I recently received a surprise phone call from BBC Radio Sussex, asking if I would be willing, with ten minutes notice, to go on air to provide a 'Brexit Breather' as part of a phone-in on that stress-inducing subject. Having decided to make a practice of embracing opportunities that come my way, I agreed to give it a go.
As soon as I came off the phone I found myself laughing at the irony: I am in no way immune to feeling agitated by the political climate, a fact which made me question whether I was the best person for the job.
The recommended mindful response to any difficult feeling is in the first place to simply acknowledge it, in a spirit of curiosity and kindness. Noting my conflicted response, I decided to cut myself some slack for not being perfect. The fact that I too, would clearly benefit from cooling some of my reactions simply underlined my sense of a pressing need to de-escalate the fevered state we collectively find ourselves in.
This radio experience turned out to be a challenge in the best sense. It spurred my efforts to be more aware of knee-jerk reactions to views I disagree with, whether via the news, social media or in personal communication. I'd like to share something of what I have been learning.
Here's a thing. An angry response appears to be a kind of potency. But the closer I look, the more apparent it becomes that anger is more usually rooted in feelings of powerlessness. If someone's comments get under my skin, triggering me into a rant - whether out loud or in the privacy of my own mind - then do I not, in fact, resemble a puppet being jerked around by whoever is pulling the strings? My ruffled feathers are a victory for any person whose wish is to get a reaction.
I have also noticed that beneath feelings of upset and anger, there lie more primal emotions. One is fear. I know plenty of theory about the 'threat system' that sets me on red-alert, ready to fight, flee or freeze. Still, moment to moment observation of my own stress reactions has been remarkably fruitful. The greater my awareness, the less I am pulled around by my habitual responses.
In my attempts to bring about kindly and non-judgemental responses in the face of political strife, I have become more aware of the central importance of feeling safe. Barring instances of immediate danger, where the stress response is completely appropriate, I have been surprised by the extent to which feelings of not being safe are created by repetitive, fearful thoughts about the future. This is not to deny that difficulties will inevitably arise, but to recognise that I will be better equipped to manage them if I am not in an anxious state. It is empowering to realise that, right now, I am basically okay. Giving myself that reassurance, almost as a parent might calm an upset child, I feel the stress hormones starting to dissolve. Sometimes I become aware of feelings of grief, underlying anger and the urge to blame. Honouring this sadness seems to soften any desire for retaliation and the ‘need to be right’.
"But is it always a good thing to be calm?" you may ask. Shouldn't we be upset by some things? It is worth remembering that being free from knee-jerk reactions does not mean we no longer care. In the majority of cases, the lack of such reactivity makes it easier to respond in the most effective and compassionate way possible. Neither does it mean a lack of emotional connection. It is also true that our sense of injustice and moral outrage can arouse us to strong corrective action. Undertaken with clarity of mind and free of the anger that leads to conflict, such action can lead more skilfully to a positive conclusion.