million photographs uploaded to Instagram every day, more than 3.5 billion ‘likes’ every day, and some 1.4 billion people - 20% of the world’s population - publishing details of their lives on Facebook. Is social media turning a relatively modest species into a pack of publicity-hungry narcissists? Or were we already inherently self-absorbed? Internet addiction is a new area of study in mental health and recent cross-sectional research shows that addiction to Facebook is strongly linked to narcissistic behaviour and low self-esteem.
So, what exactly is narcissism?
For those of us, who are not totes up with our Greek mythology, let’s go back to where the word descends. Narcissus was a hunter from central Greece, the son of the river god Cephissus and the nymph Liriope. He had long flowing locks, deep blue eyes, unblemished skin and full enchanting lips. One day, as he walked past a quiet pool of water, he caught sight of his own reflection, failed to recognise himself and was entranced with the image. He had never seen anyone quite so enchanting – and could not stop falling profoundly in love with himself, the most admirable and bewitching being he had ever spotted.
Apparently this behaviour was so incredibly bizarre that it’s become both one f the great and tempting insults of our age and a diagnosable personality disorder in the DSM (the psychiatric bible).
Narcissism lies on a continuum from healthy to pathological. Healthy narcissism is part of normal human functioning. It can represent healthy self-love, self-compassion and confidence that is based on real achievement, the ability to overcome setbacks and derive the support needed from social ties.
But narcissism becomes a problem when the individual becomes preoccupied with the self, needing excessive admiration and approval from others, while showing disregard for other people’s sensitivities. If the a person with unhealthy narcissism does not receive the attention desired, then really big problems can develop.
People with unhealthy levels of narcissism often portray an image of grandiosity or overconfidence to the world, but this is only to cover up deep feelings of insecurity and a fragile self-esteem that is easily bruised by the slightest criticism. Because of these traits, they might find themselves in shallow relationships that only serve to satisfy their constant need for attention. When narcissism is unhealthy it means that we can struggle to relate because it inhabits our ability to empathise with others. Uh oh.
When narcissistic traits become so pronounced that they lead to impairment this can indicate the presence of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).
According to the DSM-5, individuals with NPD have most or all of the following symptoms, typically without commensurate qualities or accomplishments:
- Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment from others
- Fixated on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness, etc.
- Self-perception of being unique, superior and associated with high-status people and institutions
- Needing constant admiration from others
- Sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others
- Exploitative of others to achieve personal gain
- Unwilling to empathize with others' feelings, wishes, or needs
- Intensely envious of others and the belief that others are equally envious of them
- Pompous and arrogant demeanor
Like all the personality disorders, it would not be that difficult for most of us to meet some of these criteria at some points in our lives. That’s part of being human. It is however, difficult, to meet criteria for this personality disorder over a long period of time. True Narcissistic Personality Disorder symptoms are pervasive, apparent in various situations, and rigid, remaining consistent over time. The symptoms must be severe enough that they significantly impair the individual's ability to develop meaningful relationships with others. Symptoms also generally impair an individual's ability to function at work, school, or in other important settings.
In the clinical setting, about 2% to 16% of people suffer from this disorder, while in the general population, less than 1% of people are affected. And whilst the disorder is much more common in men than women, we don’t know much else about it. Jose Romero-Urcelay, a forensic psychiatrist and the director of therapies at the Dangerous and Severe Personality Disorders unit at Broadmoor, West London Mental Health Trust, says:
“No one knows where it comes from, but it tends to present in the patient’s early twenties. There is no genetic predisposition to the disorder, nor are specific types of people more susceptible than others. It isn’t triggered by illness, injury or substance abuse. Some suspect it may be caused by an excess of love in infancy; others by childhood abuse or emotional trauma. Some point to a breakdown in the infant’s relationship with his or her mother.”
It is certainly possible that NPD - or traits of narcissism - has the potential to thrive in our modern western societies. Increased materialism, the decline of community life and a fascination with image afford perfect conditions for its growth.
