Depending on your sources and the criteria for measurement, modern humans as we know them emerged on the scene between 100 and 200 thousand years ago. These early humans enjoyed one or two hundred thousand years of hunter-gatherer evolution before the dawn of the Neolithic age and the advent of farming. About 10 thousand years of domestication in the age of agriculture—hardly enough time to get the furniture how you like it—and the Industrial Revolution comes on to totally shake things up for the human condition.
As if that wasn’t enough, we are currently facing another sea change with the transition to the Age of Information and an exponential rate of change in our world.
The trouble with all this relatively very recent change is that our systems have been evolving via natural selections gradually, over the course of hundreds of thousands of generations. The current pace of change has left our adaptation strategy seriously in the dust.
Our Early Homo-Sapiens ancestors would have had an immediate community of about 25 people, with an extended community of up to 300. Those 300 people would be the only people they would ever meet in their entire lives except in the event of war between tribes. (Kevin Kelley, The Technium.)
In a tribal, hunter-gather society — the kind our brains spent about 90 thousand years evolving within — imagine what kind of information we would process day to day. What would be the triggers for fear and what would our response be?
In venturing to guess, I would say the occasional predator threat, perhaps a once or twice a lifetime natural disaster depending on the habitat, the occasional threat from another tribe. All very direct, mortal threats.
We would have a direct awareness of anything within about a mile, with perhaps an extended, awareness of about 20 miles (about as far as a man can walk in a day.) There would have been a vague, mythic awareness of lands beyond this distance from trade stories and inter-tribal interaction, but with no real input from this extended region.
Contrast this with the world we inhabit today. In an Information Age, we are constantly bombarded with input. Our effective tribe extends to hundreds, if not thousands of people and our awareness of threats extends, in precise detail, to the borders of our respective countries and at lesser detail, to the entire earth and beyond.
Much of this information comes to us in the form of threats or news of calamity, injury or death. Our finely tuned fear response systems jump into action, motivating the organism to act in self-preservation. The problem is, there is nothing to do. We have nowhere to go to escape. There is nothing to kill in defense. We just sit with it, pumping adrenalin, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and a host of other “fight-or-flight” hormones. (Click here for a full rundown of the body’s response to fear)
This kind of input, to a brain and body with 90,000 years of adaptation to respond immediately to direct threats, puts a tremendous strain on our information-age nervous systems. I posit, that the prevalence of depression, suicide, adrenal fatigue, even radical ideologies are all a direct response from the over-stressing of our Paleolithic body-mind.
So what do we do about it?
The fish became a lizard
The shrew became an ape
Will the ape become an angel?
The higher that we climb
The more the ladder sways
–Stuart Davis, Ladder
cut out the inputs
News media has carefully crafted and art and science out of scaring the shit out of us on a daily basis. There is a meta-belief that to be a good citizen, we need to stay “informed” at all times. That if we are not reading the headlines and watching the reports on a 24 hour cycle, we’ll miss something that will result in the death of our families and the end of the world as we know it.
Plain and simple, 99% of the crap we get from the news is not-actionable, fear based sensationalism. I am calling it right here. We don’t need to “know” this stuff.
If you don’t believe me, just think back to last week and tell me one piece of important, actionable information you received from a mainstream news source.
Ok, I am going to step down from my soapbox now an simply invite awareness. If you do consume news media, do it consciously. Ask yourself if the information you are receiving is something you need to know, something you need to do something about. Let the information really sink in and if something evokes an emotional response in you, give yourself time to have that experience before moving on to the next info mcNugget.
I’d be curious to hear what effect this awareness practice has on your news consumption.
We all love social media, hell I am as big a Facebook addict as anybody, checking my feed first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening with the occasional update throughout the day. What is the cost of the input from 1000 of your closest friends. It can be nourishing and create a sense of passive intimacy AND it can add to the overload and be a huge source for fear-response triggering.
I have notice a big trend lately of the most avid social media guru’s taking time off. Month or two-month social media retreats, cutting off all activity on their Facebook and Twitter feeds.
Notice how social media is affecting you day to day.
Maybe it’s just me, but meditation seems to be on the rise these days. Buddhism has effectively migrated to western shores and even Hollywood is hitting the cushion. This may just be a trend, or it may be that we are being called to meditation to balance the forces of threat-overload in our modern lives.
Meditation has been measured in slowing hear rate, lowering oxygen use, and creating calm relaxed brainwave signature. Practitioners report feelings of deep well-being, relaxation and stress relief with a little side effect being enlightenment for some 🙂
Take a seat, slow it down and pay attention.
move the body, emote…
When an animal experiences a threat, they run the same fight, flight or freeze pattern that we do, with perhaps a bit less hippocampus and sensory cortex activity 😉 A major difference is that when the animal experiences this response, if the threat goes away, they instinctively and effectively discharge the energy from their system. They will shake and tremble, diffusing the energy and moving the chemicals in their system.
When is the last time you shook it off while sitting at your desk reading headlines of H1N1 epidemic?
As humans, we also suppress our natural emotional response. We may want to cry or scream hearing about these global threats but we don’t. We just take them in and hold back the tears, then move to the next thing.
What if we took a different approach, allowing or encouraging our bodies to move and our emotions to flow at the experience of fear?
Jayson Gaddis recommended two more important tools for us to deal with cumulative stress and trauma:
get support from a trained professional
As a psychotherapist who has studied stress (trauma) with the best, “shaking it off” ain’t going to cut it for us. In fact, shaking it off can make it worse depending on how “mindfully” you shake. Seriously. The human nervous system is beyond complicated and requires years of work to get it back in balance.
Research has shown that emotions are not what move stress or complete trauma. Body sensations do. While emoting is great, it’s not enough, and many folks get stuck there.
So, I want to add to your list: High quality psychotherapy and body work from highly skilled and trained professionals who help the human nervous system relax and come back to a healthy baseline through deep, slow, present centered work.
People also are born into this world with jacked up nervous systems already in fight or flight from day one. Then it stabilizes. So, if you are 40 years old, you have 40 years of a fear based response to the world. Simply meditating and cutting out input ain’t going to cut it. Deep attachment work might be called for.
drop the “story”
Lastly, I would add “drop the story” to your list. Fear always has a story in us humans. We spend hours and hours on the story, which then kicks up the fear even more. Dropping the story and finding the sensation in the body will let the wave complete.
and in conclusion…
If you are still with me at this point, sincere thanks for indulging me this journey. I have been exploring this in my own life and seeing the cumulative effects of fear and stress. I am curious what is possible for me if I can create a buffer for my body-mind and not take in (and not repress) as much fear.
Then again, perhaps all this fear is an evolutionary catalyst and it is precisely these conditions that are necessary for our next evolutionary leap. Oh hell, I am gonna go check my Facebook feed.