So you’ve woken up and everything’s different. What you thought was true is not true any more. There are many others who feel the same as you – and no one has a clue what to do about it.
Since the results of the UK referendum nearly two weeks ago, a lot of people have reported experiencing distress and confusion on a scale bigger and grander than they have felt before. Some mention 9/11 as having a similar effect, but for many nothing has been even remotely similar.
‘Hold on, this wasn’t a terrorist attack. It was a vote. A VOTE!’
The referendum occurred in the shadow of the murder of MP Jo Cox and the mass murder of young queer people of colour in Orlando, Florida. And the repercussions of the vote started immediately. Within hours of the result, people perceived as ‘foreign’ were being told to ‘go home’, and sometimes physically attacked. People are fearing a return of fascism.
(It’s fair to say that social conservatism, or out and out bigotry, rarely confines itself to one group. So where you see racism or xenophobia, you will eventually find sexism, homophobia, transphobia and many other forms of discrimination.)
Markets are wavering. Employers and investors are changing their behaviour. Funds are being withdrawn or frozen. Many do not know whether they will be allowed to continue living where they may have lived for years or even decades. And people are wondering what on earth this country has got itself into.
This post is inspired by the current situation, but it could apply equally to any overwhelming piece of news or large scale change of circumstances that is shared by many. This post does not address one particular group of people, as the situation is complex (for example: many Remain voters are upset, but so are many Leave voters who wished they had made another choice), but looks at what you might be feeling and how to manage it.
Hanging on to hope
I’ve noticed a lot of hope being expressed in the form of detailed and well-argued constitutional arguments against what has happened and how the decision can be reversed. Some call this denial, a form of post-bereavement bargaining. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross named five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Sometimes these are interpreted as a simple linear process, but of course it is far more complex than that. The cartoon above has done the rounds a number of times online. (When I find who did it, I will attribute it.) Grief lurches from rage to fear to blankness and back again, sometimes in the space of a day – or an hour.
I am simultaneously reminded of Camus’s La Peste, (and I hope I have remembered this correctly), where the stressed population of the plague-ridden town of Oran actually feel relief when they see symptoms appear on the victim’s bodies, because it at least means they are fighting the disease.
Many people feel drained, exhausted and panicky
Many versions of democracy have been invoked as reasons to re-vote, or not re-vote. There is a sense of enormous unease. There is also no sign of the uncertainty being put right anytime soon. It is suspected that some, in a drive for power, will eventually capitalise on this waiting game.
The ongoing decline of the collective mental health
This is a very frightening time for many people, many of whom were already affected by austerity. Current government policy has affected collective wellbeing to the extent that the UN has commented on it. Many people live in a state of barely changing anxiety over housing, health, benefits, and job security, let alone mental health services themselves which are in a state of crisis.
(If you are in London, here is a list of low or no-cost therapy services.)
When you are chronically stressed, you don’t recover well from shocks. If you are already running on empty and ‘just coping’, one more insult to your wellbeing and it could all go over. Small setbacks become large ones, and large ones become disasters. Because your resources are so depleted, you are unlikely to have recovered from one difficulty before the next one hits, so most of the time you are effectively recovering from two things at once, then three, then more.
So how can you feel more in control?
Human beings are incredibly resourceful. This means that you are too.
(1) Turn off the news
You have the right not to look at the news. It is unlikely to help your wellbeing in this moment. News can be addictive. Switching it off is often suggested as an immediate mood lifter if you are depressed.
(2) Reshape your social media
This is harder than turning off the TV or radio because your friends are very likely on there and you may want to reach out to them. But do you have a friend who is posting a lot of angry stuff, even if you agree with it? Do you need to see this? It’s okay to unfollow them for a while.
You may have a friend who is delighted by whatever has happened or is minimising it. If they are gloating and it causes you distress, it may be time to reconsider the friendship, or at least remove them for a while. Feel free to lighten the load. One thing about crisis times is that they can force your hand in terms of what, or who, you can tolerate. Never feel guilty about this.
(3) Don’t feel obliged to debate with anyone
Do you actually want to have debates with the people closest to you? So much of what is called ‘debate’ is really no such thing and advances nothing but the person with the loudest voice.
I am hearing about families being split over what’s happened. Your gentle blackout doesn’t have to be a violent rejection, but you are not under any obligation to argue with anyone. But while you can remove people from social media, you cannot escape a family dinner table so easily. A polite refusal to discuss things may be enough. If things reach a point where you are actively unsafe, you are within your rights to leave or take evasive action. Parts of my seasonal survival guide may be helpful here.
