System overload

DURING the first few days of the Japanese disaster, I was disturbed at some of my own behaviour.

Like most of us, I watched unfolding events with horror and many tears. But then my focus changed. When it came time to make dinner, the focus of my obsession became the process of cooking. My emotions were frayed – however this time it was because there was no garlic. And I was angry that my daughter didn’t want pasta after I’d put the pasta on. Moments before, I’d been trembling in front of the TV watching apocalyptic scenes of devastation, and the possibility of a nuclear holocaust. Suddenly the only thing consuming me was garlic.

I remember a similar phenomenon years before at a beloved cousin’s funeral. She was a young mother who’d died of cancer. My pain was so acute I thought I would pass out. Then I began noticing shoes. I found myself thinking how impractical it was that someone would wear suede in the rain and mud. I always felt guilty for those thoughts, which gave me momentary respite from the grief.

It’s been the same for many of us these past weeks – living in a strange zone between two realities: fearful, sad, overcome with empathy on one hand; distracted by petty concerns on the other. Worrying equally about dying children and acid rain, and picking up the groceries.

How can we live in this dual consciousness? Or more importantly, why do we? According to neuroscientists, the ability to switch off is a normal survival mechanism. Simplistically put, our primitive brain helps us stay alive by warning us of dangerous situations that put our life at risk, says Justin Feinstein of the University of Iowa. “Once it detects danger, the amygdala [a collection of nuclei located deep within the brain] orchestrates a rapid full-body response.”

Watching visions of nuclear reactors exploding, the earth cracking open and mothers weeping engenders in us massive fear, panic and grief. But our “fight or flight” reaction can’t be sustained, and the CEO of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, steps in to calm us down, leading us away from distress and towards practical behaviour.
The shutting down of emotion and empathy can lead to brutality in our species. But without some “switching off” mechanism, it’s impossible to live. As a sufferer of depression, I’ve spent weeks in a state of hypersensitivity, the pain of every suffering creature echoing in my head, paralysing me. Switching off is important; not to the point of callous indifference. But just enough to survive.



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6 Responses to System overload

  1. Ruth Ostrow 10 April 2011 at 6:24 pm #

    Thank you for this deep and heartfelt response. It brought a tear to my eye. And it is a wonderful philosophy to try to make those around us experience more joy and less suffering. I have become an animal activist for this very reason. Ruth

  2. Francine sharpe 8 April 2011 at 10:22 am #

    Dear Ruth,
    I felt compelled to respond to your column on System Overload.
    A few years ago I went through the Menopause and at the same time was diagnosed with a life changing Auto Immune condition. Instead of the usual hot flushes and other typical symptoms, I experienced the blackest mental torment. Suddenly, I felt the whole world’s pain acutely – to the point of physical pain where I was hospitalized for a week due to severe stomach pain and dehydration. I simply couldn’t bear to hear about any animal (it was that time when those poor sheep were imprisoned on the “Ship of Shame”) or human in pain – I had no weapons in my mental armory to internalize or rationalize suffering. Once the doctors had determined what was at the root of my problems (depression due to sudden loss of hormones and the onset of chronic illness) I was started on a course of Hormone therapy. The change in my state of mind was miraculous. I still am extremely sensitive to all types of suffering and violence but am better able to deal with it now. Which leads me to believe that “switching off” and indulging in mundane diversions (such as what to cook for dinner!) is the normal, healthy brain’s way of dealing and coping with tragedy and suffering overload. I visit my wonderful doctor regularly because of my condition and my last visit coincided with the Japanese Earthquake. We were commenting on the suffering and because I felt a bit “down “that day (the black clouds still threaten to spill their rain) I asked her how she deals with the human suffering and pain that she sees every day. I explained to her that I felt helpless and guilty because I was so lucky to have such a fortunate life whilst all around there was despair -floods, earthquakes and tsunamis. She told me that the only way we as individual humans can cope with this state of mind is to live in our own backyards and to try and make the lives of those with whom we come into contact, more comfortable, more joyous and more loving – to give what we can, whether it be time, love or money and not to try and heal the whole world – just the little part around us. Good advice in a world that sometimes overwhelms us with its sadness. We should also try and look for the sunshine – it still is a wonderful, remarkable time to be alive! Thank you for your great columns – you so often touch on subjects about which I feel very passionately.

  3. AnnieP 4 April 2011 at 2:27 pm #

    Read your interesting article and your feelings and reactions mirrored my own. We are confronted every day with disasters, murders, car crashes – lost a son 16 years ago and every week I’m back to the nightmare! Get weepy and very depressed some days but have enough faith and (I hope) common sense to see a balance.
    We cannot change all the bad things but can voice our hurt, disapproval etc. I do not always admire the reporters and sometimes find their styles intrusive and offensive but maybe I’m a more private person – no way could I be interviewed in my sorrow without railing at the world – I do that sometimes when I visit my husband and son’s graves – husband died at 44 after a massive heart attack. It isn’t a fair world but God never did say it would be. Thank God for the beautiful children, grandchildren and many friends who offer love, support and stability amid the chaos.
    Thank you again Ruth for your insights – do enjoy your column. Take care and keep up the good work – X

  4. Rodney Salvestrin 4 April 2011 at 1:03 pm #

    You have got to be kidding!!!!
    I cry for the animals that are left out in the rain or heat.
    I will not travel into the country to see my family because of the “road kill”. I also have the weight of the world on my shoulders. My phsyc finds this most unusual.
    Please help

    Sorry, I forgot to mention, this re the last paragraph of Sat Aus.

  5. Ruth Ostrow 3 April 2011 at 3:18 pm #

    Yes, it helps a tiny bit even as we hear worsening reports of radioactive waste spewing into our oceans, and into our air. The alternative is to fall to pieces, which the Japanese are not doing. They are so brave.

  6. Milena 3 April 2011 at 3:15 pm #

    Dear Ruth, I was comforted to read your piece today which managed to give me a scientific reason what I seem to have been doing quite spontaneously in response to a series of both personal and world events which have rendered quite incapable of any emotional response other than bouts of yelling and weeping. The alternative is a sort of semi-comotose wobbling state. It doesn’t help much but it does provide something on which to hang my reaction. Thank you.

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