Emotional detachment keeps us sane

Women and children pass the remains of a collapsed house in northeastern Nepal.

  • The Australian, 

Reading the news about the earthquake in Nepal, I felt nauseous. I was recently in Nepal, and have friends in Kathmandu. I have a deep connection with the place and its people.

I felt terrible fear and worry. Should I ring? Could I get through? How could I help?

Suddenly it started pouring with rain. I went to make a cup of coffee and noted I was feeling awful. But then I realised something. The feeling was about the weather, not about Nepal.

I had tickets to the open-air opera Aida in a few hours, and would have to sit in the cold and wet. Damn! Where were those raincoats?

In an instant, my mind had gone from tragedy to the practical, mundane and self-interested. I’ve always felt guilty when I found myself doing this — recoiling at images of suffering children in Syria, then suddenly smelling the onions burning and running into the kitchen worrying about a pot, not a child, human misery wiped from my mind.

I know we’re all like this, and I thank God there is a neurological reason to assuage the guilt.

Detachment is a normal biological defence mechanism to preserve the species. If we carried all the horror and fear we felt inside our psyches, we wouldn’t notice our baby was in need of food or that we were under immediate physical threat by a wild animal.

Nor could we summon the rational thinking necessary to help others in a crisis. So it’s a survival tactic for us and the tribe.

Psychologists believe emotional detachment is a common way to deal with anxiety. Negative emotions are physically depleting as they can promote the production of the damaging stress hormone cortisol. This can weaken our immune systems and shut down the logic centre of our brain.

So we often switch off those emotions. A metaphorical comparison is playing dead. We can run from danger in fight-or-flight, but we can also “play dead” like many other species do — reptiles, a mouse in a cat’s mouth — and literally go numb.

We can also unconsciously distract ourselves to avoid pain.

At the funeral of a beloved friend, I found myself assessing people’s shoes with curiosity as my mind took a much-needed break from distress.

The rain stopped. Many times during the opera my mind kept going back to Nepal as the death toll was rising. Back and forward from one reality to another, thinking of people under the rubble, then in bliss at some exquisite note.

Beauty itself was pushing my “off” button for me — for one gentle moment in time.

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