How to Survive the Apocalypse
...emotionally, that is...
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There are big apocalypse vibes in the air, no?
I've noticed a sharp uptick in uneasy apocalypse jokes in my inner circles lately. And because I study archetypes and astrology, friends are asking my thoughts about America's impending Pluto return, which many nations do not survive.
I like astrology because it's essentially a study of archetypes. Each planet, sign, and house represent an archetype. Horoscopes provide a meteorology report of sorts, using a combination of the archetypes.
Archetypes are story-telling devices; ‘self-portraits’ of human instincts and are arranged around universal patterns like light and dark, birth and death, masculine and feminine, good and evil. They help us understand ourselves and the world around us. I was first introduced to this concept when I worked in public relations and marketing.
Carl Jung used archetypes in his practice of psychiatry, and I found them helpful for self-analysis and personal growth while healing from PTSD and TBI.
As I pondered these apocalyptic vibes, I remembered that the apocalypse (or death) itself is also an archetype.
The Death card is notorious for inspiring fear in anyone who has ever received a Tarot reading. But this card rarely ever means literal death.
Death is an archetype that symbolizes endings, change, transformations, and transitions. We spend our entire lives practicing death in big and small ways. It reminds me of the monarch's journey from caterpillar to butterfly. After a 'death,' a rebirth can occur.
So yes, the metaphor is apt. We're in the midst of immense collective change. In many ways, there is no going back to normal. And it is scary.
The heat in America is turning up
"Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o'er wrought heart and bids it break." — William Shakespeare, Macbeth
I was less productive than usual this week.
...Partially because I needed to clear out a wave of stagnant grief.
...Partially because, every once in a while, I feel the gravity of adjusting to this new apocalyptic life in dystopia.
And this was a particularly active news week.
The Taliban seized Afghanistan faster than expected at an inauspicious time when autocracies are becoming the global majority. An earthquake rocked Haiti (again). Teachers and medical professionals are stressed as COVID-19 mutates and spreads rapidly. The IPCC report illuminated the climate change catastrophe while heatwaves ripped across the land and cities burned to the ground.
As I've said before, America has PTSD and needs a healing.
I’ve noticed online and in my daily life that people seem increasingly more stressed; angrier, more fearful, disillusioned. There is more arguing, more pain porn.
As the tensions rise, we must find a way to manage them. That requires staying centered and grounded amid the chaos.
The reality is indeed harsh. We’re living through a long-haul crisis and climate change will impact us for the rest of our lives. Pandemics are likely here to stay and democracy is in danger. More than 620,000 Americans died of COVID-19.
I’m not trying to stoke fear. Instead, we must be aware of our challenges so we can better navigate them. This is why I don’t agree with pollyannas who counsel others to ignore the news.
Ignoring reality doesn’t change it.
We can't just 'wing it' out there. Burying our feelings doesn’t make them go away. In fact, it just makes us more reactive to increasingly hostile stimuli.
According to scientist and researcher, Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk in his book The Body Keeps the Score, suppressing our inner cries for help does not stop our stress hormones from mobilizing the body.
Healing trauma and complicated emotions is a form of power retrieval. Think about how draining it is to grieve; how much energy it depletes. If we just bury the feelings and try to carry on like normal, we’re only prolonging the pain.
My apocalypse survival tools
“The future is dark. But what if — what if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb but the darkness of the womb? What if our America is not dead but a country that is waiting to be born? What if the story of America is one long labor? What if all our grandfathers and grandmothers are standing behind us now, those who survived occupation and genocide, slavery and Jim Crow, detentions and political assault? What if they are whispering in our ear, 'You are brave'? What if this is our nation's greatest transition? What does the midwife tell us to do? Breathe! And then? Push!"
In her book See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love, author Valarie Kaur asks, “How do we labor for justice when we’re hopeless?”
To do this, Kaur calls for revolutionary love. Part of that revolutionary love is caring for yourself well enough to stay in the fight. Because I need you. We need you.
I am not a medical professional, so take my advice with a grain of salt. I can only share what has been helpful in my lived experience and this is by no means an exhaustive list.
I’ve found that, like many complicated problems, one must use every available tool. Here are just a few that have worked for me.
Regulate the nervous system
When I start to feel overwhelmed, emotional, agitated, or depressed, I regulate my nervous system before I attempt to do anything else.
The sympathetic nervous system is associated with the fight or flight response and releases cortisol through the bloodstream. The parasympathetic nervous system halts the sympathetic nervous system, so the body stops releasing stress chemicals and shifts toward relaxation, digestion, and regeneration. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are meant to work in a rhythmic balance to support health, sleep, and immune system functioning.
The easiest way to shift a nervous system imbalance is to simply stop and breathe. If all you have is two minutes, you can do this.
If you have more bandwidth, try mindfulness meditation, get out in nature, or try breathwork. Here is a short and simple breathwork session I use frequently.
Breathwork moves stagnant or frustrated energy. So does physical exercise. I like yoga for the mind/body/breath connection - but you do what feels good to you.