So what can we do about all this and how can we lead a happy and purposeful life? One of the largest studies on happiness was conducted by a group of Harvard researchers who followed a large cohort of people over a period of 75 years. What they discovered – unsurprisingly – was that fame and money were not the secrets to happiness. Rather, the most important thing in life and the greatest predictor of satisfaction was having strong and supportive relationships – that “the journey from immaturity to maturity is a sort of movement from narcissism to connection”.
So maybe it’s time to take a break from that smartphone, shut off your computer and meet up with a friend or two. Maybe, just maybe, you might feel a bit of collective joy, love and excitement. Sometimes it can be nice to experience these things with others.
My last two weekends could not have been experiences on further points of the spectrum.
Weekend one - I stayed home. Alone. I went out to do the things I needed to do and engaged with some peeps along the way. And I read a book. It was a really, really, really good book. And it was a long book. Which meant there wasn’t time for much else.
Weekend two - I also stayed home. With heaps and heaps of people. I had people from inter-state come stay. I hosted a party and invited new friends and old friends. Really, really young friends and not quite so young friends. Friends I’ve known since childhood and friends I’ve known for a month or two. People that weren’t friends yet, but are now. Friends of friends came along. The weekend was full of people.
Interestingly If I was to pick a side, I’d probably pick myself to be on the introverted team. I really enjoy being alone. I like solitary activities like reading and cross-stitch. I’m one cat away from becoming the stereotypical ‘cat lady’. For a long time, big social events were not really my thing. I enjoyed them, but never actively sought them out. But things seem to be shifting.
The consequences I felt following each of these weekend experiences were just as incongruous as the weekends themselves.
Following the first weekend, I felt tired. And a bit flat. I returned to work a bit deflated and unmotivated and it took a little while to get my groove going.
The second weekend though, I was zooming. Energised. Motivated. Stimulated. Challenged. Enthusiastic. Optimistic. Joyful. Grateful. Dare I say it. I think I was feeling pretty happy.
I doubt that most of us don’t disagree that friendship is a totes wonderful part of life. But sometimes, it seems like we might see it as a bit of a superficial part of life. Maybe not the biggest priority. The part to enjoy when we’ve taken care of the other (more important) stuff. Like work. And partners. And children. And creating niche greeting card businesses with your sister.
But as it turns out this is totally not the case. If we put more value into our friendships, it might actually help us with the other stuff. Like work. And partners. And children. And creating niche greeting card businesses with your sister (this, I already knew).
Friendship, together with other close relationships, is frequently responsible for large boosts in our well-being. Interestingly, people often seek counselling for family difficulties, though rarely for matters of friendship. Yet, in our modern lifestyle we operate less as members of a tribe or a community and more as autonomous individuals.
According to the really smart people (those who do the good research) having friends at work makes you more productive, innovative, happier and even more satisfied with the amount of money you earn than if you didn’t have any pals on the job. Friendships have also been shown to spur creativity and innovation. If you’re married or partnered up, the more friends you have the stronger your couple relationship will be. Similarly, sharing with friends who are experiencing similar transitions such as becoming parents, raising children and teenagers can provide support, advice and relief as required.
[And whilst there’s no formal research into this one, we can anecdotally report that without the support, encouragement, advice, ideas, belief, woodworking skills, media relations advice, honesty and inspiration Hope Street Cards would not be up and running.]
And then there are all the physical reasons for not staying at home alone on weekends and reading a book.
It's true that just being with a friend lowers our blood pressure. Other health effects of solid friendships are among the most surprising; friends can help us break bad habits or lose weight, simply because we are so driven to adapt the values and behaviours of those in our social group. Laughing with friends can increase physical pain thresholds by about ten percent. Friends enhance our intelligence (since you're comfortable with them you're more likely to freely share insights until something brilliant surfaces. You should have heard some of the ideas we came up with for shark deterrents over the weekend!) and they can even save your wits. Elderly people with active social lives are much less likely to experience cognitive decline and dementia than those without.
The ultimate argument for the positive influence of friends is their startling effect on our life spans. One study found that breast cancer patients who were socially isolated had a full 66 percent increased risk of dying compared to women with a supportive circle of friends. Having a spouse did not reduce the patients' chances of dying. According to a meta-study, people with a solid group of friends are 50 percent more likely to survive at any given time than those without one. And here's another goodie: having few social ties is an equivalent mortality risk to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even riskier than being obese or not exercising!