(4) Look for the helpers
The American children’s TV presenter Mister Rogers was known for quoting his mother on how to deal with something frightening in the news: ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ Someone will be looking out for others, trying to clear up the mess, and finding ways to make life better again.
(5) Action now
In times of distress – I am talking about personal issues, drama, a frightening communication, crisis – one way of feeling more in control is to do something, anything that gets you better informed and helps you feel in control and that you can make choices.
This is all very well, but this is a time of total uncertainty. There is no information because the situation is in a state of flux. Many are offering answers, but few understand and fewer believe them. So what action can you take? You could attend meetings, marches, or join a political party. If public engagement does not suit you, you could read as much as you can to feel more in control, or talk to as many people as possible about what has happened to find out what they are doing.
(6) Be mindful of your own safety
You may be inspired to go out and intervene in racist or xenophobic incidents, or rescue others from aggressors. Always be mindful of your own safety. Don’t let yourself be goaded to heroics by those with greater resources than you – particularly if they are doing it from the safety of a Facebook page.
If someone has suggested that you or your friend ‘go home’ – if you are up to physical intervention, or even just socratic dialogue (where you pretend to be ignorant in order to bring out someone else’s ignorance), you still need to know your own limitations. You may be outnumbered without realising.
The current political situation has empowered a sense of entitlement to question another’s right to exist, and that is experienced as a deep and powerful weapon. Record and report what you see if you can do so safely. Gather supporters – but remember the instructions about oxygen masks on a plane. Put yours on first.
(7) Reach out
One of the greatest things about social media is that when we are in trouble, the oddest range of people reach out to us, from close friends to people who live thousands of miles away and who we may never meet in person. Tell friends how you feel. ‘Can we go for a picnic, for tea, the pub, or my house, or your house?’ Ask a group at once so you can all feel held, and so that one person won’t feel pressured or obliged when they themselves may be out of energy.
If you live with several people, or meet up with a group regularly, think about how you could bring the group closer together. Can you meet once a week to share your feelings, perhaps before breakfast or in the evening? This is a way of bringing people together. Some people cannot bear the idea of small group sharing, but it can be highly beneficial. Can you find a venue once a week, or at someone’s home? Many people have vulnerabilities that they find hard to share in a casual way.
However, reflect on whether your concern is more about you than the the other person. You may have a friend who you perceive to be in more danger of public abuse than you. Be mindful that not everyone wants to focus on this. Not everyone wants to be receive your fear and sometimes these approaches can be more about you than the person you are approaching, however much you care about them.
(8) Reach out to those who are less able to
Someone who is feeling distressed and whose mental health may have got worse at the current time, or someone whose disability or health situation prevents them from going out, may need your support. Can you give them some time just to listen to them? And without him offering to fix them, unless you have resources that would genuinely help.
If someone has become incapacitated through distress, can you help them out by bringing food around, or doing some some cleaning?
(9) Try to make sense of fear – your own and other people’s
Fear underpins many toxic decisions and behaviours. Fear can be hard to spot because it is so quickly replaced by something else. Fear is a bit like syphilis: it mimics, very convincingly, other states of mind and behaviours – rage, bullying, scorn, contempt, condescension, and physical aggression –and hides behind them.
You might want to talk to people with different view to yours. It may help you understand their choices better and they yours.
If you have kids, now may be the time to try and explain why people turn against each other for no apparent logical reason.
(10) Be mindful of self-harm
You might be drinking more, doing more drugs, smoking more, overeating, spending money. These all have short term benefits, and are a perfectly rational response to stress – but they may cause damage in the long term. In a time of trouble, remember that it’s best to be at your most alert, and to conserve resources where possible.
(11) Accept your own anger
If you consider yourself to be a liberal, or were schooled in not over-expressing yourself publicly, you may be surprised by the helpless, murderous rage you experience about the behaviour of politicians and media/business leaders, and the impact it is having on your life. It is okay to feel this. You may well find that many others feel the same.
(12) Remember what you have
Is there a unit of time in which you can consider yourself to be okay? In which you have a roof over your head, food tonight, work, or someone to talk to at least? Is it a month, a week, a day, an hour? Can you at least exist minute by minute if nothing greater feels possible?
Now is the time to look at what you do have, (even if you have no spare money, you may have social capital), and what you have through your communities. If there are situations (or people) in your life who make you unhappy and you have any power over removing yourself from them, now may be the time to start looking at this. If you don’t feel sufficiently connected to other people, and you would feel safer and more held if you were, now is the time to take steps to change that.
I hope this piece is helpful in some way. If I’ve missed anything important, please tell me. If you are struggling with any of the issues I’ve discussed here and would like to talk further, you can contact me here.
[Re the image above: when I find out who originally created this cartoon, I will attribute them.]