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Anxiety

Rage against the dying of the light

I was walking to the Extinction Rebellion protest last weekend, and I suddenly started crying.

I hardly ever cry, and I have certainly never cried for the ‘environment’, or nature, or baby seals.

It just suddenly felt real.

It was like I was going to a doctor’s appointment that I’d been putting off for months, knowing in the back of my mind that I was really, really ill. And now I was facing up to the possibility of death, and I was frightened and sad.

The numbness that I had carried around with me subconsciously, for years, was beginning to melt.

I headed for Southwark Bridge. My friend Charlie was in one of the ER ‘affinity groups’ and he’d told me to meet at Southwark for 9.30am, in order to blockade the bridge at 10.

The plan was to blockade five bridges in London, and then march to Parliament Square for a rally.

Extinction Rebellion had only been going for a month or so.

It’s a movement of civil disobedience, inspired by three environmentalists recently given jail sentences for protesting against fracking.

The sentences were later quashed, but their willingness to risk prison to protect nature galvanized the environmentalist movement, particularly after the latest warnings from the IPCC that human civilization has around a decade left to halt catastrophic warming of the ecosystem.

Climate change is visible now – in the heatwaves, hurricanes, wildfires, floods and droughts. We read about, although we don’t yet feel, the rapid extinctions of 60% of wildlife species in the last 50 years. We read about, although we don’t yet feel, the acidification of the ocean and death of half the coral around the world – including a fifth of it in the last three years.

The ecocide has already begun for other species, now it’s heading for us. And we’re sleepwalking towards it.

But what can I do about it? Is it worth even thinking about, if there’s nothing to be done? Just try and carry on as normal, until the end.

But the more we live in denial of the real, the more our civilization feels psychotic.

I got to Southwark Bridge at 9.20. It was a cold, bright day, the City was deserted, and the bridge was completely empty, apart from six or seven police. I smiled at them innocently and walked across the bridge.

On the other side, I saw my friend Charlie, who lives in Dorset, wearing a tweed jacket and photographing the river. He looked like a German spy.

‘Charlie!’ I said, but he carried on photographing. Maybe he didn’t want to break his cover.

I chuckled and walked down the steps off the bridge. Charlie followed me.

‘Dude!’

He led me to a nearby Starbucks, which was apparently the headquarters for the ramshackle rebellion, or at least the Southwark Bridge contingent of it.

There were about 20 people there. They all seemed to be from the West Country – Devon, Cornwall, Somerset. They were quite green and hairy.

By 10am we still hadn’t left the café.

At 11, we congregated outside, and one of the leaders – Dave – gave us a briefing.

‘OK, here’s the plan. We walk to one side of the bridge, and Phil and his group walk to the other. When Phil radios me, we immediately block both sides of the bridge.’

‘But how will the rest of us know?’

‘Good point. OK, here’s the plan. When Phil radios me, I raise my hand.’

‘Maybe raise both hands?’

‘OK, here’s the plan. When Phil radios me, I raise both hands. Then we move out the bollards.’

‘But they can move the bollards.’

‘OK. Then we just lie down. And roll out the banner. Where are the legal observers?’

‘Present, Dave.’

‘Hands up if you’re an arrestable.’

I considered briefly if I was arrestable. It was unlikely anyone would be charged, the police have better things to do. But if I was it would stymie travelling to the US. In addition, I was meant to be playing tennis that evening. I decided I was non-arrestable.

About eight people volunteered to be arrestable.

‘That’s not many Dave.’

‘Is this all of us?’ one lady asked despairingly.

‘There’s a bus coming from Cornwall. It’s late. Won’t get here til 12.’

It felt like the rebellion at the beginning of Empire Strikes Back, shortly before they get their arses kicked.

I thought it would all be over in ten minutes, we’d be cleared off the bridge, some people would be arrested for a few hours, but we’d have made our point. Pointless, in a way, but a start.

‘Dave, there’s a bloke in a van watching us.’

There was a white van opposite us, which said Auberon Steaks. The driver was watching us very intently.

‘Alright, let’s move’ said Dave. We moved about 20 metres down the street.

‘The arrestables may want to give their phones to a friend, as the police can get all your data out of it. Has everyone got the legal info?’

We were all given cards with solicitors’ numbers on them, and advice on how to engage with the police. Basically, say ‘no comment’.

‘Ready? Let’s go.’

We walked onto the bridge. There were perhaps another 50 people milling about on the bridge, obviously protestors, and a lot of police with large truncheons.

I wondered why ER hadn’t publicized the blockade better, so thousands of people were on the bridge, rather than 100. They seemed to have a secretive, direct-action mentality, when surely this had to become a public mass movement to have any success, like Gandhi’s Quit India movement.

Suddenly, I saw a large group moving up the other end of the bridge, holding a green ER banner.

I looked round, and our small group was attempting to block off our side of the bridge. There was a group of 20 or so, but they were clumped on one side of the road. The left-hand lane was exposed and could easily be re-opened by the police. All that stood in the way were two old ladies sitting on fold-out deckchairs.