The clincher for me though has been the warm and fuzzy feeling I’ve been carrying around all week. Us humans are wired for connection and a sense belonging is one of the deepest sources of human fulfilment. The energy that can exist between people when they feel seen, heard and valued; when they can given and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship - that shit is special. When I’m with my peeps I know that I belong. It implies that I am taken seriously; I am connected; I am supported.
It’s hard to get that feeling from a book.
In recent years my music festival experience has changed somewhat.
I have moved on from camping in a tent I was ill-equipped to assemble and once left open for the downpour to flood. My rainbow jumpsuit is now in storage. I no longer spend time coming up with strategic manoeuvres to smuggle contraband alcohol into the site in my gumboots. In the lead up to the event I’m less overtaken by the titillating and exciting sense that anything might happen.
These days I go into music festivals a little more apprehensive and a little more anxious. I drive myself in each day and end the night with a hot shower and the comforts of my own bed. I spend a lot less time yelling directions into my phone and getting confused about whether stage-left is from the point of view of the band or the audience. There's less lining up for beer tickets. And beer. My meticulously prepared festival bag would make McGyver proud.
Despite my experiences over the past ten years having changed quite dramatically, I still love attending music festivals. However, recently I forgot this for a moment.
This last weekend I went along to a festival for predominantly work-related purposes. And in the lead up to the event, I was not all that stoked about going. I felt a bit too “old” to be attending. I complained that everyone would be “wasted and off their heads” and thus obnoxious. I complained that I hardly knew any of the bands on the line-up. I complained that it would probably rain and be muddy. Sorry everyone. I must have been one really annoying princess to be around the last few weeks.
Because it was awesome. And I should have known it was going to be awesome.
There’s something quite special that happens at music festivals. There’s a particular festival culture that exists; one that’s not experienced outside of the festival’s gates, and one that gives us an assortment of very specific, very buoyant feelings.
And the psychological research on this suggests that these feelings are attributed to more than just the music – it’s about the sense of belonging and social integration that’s generated and often continues long after the event.
Australian researchers Packer and Ballantyne (2010) investigated the social wellbeing and psychological benefits of music festival attendance in a sequential, mixed-methods exploratory study.
They reported that people experience senses of engagement and connection at festivals in ways that are not possible in even typical live music concerts. Not only is there much interaction with other attendees, especially in the context of multi-day events, but with artists themselves; the music festival allows for close proximity.
Packer and Ballantyne asked their participants open-ended focus group discussion questions, and qualitative analysis showed that young people attend music festivals for music, festival, social, and separation experiences. Of particular note is the experience of separation; this allows reflection on daily activities, experiences, and oneself, by feeling disconnected from everyday life.
“Music festivals not only provide the opportunity for people to think, feel and behave differently, but also encourage self-reflection and re-evaluation,” Dr Packer said.
George McKay, Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Salford, and expert in festival attendance and behaviour thinks festivals are a compensation for our everyday routine. He says:
"A concentrated hit of social and cultural being, an immersive 24-7 blow-out that makes up for the stresses of city life, precarious employment, the drudge and atomisation of sitting at a screen all day."
Being around people who are of the same mindset, whose primary goal is a good time, can bring us comfort, facilitate a sense of belonging, and give us an all-important sense of “freedom" that makes us feel like we can be ourselves. In fact, music festivals are perhaps one of the only places on earth you can freely be yourself. You can wear what you want, dance like no one's watching, and enjoy a social structure that's much looser and more accepting than it is in the real world. Whether we're dancing alone, singing along to our favorite band with a group of friends or just trying to find a tiny molecule of shade, we're engaging in something larger; with thousands of other like-minded people who are all there to chase the same experience. In a way, we've found our tribe.
Although we remain distinct individuals at festivals, it's easy to adapt a kind of herd mentality in which our voice and actions are just a small part of a larger whole, and that feeling of engagement and contribution can be immensely gratifying. It can also relaxing to get lost in the crowd, to know that you can be both seen and unseen by engaging with the festival as a larger organism.
