Yesterday I wrote about talking to children about death, and helping them cope with the news of the death of a loved one. A couple of readers said I should write about how adults can cope with bad news in general, and specifically, since this blog is often about environmental matters, how to cope with the relentless barrage of bad news about the environment.
I’m learning to manage stress, including chronic stress, but horrific and unceasing waves of bad news are more than just stressful, they can, after a while, fill you with grief. And I wasn’t sure I could proffer any advice about this, since I’ve long struggled with my own sense of unbearable grief about Gaia. Grief, it seems to me, combines a feeling of great sadness or regret over loss with a feeling of helplessness to prevent its recurrence and/or hopelessness that we can ever be truly happy again because of it — not knowing how to cope with the sense that there was nothing we could have done to prevent this loss (or worse, that there was, and we didn’t do it).
When you get the toxic cocktail of negative feelings — loss, helplessness, hopelessness and selg-loathing, it is hard to avoid reacting in inappropriate, unhealthy ways that reflect the stages of grief:
So what can we do to avoid reacting to relentless bad news in one of these six ways?
Perhaps the best place to start is with an awareness of how our bodies are reacting, and an awareness of the emotions we are feeling. Our bodies react in visceral, instinctive, somatic ways that, over time, can actually cause severe and chronic physical illness. These physical, and our emotional, reactions to bad news are entirely natural, and we should not set ourselves the unreasonable objective of being able to ‘overcome’ them. For three million years the kind of ‘bad news’ we faced was the sudden presence of a predator who threatened to kill us or our loved ones. Our intuitive, largely subconscious reactions to such threats were very effective in generating the ‘fight or flight’ response that, in an evolutionary sense, was entirely appropriate and effective in mitigating that threat. These extreme reactions lasted only a short time, until the threat had passed. They were not chronic.
But if the threat turned out to be lethal — a loved one was killed and eaten — then that effective ‘fight or flight’ response would become a debilitating traumatic response. Why would nature have endowed us to respond in this very negative, debilitating way to the loss of a loved one? Surely it could not convey any evolutionary advantage?
Well, perhaps it could: Nothing leads us to appreciate life more than the realization of its fragile and temporary nature. “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”. We love the others who remain behind even more after such a loss, and protect them more. It is only when the loss leaves us utterly alone, with no one else we love remaining, that we tend to give up. In nature those in that situation are generally unhappy, vulnerable, and, of course, unable to procreate — so it may make sense for those left so alone to sacrifice themselves, to allow themselves to become food for those not so alone. That would be an effective evolutionary survival formula for the ecosystem as a whole.
Of course, in modern human civilization, there is no such evolutionary advantage in such responses. But our civilization is simply too new to have allowed our bodies and emotions to adapt and manifest more appropriate responses to grief. And the firehose of modern communications allows us to feel that loss daily, so the trauma and grief become chronic.
So one method of coping, I think, is to be aware of our emotions and how our bodies are reacting and to appreciate that this is an entirely natural, explicable response. Self-knowledge gives us back a bit of understanding and control, and that’s a good thing.
Another important way of coping is learning to be more resilient so that when we do have these reactions we are able to recover from them more quickly and completely. The stress management techniques I’ve talked about in other articles — meditation, avoiding vexatious people, jobs and situations, self-hypnosis, a healthy, stimulant-free diet, exercise, healthy work habits, massage and physiotherapy, healthy sex, lots of social contact and social activities, generosity activities, play and fun, music, spending time in nature etc. can all help us prepare for bad news and be more resilient when it occurs.
Perhaps another way of coping is to deliberately minimize our exposure to bad news that is not actionable. When there is something we can do about a bad news story — the modern equivalent of an immediate ‘fight or flight’ response — and when we do it, then the action usually has a cathartic benefit and our grief will likely be minimal. I’ve stopped reading most environmental news except for local stories, and even then I will only read about local environmental problems if I know I’m prepared to act to do something about them.
The only other ways of coping I have found are social: Talking it out with sympathetic others so your grief isn’t bottled up inside. Keeping your sense of humour and exercising it with others at every opportunity. Learning something new, ideally with or from someone else. Accepting help from others and offering help to others. And, when you’re acting to do something about a local environmental or other problem, doing so with others.
Being aware of and understanding our physical and emotional response to grief, building up our resilience, minimizing exposure to unactionable bad news, and engaging in lots of social coping activities — all of these can help mitigate the sorrow and damage that bad news can produce in our modern society.
They can reduce its intensity and duration, but they won’t deaden us to it. And I think that’s a good thing. We can’t numb ourselves to pain without also numbing ourselves to joy.
This is an incomplete solution, I know. What other techniques have you found that help you cope with regular, relentlesslybad news?
And if you’re a believer in prayer then, as James Taylor says in his song Gaia, “For God’s sake say one for me — poor wretched unbeliever.”
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Dying of Despair
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Post Collapse with Michael Dowd (video)
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If I Only Had 37 Days
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Nothing to Say About This
What I Wanted to Believe
A Continuous Reassemblage of Meaning
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