This post was contributed by Jennifer Wheary, a Demos senior fellow who focuses on issues of economic opportunity, education and the global middle class. Wheary is a regular contributor to Newsday and is preparing an article for Heifer’s World Ark magazine.
I was walking down the street this past week in the midst of a mad rush of errands when I received a text message that stopped me in my tracks. It was from my sister who lives in western Pennsylvania. “Meltdown. Half hour from Pittsburgh” was all it said. My mind raced to the cataclysmic conclusion that a nuclear reactor nearby her home had gone haywire. My sister had just been visiting me in New York the day before. Panic rising and chest tightening, I thought to myself “Why did she and her 3-year son take the Amtrak train back on Monday, instead of staying here with me where they were safe? I took a deep breath and called her. She answered her cellphone with far too chipper “Hey. What’s up?” I was momentarily stunned. “What’s happening there?” I anxiously asked. “Noah’s playing with his Matchboxes and I’m folding laundry,” she replied.
It was only then, after about 3 minutes of angst, that it hit me that the meltdown she had texted me about was in response to a question I had texted a few hours earlier asking how her toddler son had fared during the long train trip.
The experience was sobering, but not too surprising for this time of year.
The holidays are often associated with hope and optimism, but this is also in many ways the most stressful season. Everyone seem to have an endless to do list. An ever-expanding array of responsibilities and social obligations seem par for the course. 61 percent of Americans report experiencing holiday stress, according to American Psychological Association. Fifty-two percent of us report being more irritable at this time of year, and 68 percent of us say we are more fatigued.
When we are overstressed and fatigued, negativity can run amok. This is in part brain’s natural response to stress. In his book “Rewire Your Brain,” John B. Arden, a psychologist at Kaiser Permanente
, describes how the physiological and biochemical processes involved in seeing all sides of an issue shut down when people experience negative stress. Instead, we kick into a fight-or-flight response designed only for short-term self-preservation.
That response has value. If your hand touches a flame, you need to react quickly and use all of your neurological resources to get out of danger. Ditto if a car cuts you off or stops suddenly in front of you while you’re looking for parking at a crowded mall.
But a short-term fighting stance inhibits our ability to see the bigger picture more clearly – even to the point of temporarily imagining a nuclear disaster. In this way, always being under stress and accentuating the negative impairs our ability to solve or improve anything.
Unfortunately, when we look at the news, negativity is what often garners the most attention and gets broadcast the most loudly. But it’s not all that’s out there. Many people and organizations, like Heifer International
, are doing good things. As a long time Heifer supporter, I was inspired this week by an email
sent out by the organization which invited me to “Be part of something bigger.”
This phrase serves as a good reminder to not be overwhelmed by the holiday stress season, and to put the negativity that is naturally likely to arise as in its place. Being part of something bigger can help us curtail our individual counterproductive stress response. It can help us cope more effectively, leaving us and our world better off.