Secondly, there has been buttloads of research on how music can improve positive emotions, relationships and wellbeing.
In a review for the Australian government, Pascoe and colleagues showed that engaging with music has "benefits in social, emotional, physical, and cognitive domains, and can bring joy to life."
Pascoe suggested that interacting with music has important implications that can span across an individual's lifespan. According to this review, music can improve resilience levels and self-expression, enhance mood, imbue a sense of place, and make someone feel like they belong.
Hooray for music!
Thirdly, the sense of adventure/sense you may also nearly die can end up making you feel pretty good.
A few years back I had the pleasure of being able to attend Glastonbury with another million-odd people. There was one unforgettable experience where we were at the ‘surprise’ Radiohead performance, unable to see the stage, listening to their new stuff. The man to my right was urinating and the man to my left was vomiting. It was pissing down with rain and I find Radiohead's music a tad gloomy. But I was mostly panicking about how I was going to make it down the very steep, mud-soaked hill with the other 200-thousand people en masse without dying. It was a really scary situation at the time. But I really, really felt like I had achieved something when I was back in my rented van having my baby-wipe shower that evening.
There's a well-documented connection between this kind of novel situation and your brain's dopamine-reward system. The more novelty, intrigue and adventure you experience, the more your brain floods with happiness causing hormones like dopamine, and you're left feeling energized, alive and optimistic.
So my sincerest apologies to all those that I complained to over the past few weeks. I forgot that festivals are splendid. I have been reminded. And I will endeavour to continue to remember this.
A couple of months ago I found myself in a bit of a pickle. Driving to work one morning at the crack of, I heard a noise of some sort which got worse and worse as I continued driving. By the time I had pulled over, my front tyre was not just flat, but significantly pummelled.
My Dad’s taught me plenty of important life skills and one of those is how to successfully change a tyre. But it was Monday morning. I was wearing a pretty dress. I had much more important things to do. So I decided best just to get on and do them. But not before I asked someone to help with my car problem.
Reflecting back on this incident, I felt so incredibly blessed that not only did I have one person who I could call on to help. But had he not be around, there were probably a number of others I could try calling. And they all would have been more than willing.
And it’s not just when I’m in need of some practical and physical assistance. Over the past little while there has been some significant incidents of good things I’ve done and more questionable things I’ve done and very quickly I’ve been able to call over to a friend’s place or pick up the phone and talk it over.
At the moment, it appears my social networks and level of social connection is very good.
Our level of social connection is so important for our physical health and psychological well-being. One telling study showed that lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking and high blood pressure. On the flip side, strong social connection leads to a 50% increased chance of longevity. Social connection strengthens our immune system, helps us recover from disease faster, and may even lengthen our life. People who feel more connected to others have lower rates of anxiety and depression. Moreover, studies show they also have higher self-esteem, are more empathic to others, more trusting and cooperative and, as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them. Social connectedness therefore generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional and physical well-being. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true for those who lack social connectedness. Low social connection has been generally associated with declines in physical and psychological health as well as a higher propensity to antisocial behaviour that leads to further isolation.
Despite all of these fascinating findings and the clear importance for health and survival, sociological research suggests that social connectedness is waning. One US study found that the number of close confidantes (i.e., people with whom one feels comfortable sharing a personal problem) Americans claimed to have in 1985 was three. In 2004 that number dropped to one, with 25% of Americans saying that they have no one to confide in. This survey suggested that one in four people that we meet may have no one they call a close friend! This decline in social connectedness may explain reported increases in loneliness, isolation, and alienation and may be why studies are finding that loneliness represents one of the leading reasons people seek psychological counselling. Those who are not socially connected are more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, antisocial behaviour, and even suicidal behaviours which tend to further increase their isolation.
Turns out Ringo was right. We really do get by with a little help from our friends.
Brene Brown, one of greatest heroines and Professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, specialises in the arena of social connection She says:
“A deep sense of love and belonging is an irresistible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don't function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.”
