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How to Stay woke and cope with Negativity that drains us?

A while ago the following post was doing rounds. It captured in one sentence what a number of people from our generation are feeling given the (political and social) conditions that have transpired globally in recent years and especially this year with the global pandemic.

We want to "stay woke", stay aware, and help make the world a slightly better place but struggle with an information overload that triggers us, fuels anxiety, and slowly but surely drains us, making us more reactive, numb, dissociated and cynical. This cycle never ends, each day we are reminded of the craziness of the world, of how dysfunctional most of the systems have been and the extent of injustice humans are capable of.

Yes, we could probably escape this by not becoming too invested in these but that has its own set of pros and cons which I will try to cover in another post. Today, I want to delve into what is happening to us due to the overload of this traumatic information and how to deal with it when you don’t wish to escape it.

What exactly happens during this cycle of getting information and getting triggered?

First of all, there is a LOT going on. The systems that the world has are inherently discriminatory and often lead to things such as caste-based crimes, racial crimes, violence against minorities, violence against women and children, etc. This is supplemented by things such as political scandals, coronavirus pandemic, natural disasters etc. Every once in a while, we find one horrific incident (usually a result of the problems in our systems) take centre stage and social media, as well as news, is flooded with information about details of that horrific incident and we get lost in the mire of this details getting triggered every second.

The social dilemma here is that while the more we read and learn makes us better informed, it also continuously triggers us and evokes a number of (very valid) emotional responses. Most of these situations have some component of trauma attached to it, and when we are (constantly) exposed to trauma our body and mind also respond.

Lipsky and Burk (2009) described what happens during (constant) trauma exposure in the following diagram:

© Copyright 2010 Larua van Dernoot Lipsky

While the book is written primarily for people such as psychotherapists, social workers, front-line responders, or anyone who deals with trauma as on a regular basis, I believe it explains much of what many of us are feeling today even if we do not professionally engage with people experiencing trauma. [that said anyone who is involved in such a work, must read this book]

What is happening is that slowly but surely, we are running out of our ability to respond compassionately, empathize, or contribute positively. Rather, we are becoming numb, cynical, disillusioned, feeling dissociated, anxious, exhausted, hopeless and in some moments, helpless.

The good thing is, we can actually take some measures to cope with this and get out of this cycle that leads us to compassion fatigue. The following measures have been taken from the work of Lipsky and from my own experience of being in this situation of information overload causing numbness, anger, cynicism, exhaustion, and a sense of feeling helpless in front of the unending systemic problems. They may not resonate with you, but I hope you get some ideas for your own self.

1) Compulsory Self-Care

In recent years there has been a boom in people advocating for self-care. We all know the basics like “you can’t pour from an empty cup”, yet we do not follow it. We neglect self-care, we push ourselves to the edge, and at times over the edge, stopping only when it becomes impossible to survive.

What we do not realize, is that our misery is helping no one. It is not helping us, plus it is also keeping you away from the things that we can possibly do to make this world a better place. Fighting when injured is just not effective. When we do not care for our selves, we are essentially unavailable to help anyone and are just on our way to become numb

Thus, one of the biggest thing I advocate is “self-care”. Do what you need to, let off the steam, heal, indulge, settle down your mind, process your emotions and be back a more reflective and available person. Self-care looks different for all of us, it might even be different in differing situations, but find what works for you. [Watch my upcoming post to see what my self-care looks like].

2) Check-points and Balancing

Like I mentioned, often when we realize that we probably need to stop, it is already too late and we are on our way to burnout. A better option is to create check-points in our daily life. Notice and ask how much of the information is needed? How much is just spiralling? Is this needed or is a repetition of the triggering information you have already read? Can you balance this out, can you seek information which is related but positive or information that shows the solution than the problem?

What can you do to balance and check that your emotions do not overwhelm you? What can you do to find things that help you contribute and learn not to become paralyzed in fear and information overload?

This has two additional benefits: One, you feel more in control for you are controlling the media you consume. Two, you come in contact with things that equip you and give you skills or ideas through which a positive contribution can be made.

3) Clarifying my role and reducing pressure

This may not be true for you but for me, there are moments when I feel that I am responsible to change the situation, that I must do something, and do it now. The frustration rises, my anger also rises, I inevitably find myself debating, shouting, aggressively posting on social media, and getting into a dance with anxiety where she sure as hell burns me. It is like an uncontrollable wildfire inside me and I have no idea how to diffuse this mix of feelings.

But it is impossible for me to wake up today and just do things in a way that immediately removes all the inequality from the world. It is not only not possible, I am not responsible for correcting anyone’s actions either. Or educating everyone. Or controlling everyone. It takes a while to remember this, and breathe (that is why most of my journal entries have capital “REMINDERS” with a variation of this message following).

The questions to ask is: What can be done? What role can I play? What do I want to do and can it be done in one second? How much can I realistically invest? How much can I really offer to this right now and is there an option to continue investing for a more sustainable solution?

The answers differ in different situations. Sometimes it takes more than one round to get to the answers because the first time round I do commit too much. And sometimes, the answer is just to accept that today, I can only learn about it, but maybe eventually I will be in the position to help.

4) Falling back on Compassion and Forcing “Optimism”

This is the one I struggle the most with. For me, it is very easy to jump to nihilism, become existential, and lose faith that the world could be a better place. Just “snap” and I am there, contemplating why do we even exist! But I have been trying to develop a sense of compassion towards all human beings, even those for whom I feel that the title of human should not apply [although I have never succeeded, I still try].

I try to remind myself of two things, one is that we all are a product of our experiences. I do not know what background the and condition the other person is coming from, maybe they were fed a different diet of ideology in their childhood. This is not a way of excusing their behaviour, just explaining it and wondering, is the hate justified?

The second, thing is the idea that humans are capable of changing. Just as season 4 of “The Good Place” concluded, there is no knowing what a person might become tomorrow, if given a chance. Or as neuroplasticity teaches us, we can change throughout our lives.

This compassion and forced optimism almost never work when I am in the cycle of spiralling into existential crisis, but it does help on other days especially to avoid the action of generalizing that “all people who say/think/do this are bad and will be bad”.  It helps me to keep just a little hope alive without which I do not think I can function.

In conclusion, the world is insane and most certainly trying to drive you insane, but you can stop that, you just need to figure out what works for you!


For more information on the work of Lipsky and Trauma Stewardship, check out these Videos:

This post was requested by Vaishnavi Vatsyayan. You can also fill in the contact form below and request posts on topics of your choice.


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