Chris Willard on Living In A Time of Fear and Teaching Kids to Look for "the Helpers"
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Chris Willard has written two posts relevant to the topic of childhood trauma. He writes that his posts "seem so weak in the face of this tragedy," but we think they're quite strong. The first is Living in a Time of Fear for Mindful, and the second, for the Garrison Institute, is about Mr. Rogers and looking for "the helpers." Excerpts of both are below.
Fear is a powerful physiological response, orchestrated by a complex threat detection system in our brain, the amygdala being one player in that system. Our brain’s primary responses to fear are short-term: fight, flight, freeze and forget-it (okay maybe not always “forget-it.”) For some people a range of these emotions washed over them on election night, for many others they’ve been feeling these emotions acutely ever since.
But here’s the thing, when the threat detection system in our brain is activated, and fear takes over, other areas of the brain aren’t as active, making it difficult for us to do our best thinking. Things like being able to see the big picture clearly, discern danger from reality, see nuance and complexity, plan long-term solutions, and problem solve become challenging.
While we’re all wired to think and feel, to fear and fret, we’re also wired to “attend” and “befriend,” as psychologists would say. We might also call these natural responses “mindfulness” and “compassion.”
So how do we ease out of fear mode? This is what mindfulness was made for. Fear and anxiety often go hand-in-hand with dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. And the very nature of mindfulness is to notice when our thoughts drift ahead of or behind the present moment. Read more.
It seems that after any disaster or tragedy, be it a horror of human making, or the aftermath of nature’s wrath, be it across the oceans or around the corner, we are inundated with images of suffering across our TV screens and social media feeds. We witness faces contorted with fear, mouths gaping in disbelief, bodies crouched, crying uncontrollably. In fact, as our mirror neurons pick up on the pain and anguish that we witness, we find ourselves mirroring the anguish we witness. Experiencing compassion very literally means that we too suffer along with the survivors of tragedy and trauma. What’s more, our children do too, with fewer resources for how to manage and muddle forward.
As we fall into fear and vicarious trauma, we can very literally feel the pain and suffering of others. But how can we channel that energy into facing and alleviating that hurt, rather than turning away? Just as when we experience a threat directly, the nervous systems switch flips to fight, flight, freeze or tells us to “forget it” and turn away when we witness others it pain. The more we see and feel the more our brains rewire for these stress responses and the more likely we are to ultimately fall into helplessness, misperceptions, mistrust, and dysregulation that can last far beyond the initial incident. In children, this can be an even more insidious form of post-traumatic stress that rewires a young body and brain across their lifetime. In adults, this is empathy fatigue, something we can manage through mindfulness and compassion, shifting us back into turning toward and helping, rather than turning away.
In the short term, we can also shift our reaction with a simple practice. I learned this, from, of all people, Fred Rogers, known to millions of us as the affable Mr. Rogers of children’s television from our youth. There’s an old quote that gives me and my family solace in turbulent and troubled times. “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.”
Mr. Rogers, or rather, Mr. Rogers’ mother, (after all, let’s give credit where its due), reminds all us that we have a choice. We can focus on the suffering and horror, and we should, as much as is healthy before we shut down and burn out. And so too can we remember to let in the good–to see the helpers and the healers just as Mr. Rogers suggests. Read more.