We are profoundly social creatures. We may think we want money, power, fame, beauty, eternal youth or a new car, but at the root of most of these desires is a need to belong, to be accepted, to connect with others, to be loved. We pride ourselves on our independence, on pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, having a successful career and above all not depending on anyone. But, as psychologists from Maslow to Baumeister have repeatedly stressed, the truth of the matter is that a sense of social connection is one of our fundamental human needs.
In anyone doubts this, let’s think about the pain of rejection. A brain imaging study led by Ethan Kross at the University of Michigan suggests that the same parts of the brain are activated during social rejection as during physical pain. Another recent study lead by Shelley Taylor at the University of California suggests that stress due to conflict in relationships leads to increased inflammation levels in the body. Both physically and psychologically, we experience social connection as positive and rejection or loneliness as negative.
And being shy or introverted is no excuse. The most interesting fact about connection is that it has nothing to do with the number of friends you have on Facebook or the amount of community groups to which you belong. If you're a loner or an introvert, you can still reap the benefits. A sense of connection is internal: Researchers agree that the benefits of connection are actually linked to your subjective sense of connection. In other words, if you feel connected to others on the inside, you reap the benefits regardless. What totally excellent news! We can foster, nurture and build our internal sense of connection. It just takes a little courage and a spirit of adventure.
There have been numerous occasions when my sense of social connection has been catastrophically low. Where despite copious amounts of people and loved ones around me, due to physical distance or my own unwellness, shame and anxiety, I’ve succumbed to the horrors of isolation and loneliness. I didn’t feel as connected to my tribe as I do now.
The person I asked to help with my tyre pickle did a spectacular job. He attempted to get the wheel off – unsuccessfully. He then drove my car (on three wheels) to the tyre man who put two new tyres on and took a photo of my pummelled tyre for the wall of shame. He then came and picked me up from work. What a gem of a support to have. Thanks Razor!
For some weird reason most human beings prioritise their physical health over their psychological health. Take for example our teeth. There are so many things most of us do, to ensure good dental hygiene. We brush our teeth. And not just every single day, twice a day. We eat appropriate foods. We might use mouth wash. My Dad even flosses! And we’ll have regular check-ups at the Dentist and if something feels wrong in our mouth, we’ll make an emergency appointment with the Dentist. We do this, despite going to the dentist being one of the most despised activities on the planet.
Compare this to our psychological health. We all experience emotional injuries or pain ALL the time. Things like failure and rejection and sadness. And often they get worse if we don’t look after them or go off and get them treated. And mostly we don’t go and get them treated. Research shows that only 35% of people who experience significant mental illnesses seek treatment. And this is so very weird, because psychological treatment is not like going to the dentist. Seeing a counsellor/psychiatrist/psychologist or therapist is awesome!
There are so many wonderful things about therapy. Here is my first, of hopefully many, lists of why getting some counselling is purely fantastic.
1. You get a solid chunk of time, whether that be half an hour or an hour, to focus completely on yourself. Therapy is like an education course where you are the subject matter. Could anything be more interesting? You can explore yourself, go deeper into your current thoughts and feelings, or just sit and ‘be’ for a while (a pretty vital practice that often gets ignored).
2. You get to enhance your vocabulary. You can learn all these new convoluted and sophisticated terms to describe relatively simple behavioural phenomena. I don’t know where I’d be now, without being able to use the terms ‘dissociation’, ‘transference’ and ‘priming’ throughout the course of my day.
3. Therapy can be a dress rehearsal for life. You get to practice all the things that just seem way too hard in the real world. That’s right friends, I’m talking role plays and experiments, which means when you have to go out into the bright lights of work, social and family settings new patterns and behaviours don’t seem as terrifying.
4. You never, ever get told to stop crying. Or feeling whatever you’re feeling. On the contrary, you might be asked to explore the feeling or try and work with it. For so many people this is quite a different approach. Working through the shit feelings, the ones that usually get avoided and denied. Trust me, it’s really quite nice in the long run.
5. There is stack loads of research and scientific evidence behind talk-based therapies showing that it is effective for making painful experiences more tolerable. It’s a proven method for changing harmful thinking, relational and behavioural patterns. It’s also used to make good lives great. And I haven’t come across many people who don’t want to change anything about their life.
