Yesterday Walt and I were chatting in his office and I gazed over his shoulder to see on his computer the news of the El Paso massacre. It was at Walmart, happening to people who were enjoying the everyday comfort of going shopping for toothpaste. In a matter of moments, that harmless activity turned into a bloodbath. Then, hours later, a shooting rampage turned fatal for nine people in a Dayton, Ohio entertainment district.
What can we do about this? What follow are three evidence-based actions that you can take to be part of the solution for what is going on in our country.
Mental health matters, as there are now about one million people in the US who have serious mental illness yet are living without the supportive environment historically provided them. The fact that there is one gun for every American man, woman, and child and the availability of semi-automatic weapons are factors. Yet with the underlying issues of mental illness, stress reactivity, gridlock in Washington, and extremism in society, our nation has not confronted the overwhelming stress that is negatively impacting us as individuals or our society. The problem isn't just the lack of responsible care for those with mental limits but that the whole system has not been willing to put together a cohesive plan to deal with the excessive stress of our nation.
Stress is cumulative
When it all becomes so complicated, once again, science can make it simpler. We all have stress. It is part of our everyday life. But the problem is when we are highly stressed, we do not know how to shut off the cascade of stress chemicals, and spiral up to a state of well-being. We do not have simple emotional tools that are beyond cognitive methods, mindfulness, and psychotherapy, that people can use to strengthen their brain's resiliency pathways. Day after day when we are exposed to high stress without emotionally processing that stress, our brain changes.
According to stress pioneer Bruce McEwen of Rockefeller University, the stress load ("allostatic load") or the cumulative impact of episode after episode of stress trains the brain for a set point in stress overload. This stress overload is what causes or exacerbates most mental and physical health problems. When the stress buzzer becomes stuck on, fight or flight extremes of emotions, thoughts, and behaviors follow, and our only hope – a functional thinking brain – goes offline, relinquishing control to the reflexive circuits of the emotional brain.
The stress-sensitive human brain
As a country, we must come to terms with the downside of our culture. We are collectively stressed out! The #1 public enemy in the US is cortisol, the brain chemical that erodes emotional resilience. Until 2007 when the EBT tools were discovered by UCSF researchers, we did not have emotional tools that could rapidly switch off the emotional circuits that store our stress load and produce cortisol. Now we have them. Research at NYU has shown that cognitive and awareness tools work well in low stress, but in high stress, they do not shut off the stress activations of the unruly emotional brain. Why do emotional tools work better? Emotions are quick to release stress, so the thinking brain can stay online, giving us access to our inherent strength, goodness, and wisdom.
Stress can stun us for a while
When I read about the El Paso massacre, I went to Brain State 5. I wanted to learn more. What had happened? Who was hurt? What could we do about it? How could this be happening in our country? The shooter had wormed his way into my brain, giving me a cortisol rush of negative chemicals.
What did I do about getting out of "5"? First, I gave myself a break. It was horrifying to be sitting in the seeming safety of Walt's office, chatting away, and seeing images of a bloodbath. My reptilian brain dominated me for a while. However, as soon as I de-stressed slightly, my thinking brain was functioning again, and I began using the tools to get from stress to joy. It's a bittersweet joy, but I feel more grounded in reality, better able to connect with loved ones and do my small but important part to make the world a better place. That's as good as it gets.
As a nation, we have not addressed our collective level of stress. Yes, we need better mental health care and to help the 60 percent of people with mental health problems who are not in care. What's more, this is not an "us" and "them" issue. We have to face the fact that we cover up or deny our problems rather than deal with the root cause – our brains are stuck in stress and people do not have the emotional tools to strengthen their brain's resiliency pathways. Ideally, we need a healthcare program that puts emotional stress tools in the hands of every American. Currently, acquiring these skills remains a personal decision, one that takes going the extra mile, much like getting CPR training.
Take effective action
As you consider the actions you will take in the wake of these shootings, apart from supporting legislative actions and community activism, think about being part of a national movement to de-stress our own brains. As our resiliency pathways become stronger, we can recover faster from these episodes and become even more effective in creating changes in our society to stop them from occurring.
Let this horrendous event motivate you to become part of the solution:
- Self-care – Optimize your own brain's stress processing – visit www.ebt.org
- Corporate health – If you are an employer, make the EBT tools available to your employees – email email@example.com
- Health professionals – If you are a health professional, refer clients to EBT or become certified in the method and deliver it in your practice – email firstname.lastname@example.org
Our hunter-gatherer brain has emotional pathways from stress to joy. Years ago, we didn't experience the onslaught of stress that people normally do now. We could get by without using the resiliency tracks in our brains, but those days are gone. We all have those pathways in our brain. It is now time to learn how to use them.
We cannot control how others process their brain stress, but we can control whether we do. Go the extra mile. Stress-proof your own brain and become part of the solution.
Use BBH to do it. Discover the natural brain pathways from stress to joy and use them daily. The solution is to get from stress to joy throughout the day. Somehow that doesn't sound daunting. Actually, it sounds like a wonderful way to live our best lives!