"In research supported by the NIH, my colleagues and I have shown that ten weeks of yoga practice markedly reduced the PTSD symptoms of patients who had failed to respond to any medication or to any other treatment." — Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk
I have developed a morning routine that includes mindfulness meditation, breathwork, physical exercise, gratitude, and spiritual practice to maintain balance and stay anchored despite the chaos.
Gather intel on your thought patterns and physiological response
When I feel a particularly intense emotion, I will try to feel where the sensation lives in my body. Often, it’ll come from my chest.
When that happens, I’ll spend a few minutes doing EFT “tapping” over my heart and collarbone while leaning into the feeling.
Tapping on the spot where I feel it helps ‘unlock’ the trapped emotions from muscle and tissue. I repeat the tapping technique until the intensity of the emotion begins to subside and I feel the release.
I try to stay present with my thoughts during this process to see what they can tell me.
If my mind wanders, where does it go? I’ve noticed that sometimes I flashback to a previous emotion/experience. When that happens, it tells me that my current upset is actually triggering a deeper/unhealed wound from the past.
This process can feel quite intense and uncomfortable but lifts years of unprocessed pain and stress from the body.
Approach the darkness with love
If tapping doesn’t work for you, simply carve space and time to check in with yourself periodically — and actually feel your feelings as they arise.
For example, if you have a hard time sitting alone in silence and find yourself always reaching for something to occupy or numb you, get curious about it. Ask questions of your discomfort and note the answers. Once you get an answer, if you feel strong enough, dig a little deeper.
When doing this, be as objective as possible. Understand that you will likely want to judge what comes up. Often, we avoid asking ourselves hard questions because we judge the answers. Don’t let false shame keep you from living your best life.
Approach the darkness with love. Go into this self-discovery with the intention to forgive yourself immediately for whatever comes up. Remember, if we can make a little space for the darkness inside, we can keep it from showing up in our lives in more hideous ways.
To do this, I try to think of myself as a detective uncovering secrets, an investigative reporter, or a military strategist gathering intelligence. I’m trying to improve myself and feel better, so I need a strategy, and I can’t formulate the strategy without data.
Once you have the data, the epiphanies will come.
Create a space between a stimulus and your reaction to it
When we’re stressed or triggered, we can become reactive. For example, when someone hurls an insult, it’s easy to instinctively react in defense. But when we speak or act without thinking, we relinquish our power and agency.
I have been guilty of this more than a few times.
Now, I am learning to create a space between a stimulus and my reaction to it.
If a person, event, or circumstance triggers me, I try to remember to take a beat before I respond. When I do this, my response is almost always different than it would have been if I hadn’t taken the pause. Nine times out of ten, it is much more centered and calm.
This enables me to diffuse tense conversations and helps keep my head in uncomfortable situations.
It takes practice, but we can rewire our brain circuits and neural networks with consistency over time. We can change our habits and patterns in just a matter of months. We become what we practice.
When we shift away from emotional reactivity, it also helps stop cycles of abuse. I’m sure you’ve heard the cliché, “hurt people hurt people.” It’s true. If I can stop myself from instinctively retaliating - or from using someone else as a misplaced anger valve - I can end a cycle of negativity.
Embrace change and discomfort. Open your mind.
After nearly dying of a catastrophic brain injury, I was forced to let go of everything I thought I was, had, and knew. In the midst of unwanted - and unavoidable - change, I discovered that becoming more flexible in my thinking eased this process exponentially.
When I found the courage to let go of attachment to my old life, something more authentic and organic began to emerge. I found a sense of inner peace in the chaos.
The human brain has a bias toward the familiar. We like safety and our comfort zones. But we must accept and make peace with the fact that we’ve been thrust out of our comfort zones until further notice.
Acceptance and detachment: Our attachment to the way things were is causing us unnecessary pain. We can’t go back, only forward, so we must accept our new reality. It was helpful for me to identify what I could and could not control, and to accept the things I could not change.
Mental flexibility: This requires us to make space in the mind. A rigid mind has difficulty extending or experiencing grace. Once we relinquish attachments from specific outcomes, we can welcome in the magic of new possibilities. And once we have more brain space, we can try to see the world from someone else’s perspective. We can develop empathy for others. We can cultivate more peace and grace even in the midst of great change.
“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.” — Lao Tzu
This is our opportunity to be reborn.
Returning to Valarie Kaur’s labor analogy, what if our role in this era is to be metaphorical ‘death doulas’ ushering in the new world?
To do that, we must take care of ourselves and each other. We must stay calm and present in this process to get to the other side. Healing ourselves can help heal the world.
I’ve said it before but it bears repeating: To keep our sanity right now, we must recognize that we are not merely witnesses to this period but also contributors. We have important roles in the rebirth of a new age - one that will determine the fate of future generations. This is a critical turning point in our evolution. There is no going back to “normal.” Let’s make it count.
As Valarie Kaur urges us, “Breathe! And then? Push!"