The recent shutdown of the federal government and threat to not stand behind our federal debt made me feel more uncertain than I realized at first. I began to feel tightness between my shoulder blades and had difficulty sleeping soundly.
I worried more than I realized at the time whether my wife and I would have the Social Security benefits in our later years that we worked hard for. Would our personal savings be solvent if the U.S. government defaulted on its debts and would our farm land hold its value? What kind of future would our children face?
These worries were about matters over which I had no control. Our political leaders were not solving the problems we elected them to deal with. Our country was being placed at risk while they ignored what I and the majority of people in our country thought.
I felt the tension between my shoulder blades dissipate after Senator Harry Reid announced an agreement with Senator Mitch McConnell about the framework for a temporary settlement of Democratic/Republican differences for at least a few months. So I know my stewing had to do with the gradual onset of anxiety over the previous three weeks as the politicians harangued unnecessarily over details of a settlement.
My wife, Marilyn, also became uptight and had to take a long nap after the tentative agreement was announced on the news. So, I wasn’t alone in my sentiments or reactions.
The ordeal prompted me to think about how other people reacted to the shutdown and other uncontrollable situations. I decided to write about how we can cope with awful feelings, with an eye to particular situations farmers and other rural people face.
Many of our worst feelings are connected to matters we have little control over, such as storms, unexpected illnesses and deaths of loved ones—and for farmers: crops and livestock as well, as occurred in South Dakota during the recent severe blizzard. Soldiers too, often feel most vulnerable when on duty in areas with explosive devices and terrorists nearby, but no knowledge where.
Whenever we lose control over the factors that affect our welfare, we become highly alert to any signs of danger. It’s a normal reaction to an unwanted situation.
How do we detect tension in our lives that we are not necessarily expecting? Our bodies often tell us more about how we feel than our minds.
Our brain cortex–the thinking part of our brains–are our minds. We detect threats through our senses (e.g., hearing a tornado siren) and our minds (e.g., reading about the government going broke), which send messages to the limbic system, an interior part of the brain just above our brain stem.
The limbic system processes the input and tells our bodies to get ready to either fight the threat, avoid it, or it may become so overwhelmed with repeated severe reactions that we become emotionally paralyzed.
The limbic system also tells us when we feel good, such as after a hearty laugh. It can be tricked into feeling good, by what we allow ourselves to think, and by substances such as methamphetamines. The limbic system regulates emotional reactions.
When our limbic system reacts with alarm, adrenalin flows and we become edgy and easily upset. Some people have difficulty sleeping. You probably know how you react when you are stressed.
Persons like me develop physical symptoms such as muscle tightness. That’s why I said earlier that sometimes our bodies tell us better when we are uptight than the cognitive thinking going on in our minds.
How do we resolve tensions in our daily lives? We have to take actions. We can make contact with the persons causing us stress, such as emailing our elected leaders about how what we want them to do.
We can talk with persons who will listen and react with useful feedback. We can dissipate the physical parts of our tension with vigorous exercise, work and play. We can reach out to others whom we know are worried and undertake these positive activities together.
Touching others and receiving comforting touches helps calm our nerves. If we don’t have family and other loved ones around, we can approach a chiropractor or massage therapist. Physical contact with pets also is beneficial.
Prayer and meditation help many of us. Creative projects such as playing music together, writing, art, and building things help our limbic system relax.
When calmed down, our limbic system signals our bodies to release beneficial bodily chemicals. Cortisol defuses the alarm that occurred when we felt threatened and our bodies released adrenalin to key us up. Cortisol relaxes us.
Eventually, when we feel safe, we produce serotonin and norepinepherine again, which are the chemicals associated with well-being. That’s why many antidepressant medications contain serotonin and/or norepinepherine.
It is healthier if we can deal with awful feelings without relying on medications by managing how we behave.
Dr. Rosmann lives near Harlan, Iowa. Contact him at: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.
By Mike Rosmann, Ph.D.