It’s the end of the world as we know it — and I feel fine
Anyone else getting end of days feeling? I googled ‘it’s the end of the world’ and apart from REM’s classic song — which incidentally came out November 1987 — the top spots on my feed were taken by articles written in the New Yorker, Buzzfeed and the Guardian all in the last three days. All saying it’s not really happening. It just feels like it is.
And no wonder. If you weren’t already anxious about the eco crisis and apocalyptic visions of end of days, along comes the corona virus, which I have to confess to being obsessively watching on the news. Then yesterday, scrolling Facebook in a state of heightened alert (I have been a Facebook refusenik for months, I must have been anxious) I find a news story about an upcoming brush the Earth will be having with an asteroid on April 29th. My Facebook article says there is a chance this object, roughly half the size of the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs, will collide with Earth. It’s a British tabloid. Later, I find a more reliable source. Nasa says it will miss us by 3m miles.
For someone who was brought up in the run up to the Millennium, end of days speculation is part of my inheritance. I find myself that night watching a documentary about the end of the dinosaurs and wondering if it is just me.
It does however seem that I’m not the only one. The New Yorker article about the end of the world is a piece about returning to survival skills and stone age bushcraft. The Guardian cartoon lampoons end of the world thinking, which is in itself an acknowledgement that it is doing the rounds. Apocalypse thinking comes to press coverage of Paris Fashion Week and the Bloomberg campaign. And, just in case you missed it, here is the irresponsible headline in that great British tabloid, The Express, titled THE END OF THE WORLD. Are we going collectively crazy?
Panic and fear are inevitable side consequences of a world that seems to be spinning out of control. Maybe it’s the turn of the decade, maybe it’s the prevalence of extreme politics and extreme statements in our news items. The news thrives on story climax and after a series of climatic stories, maybe it is inevitable that we end up with a headline that sounds like the man with a sandwich board, ringing a bell and handing out leaflets. Who do we believe? We can’t even shake hands anymore. Isn’t it safer to fear?
Rolling news cycles aren’t doing anything for our mental health. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to sleep easier at night. REM’s 1987 lyric talked about ‘Six o clock, TV hour…’ Now every hour is six o clock, as we ride the wave of the endless scroll. It’s ghoulish, it’s compelling.
Common sense tells us that the sensible thing to do is to unplug. REM again — “I need some time alone”.
If you are washing your hands and keeping abreast of public health anouncements, the most sensible thing you can do for the sake of your mental health is to leave the news cycle alone. Feeling fear about the things that you have no control over is not going to benefit you, those around you, or help you think more clearly about the situation. What it is going to do is deplete you.
Last month, a video about a little girl in Syria went viral. Salwa is aged three. Her father, Abdullah Mohammed, taught her to overcome the psychological trauma of the constant sound of bombing by learning to laugh at it. He showed her video of children gleefully letting off fireworks to prove to her that loud noises can be fun. As the bombs fell in Idlib, Salwa laughed. The video of her unknowing courage has been seen on news coverage throughout the world. Just one outlet saw it viewed 170k times.
We can learn a lot from Salwa. We can learn the lessons we need in a world of panic about things that are outside our control. What we can control is our response to them. And our response — our mentally healthy response — is made up of gratitude, of being in the moment, and of abundance. Those are the things that make life worth living. Otherwise, it is a miserable existence, and it may as well all be over anyway.
The simplest trick, when feeling overwhelmed is to breathe, consciously. Fill and empty your lungs. And repeat. Breathing deeply counteracts fear. Our natural breath is too shallow to keep us in the moment. When we are afraid, even more so. That shallowness of breath and the consequent limiting of oxygen activates our fight and flight syndrome. It sends oxygen to our muscles, ready to run away. It keeps us in survival mode, not in abundant mentality. To protect your mental health, breathe.
Secondly, take a moment to consciously acknowledge fear. As the psychologists say ‘name it to tame it’. When we admit fear, we bring it to mind, we bring the rational side of our brains to bear upon it, we can see more clearly what is in our area of control and what is not. Fear feeds on secrets. If you keep it secret from yourself, then it will grow like a tumour. And better to call it fear than anxiety. Anxiety somehow sounds outside our control, like it is a rational response. Fear is primal. If you are afraid, there should be a bear running at you. If there isn’t a bear, then it makes you look again. Admitting fear is an honest response. It is a brave response. Straightaway it turns you towards courage.
Finally, turn your mind consciously to gratitude. We know that survival is an instinct that is powered by hope. Psychological survival is no different. Embracing the blessings that we have around us, reflecting on the joys that we have in our lives, make them palpable, bring them to the centre of our attention, make them the focus of our vision.
Hope fosters action, fosters joy, fosters love and relationships. And those are what we are living for. Not the end of the world.
And Salwa? She’s safely in Turkey now. And when I heard that, I really did feel fine.