‘Please move to the pavement’, a young policeman said to them. ‘You’ve made your point, now move, or I will be forced to arrest you under the Highway Obstruction Act. You will then be charged, and unable to travel to many countries. Why not just move?’

‘I’m not moving’, said the old lady. ‘The planet is dying and the government’s not doing anything. I’m not moving until they start taking climate change seriously.’

A cheer went up. Dave was getting arrested. He was holding a rose. ‘Do you mind if I give my bag to someone?’ He seemed pliant, close to tears, like he was being led quietly away to execution. They handcuffed him and he walked off, while everyone applauded him. A noble death.

Another woman was arrested. She started screaming. She wasn’t one of the ‘arrestables’ and seemed genuinely shocked as she was handcuffed behind her back. ‘Don’t worry’, I felt like telling her. ‘Nothing’s actually going to happen to you.’

A young woman called Rachel stood next to me. Her stepfather had been one of the people arrested. ‘Is he going to be OK?’ she asked. ‘He’s going to be totally fine’, I said.

The other side of the bridge was now completely blocked off, by 100 people or so. I heard one of the police say: ‘We don’t have the numbers, there’s nothing we can do.’

As I watched someone else get arrested and be led off, followed by a legal observer, I suddenly thought, ‘why don’t I get arrested?’

I imagined myself being led away to cheers, my face nobly Stoic. In the news, the headline: ‘Heroic philosopher risks all for climate change.’

Our group backed up to join the other group. We were now around 200 people, and weren’t going anywhere. We had taken the bridge!

The sun came out. A funk band appeared, with amps and a drum kit, and we danced in the sun while our banners fluttered. Word went through the crowd that ER had taken five bridges in London – Southwark, Blackfriars, Waterloo, Westminster and Lambeth. A wave of joy ran through us.

 

People danced, passed around cupcakes, fruit and biscuits. They gave leaflets to passers-by, and engaged the cops in earnest political discussion. The cops relaxed too. No one was resisting arrest, no one was giving them grief. To be honest, no car was even trying to cross the bridge – this was the City on the weekend, it was empty.

There were some talks and slightly lame folk singing about protecting the Earth. The movement needs better anthems. The crowd was very West Country, and had a slightly twee feel to it – pan-pipes, witches, placards mourning the tawny owl. The cynical outsider journalist in me started to take the piss.

A West-country witch puts a spell on the cops

But this was not the time, anymore, to observe from the sidelines and make wisecracks. Who cared if the protestors were slightly fairy-folksy? Blockading a few bridges was the least we could do.

Think of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who gave their life in the fight against fascism. Humanity is now facing a much graver threat. Getting arrested for a few hours traffic-blocking was a tiny sacrifice. I’m surprised people aren’t doing far more. We’re frozen, and we need someone to scream to break the ice.

After a few hours, one of the ER organizers told us we were going to march to Parliament Square, picking up the other protestors on the bridges in between. People were welcome to stay on the bridge, if they wanted to get arrested.

We marched down Embankment, cheering. There were only 200 of us, or so, but it felt great.

Then we joined the crowd at Lambeth Bridge and milled around there for a long time. I heard one of the organizers say ‘to be honest this is a lot bigger than we expected it to be’.

George Monbiot on Lambeth Bridge

I was getting cold so decided to walk down and see the other bridges. Rachel came with me. We both felt exhilarated and hopeful. It’s an amazing feeling, when a crowd of strangers congregate and become friends. The streets become a festival.

‘I felt so moved when my stepfather got arrested’, she said.

‘Me too’, I said. It’s a small sacrifice, but martyrdom pushes an ancient button.’ I thought about the Latin etymology of sacrifice – sacer facio, to make sacred.

We finally reached Parliament, and I said goodbye to Rachel. She went to the police station to meet her step-father.

I headed to my parents for dinner. My Dad did not approve, my aunt said it had taken her hours to cross London by bus.

‘I apologise for the disruption but it’s important.’

It was the first act of civil disobedience I’d ever taken. That was true for most of us – academics, civil servants, scientists. We weren’t hardened activists by any means. We were nervous.

The idea behind ER is that continued acts of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance will disrupt the functioning of the state and the economy until the government and people have to take notice of the issue.

ER then wants the government to stop using fossil fuels by 2025, and start a ‘citizens assembly’ to work out a proper response to the crisis.

I don’t know if I agree with this last aim. Don’t we have a ‘citizen’s assembly’ already? It’s called parliament. Unfortunately, many people, perhaps most people, do not yet feel in danger from climate change.

Nigel Farage called the campaign ‘economic terrorism‘. Well, he should know.

This week, ER has stepped up its campaign by organizing ‘swarms’ – groups that block off roads for seven minutes, then step back to let traffic pass, then do it again. It’s causing huge traffic jams throughout London, and leading to angry confrontations with drivers. You can watch it on Facebook Live.