6. Your therapist can make you feel really, really normal. As an objective professional, they are really, really good at normalising base impulses and behaviours. Just the other day, when I was banging on about how difficult it would be for me to keep up a relatively new behavioural pattern forever, Dr M kindly reminded me that all humans have a fundamental issue with the concept of “forever”. Boom. Thanks Dr M. Correct, and weight lifted of my shoulders.
7. The therapeutic relationship is really one sided. And if you’re the patient/client/consumer, that’s in your favour. It’s a fascinating and intriguing experience being involved in such a relationship. A relationship where someone knows so, so, so, so much about you and you know nothing at all about them. To even up the balance, I like to invent things about Dr M. He’s a bird-watching hipster who is really a passionate geek at heart.
8. There’s someone who will hold all of your secrets. Without any judgement. Amazeballs.
9. It’s a really good opportunity for “aha” moments. If this was a cartoon, a light bulb would be in a thought bubble above your head. These moments are pretty awesome. When you come to a realisation of how everything has been fitting together and what might need to happen next. There is the potential here for transformation and enlightenment and just general life gets better stuff.
10. You get to be an explorer of one of the most complex and grandest things – the mind. And more importantly, your own mind.
I really debated whether to write on this topic, mostly because by now probably every other person has said their piece. For better or worse. But in the aftermath of the events over the weekend and in the context of the horrors of what happens across the world on a regular basis, perhaps there is a couple of things we need to be mindful of.
From what I’ve read, the term ‘terrorism’ can be a difficult thing to concretely define. In the psychology world though, we often refer to terrorism through the concept of ‘psychological warfare’. The mechanism of action to terrorise the society may be a little different but the purpose remains the same. I’ll attempt to explain it. Terrorism is a form of political violence that is meant to send a message about a particular organisation or idea through violent victimisation or destruction. By design these acts induce terror and psychic fear (which is sometimes indiscriminate), but aids the activity of achieving maximum publicity and amplifying force (Marshall, 2005).
Terrorism and psychological warfare have been around for as long as anyone can remember. Throughout history, pretty much every military conflict has in one way or another involved some form of psychological warfare to disadvantage the opponent. But in today’s world, the rules of engagement in this type of mental battle have changed.
Because of the advances in technology, we have no idea what we might see, hear or learn when we turn on the television, pick up our phone or engage with our friends through social media. Unlike historical military battles, the effects of psychological warfare aren’t limited to the people involved or the countries and communities in which they took place. Nowadays we can all, in one way or another, become involved. Images of terror can trigger a visceral response no matter how close or far away from home the event happened. And the impact has the potential to be even greater too. To instil a sense of fear that is much greater than the actual threat itself.
Sometimes I like to think of each person having a psychological bubble around them. The bubble is made up of all their strengths, their range of coping skills, their beliefs and values and their past lived experiences and history. It’s a protective barrier that can help each person, in its own unique way, navigate through their experience of the world. And when things happen, the bubble reacts and transforms in different ways.
I spoke to a number of people over the weekend, who were feeling distressed about the news of what had happened in a foreign country half way around the world. And I felt it too. I felt sad and shocked and scared. And this is natural. As awful as it is, it’s natural to feel disturbed. And that’s because the majority of us are all beautiful human beings and in our bubbles we have the strength to feel empathy. Professor Haroun from the University of California says: “The human reaction is to put yourself in the situation, because most of us have good mental health and the capacity to empathise. We put ourselves in the shoes of the unfortunate.” So in essence, because we have the capacity for compassion for others, events such as these hurt.
Not only can it trouble the feelings in our bubble, witnessing an act of terror can also disrupt our belief system. There was a time when I was working closely with patients who were seeking asylum in Australia. It was not until then that I realised that how l had been so fiercely protected by the belief systems and values that were inside my bubble. I was fully aware that not everyone had the same values and social niceties as I did and I felt that as a result of my life experiences I had a reasonable grasp on reality, but when I heard the stories of extreme terror from these patients my bubble, my beliefs and values about the world I live in, became significantly challenged and violated. My bubble was significantly disrupted. And the result was an immense fear. Fearful in the sense that I was living in an uncaring and unsafe world because I was no longer ignorant to how low the bar of humanity was. And it took quite some time to learn to cope with that. To get my bubble back in balance.
