I’m certainly not the first to comment on the horrifying state of our world today, but I offer here what I hope are some fresh perspectives on how it is impacting our mental health and our sense of the future. We are traumatized. We are plagued by uncertainty. Our view of the future is murky. How can we manage to navigate such terrible times without “zoning out”?
Whether we know it or not, all of us are traumatized. It’s important to acknowledge that we are traumatized—really acknowledge that we are traumatized—because we can so easily slip into denial, dissociation, distraction, and addiction. Trauma involves a profound loss of control when events overcome our ability to cope or hope.
Our reality has suddenly changed in ways we never, even in our wildest dreams, thought possible. “Suddenly” is the operative word.
A little over two years ago our planet was suddenly taken over by a fiendishly adept and deadly virus, which has now killed more than six million people. During the same time period, climate change suddenly became real as we endured terrifying firestorms, tornados, floods, and blizzards.
Also, during the same period, an unhinged and corrupt president tried to overthrow our democratic election process and unleashed a virulent white male supremacist movement. Human beings of other races, genders, or sexualities are now increasingly under violent attack, and women’s bodies are suddenly under government control.
Now, we have inflation, a crashing stock market, and dwindling retirement accounts. What next?
We all, to varying degrees, are experiencing the emotions of trauma: terror, rage, grief, overwhelm, and helplessness. What we sorely need at times like these is community, coming together, and inspiring leadership. Instead, we had to go into lockdown, sheltering in place sometimes alone. People hospitalized with COVID had to endure pain, suffocation, terror, and even death alone, without loved ones by their side. Our childish and clueless president offered nothing but false reassurance and lies.
Most devastating is the terrible uncertainty. What’s going to happen with COVID, climate change, and the rise of authoritarianism? What’s going to happen to us? To me? Do we dare to hope that things can get better? Or is that just setting ourselves up to feel disappointed, dropped, duped, stupid? Should we instead prepare ourselves for catastrophe?
Can we make plans for the future? Can we have a vision (however vague) of some sort of life path, or is it safer to stay numbly in the present and not look ahead? We are standing on ground that is constantly shifting in surprising, unpredictable ways. It makes sense that a lot of people fell prey to the Big Lie. It offered certainty, a peek beneath the surface into what was really going on.
Younger people, older people
Young people, especially, were cut off at the knees. All their societal and biological “programming” told them to hang out with peers/leave home/go to college/get a job/find a mate, and suddenly they couldn’t do any of that. They found themselves stuck at home with (eeyu) their parents. They couldn’t spread their wings and leave the nest. After preparing to move out into the world for years—in a sense, their whole lives—they could no longer envision their future. Many young people got depressed.
In many ways, it hasn’t been as hard for older people, like me. Most of us were at least somewhat “settled” in our homes and relationships. Some even welcomed the peace and tranquility of sheltering, not having a schedule, and doing what we wanted when we wanted. For others, it was a relief to not have to socialize or prove that you’re having a fabulous life. But the uncertainty was (is) daunting. How to make plans? Will things be opened up enough to visit the kids or plan foreign travel? What’s the last day I can buy plane tickets?
Of course, such concerns pertain only to the more privileged among us. For others, there is job loss, crushing financial anxiety, food insecurity, and working from home with restless children out of school.
I have noticed an interesting pattern among my older therapist friends in private practice. Many have decided to “simplify” by giving up their private offices and retaining a small Zoom practice at home. Many others have decided to stop working entirely. Are we older folks trying to brace against loss by anticipating it?
How can we go forward?
How can we maintain our equilibrium in these unfamiliar and disturbing times, when things remain so maddeningly uncertain? I strongly believe that the first step is to strive to stay awake, conscious, and in touch with our feelings, no matter how unsettling they may be. Otherwise, we’re in danger of dissociating, zoning out, and going unconscious. We do not want to lose ourselves.
I feel so lucky to be a psychotherapist, because my job, if I do it well, requires that I stay in touch with my deepest, most difficult feelings and those of my clients. My work is a blessing because it requires that I stay aware at all levels of mind and body.
We must endeavor to be “all there.” We must try to live fully. Only then can we do all the things that make us happy: maintaining connections to others, moving our bodies, cultivating positive emotions, staying grounded in our inner body sensations,1 and always trying to figure out what we truly desire—and doing it!
We must also keep one eye on a potential, positive future. As human beings, we need to locate ourselves in time, to sense time stretching out behind us and before us. And we do best when we have something to look forward to.
At this unprecedented time in history, Barach Obama’s words are particularly apt: We need to summon the audacity of hope.