The research suggests that the key to coping with psychological terror is to find a healthy balance. And most people do. Studies have shown that even in extreme disasters, the majority of people do not become incapable of functioning. While there may be initial shock and distress; people call on their personal strengths and those of their family and community. And for the most part, people recover and return to their normal activities.
We may not be able to prevent all attacks that occur, but there are some things we can do to protect ourselves and those we care about to find a healthy balance, protect our psychological bubble and ensure that we don’t become over-anxious about the possibility of terrorism. Because we are human, our decision-making skills can be impaired in times of extreme stress. So try and stay grounded in reality and seek out the reliable sources of news and information. And where possible don’t rush to make quick judgements on what might be incomplete or inaccurate information.
The Mental Health Association of NSW offers a number of practical suggestions to assist people living with the fear of terrorist attacks or other human-made disasters. These include:
- Find out where to get help in the event of an emergency
- Give and receive emotional support
- Keep in touch with the people you care about
- Offer help to others in the community
Additional suggestions can be found here. It is also possible that people with pre-existing mental health conditions may experience a worsening of symptoms in response to such events. Keep an eye out for any such loved ones and where possible try and provide additional support.
A strategy that has worked well for me in the past in ensuring my bubble remains strong and resilient is to seek out the hope. Hope is often the antithesis of fear. And so I find that by discovering (and sometimes it’s quite a search) the things that come from a devastating event that can add some hope back in to to my bubble helps to get my psychological health back in balance.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." Fred Rogers.
So whilst our news feeds on social media, the opinion pieces on blogs and the background natter of the television continue to remind us of humanity’s atrocities, please look after yourself my friends. Try and keep your psychological bubble balanced, healthy and strong.
If you need to chat to someone:
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636
One of my favouritest things is to find things on the Internet that put a smile in my tummy. These things usually also involve sending mail. They definitely, always involve something quite beautiful.
The first one is postcrossing. I am still surprised to learn, that not everyone in the entire world has not yet signed up to be a postcrossing member. This project allows people to receive postcards from all over the world. The main idea is that if you send a postcard, you will receive one back. From someone you don’t know. From somewhere completely random in the world. What an idea! And what an experience! I have only been postcrossing for a year now, but so far I have sent (and received) postcards (to and from) the US, China, Taiwan, the Netherlands, Finland, Belarus, India, Russia, Malaysia. Austria, Ireland (I received a postcard from Ireland’s top postcrosser who had sent over 100 00 postcards!), and it goes on. I have also had the opportunity to request that if people feel comfortable, and ONLY if they feel comfortable, that when writing to me they share their thoughts, feelings, experiences about mental illness with me. That’s been fascinating. But probably worthy of an entire blog post to itself. Find it here - www.postcrossing.com.
Another wonderful thing I came across quite recently is CBA – or Card Bombers Anonymous. And this is genius. This is a club and at the start of each month, the ‘captain’ will email all the members of the CBA the name and postal address of the card bombing recipient. All the members will then send anonymously a card, letter, picture, quote, kind word or postcard to the recipient. The recipient is then no doubt inundated with love and kindness in the mail by complete strangers. I have only just signed up and have not yet had the pleasure of my first card bombing experience, but gee I am excited. You can sign up here, and if you know of someone who is in need of some snail mail love you can even nominate them to be the recipient. Totes awes.
And then there is my universe idol – Emily McDowell. This woman is an absolute genius and has such a beautiful, relatable and hopeful way with words that I can’t help to just want to be her. For a minute, I did hesitate about mentioning a major greeting card competitor in this post when we’re just starting out, but then I remembered how much I adore her work. Shortly prior to the Hope Street Cards launch, Emily unleashed her ‘Empathy Cards’ which are cards for serious illness, cancer, grief and loss. Created in the belief that there are better, more authentic ways to communicate about sickness and suffering, these cards do communicating crap stuff beautifully. If you haven’t already, check them out.
So thank you Internet. Not just for the cat videos and the ability to put an end to late night obnoxious arguments about things. But thank you for helping us to connect to nice things in the post.