‘What’s the point of this?’ one motorcyclist shouted this morning. ‘It’s totally pointless!’

‘We want the government to listen,’ explained the slightly posh nice lady filming the protest.

‘Is the government here now? Show me! All you’re doing is making everyone late, so they’ll drive faster and there’ll be more accidents, you twats.’

‘We’re sorry but it’s important’.

The motorbiker drove angrily up to the protestors, as if he wanted to run them down – this was because he was being made five minutes late. He was led back by the cops.

The policeman advised the young woman filming the protest: ‘Don’t get too close, they might punch at you.’

‘OK Thank you’, said the protester. ‘I feel so honoured to be with these brave people protesting’, she said to the camera.

‘Sorry for the delay!’ she says to another van driver.

‘This the third time today’, he says, arms folded wearily.

‘Well…thanks for not calling us scum!’ she says cheerily.


The same day as the bridge blockade, very similar tactics were used in France, for a completely different cause – to protest high fuel prices. The street blockades led to furious altercations with motorists, and one drove into the protesters and killed one of them.

It’s not a good sign when groups give up on the democratic process and break the law to make their point.

And it may all be pointless. Catastrophic climate change may already be unstoppable, with feedback loops leading to the melting of the arctic icecap and the release of methane gas, which causes far worse global warming than carbon dioxide.

Still, I can’t do nothing. I’m not going to sleepwalk into extinction. Even if it just means I can look my maker in the eyes after death.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

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Managing your nervous system

Last week, I saw a good talk on somatic experiencing therapy. I’ve heard about it, and in some ways what I heard was quite obvious, but it was good to have it spelled out.

Somatic experiencing is one of several body-focused psychotherapies that have risen to prominence in the last two decades, partly as a reaction to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy’s narrow focus on cognition.

Body-focused therapies include everything from mindful body-scanning, to focused relaxation, to EMDR and tapping, to traditional practices like yoga and Tai Chi, or arts practices like dance and singing, or indeed sports, nature – basically, anything that involves more than sitting in a chair thinking and talking.

Somatic experiencing therapy was developed by Peter Levine in the 1960s, while he was hanging out at Esalen, the human potential college in northern California. But don’t worry, it’s not New Age, as far as I can tell. Like I said, it seems pretty common sense to me.

Somatic experiencing focuses on the autonomic nervous system (ANS), how it affects our emotions and consciousness, and how we can learn to regulate the ANS so it doesn’t burn out. The ANS controls the automatic functioning of our body – skin, body-temperature, circulation, digestion, breathing- and the release of chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol.

There are two systems in the ANS. First, the sympathetic nervous system, which governs the ‘fight or flight’ response. This is your body telling you ‘you’re not safe, there’s a threat nearby’ and preparing you to respond to that threat.

The eyes dilate, the mouth goes dry, the skin feels prickly, you may start to sweat, the heart beats faster, the breath is quicker and shorter, blood goes to arms and legs in preparation for action (this is why one can feel dizzy), digestion stops (or you may throw up, or piss or shit yourself).  The kidney and hormone glands release a surge of chemicals to prepare you for action, such as adrenalin, cortisol and epinephrine. This boosts your short-term energy but leaves you feeling very tired afterwards.

The second system in the ANS is the parasympathetic nervous system, which governs the ‘rest and digest’ response. This is your body telling you ‘you’re safe’ and letting the body rest, recoup, and digest. The breath and heart-beat slows, the stomach digests, inflammation goes down.

When the two systems work well together, the body achieves homeostasis. It’s like a car driving well with the accelerator, gears and brake.  It responds to threats appropriately but also finds time to relax, digest and heal. When the ANS stops working, the body becomes stuck in fight-or-flight mode. It’s in a state of constant vigilance and defensiveness. This is extremely wearing to the body and the immune system. It’s like driving across the country with the hand-brake on. It damages the immune system and can lead to chronic stress, insomnia, burn-out, heart conditions and psycho-immune disorders like in ME / CFS, Fibromyalgia, POTS or Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can also lead to dysfunction in the ANS. A traumatic event triggers the freeze response, which is an ancient animal survival technique – playing dead in front of a predator. During the freeze response, the mind can dissociate, by either blacking out or separating and observing from outside the body (as it were) or from behind a glass wall of derealization. When the ancient freeze response is activated, younger or higher systems in the brain go offline, such as the social engagement system. Our face freezes and we’re not capable of even altering our facial expression, much less socially interacting. With PTSD, one is easily and frequently triggered into this freeze response.

Hearing the talk took me back to 20 years ago, when I had PTSD and social anxiety. I remember how physically tiring it was – my body was constantly releasing stress chemicals, and never getting the chance to re-charge.  I would sometimes go into moments of derealization when I felt the centre of attention – everything would suddenly seem unreal, like I was watching from far away, and my body would feel awfully anxious. I still sometimes get that.

I would make myself go to social events and try to be friendly, and then I would end up in arguments. I couldn’t understand why. The CBT theory was that I was merely perceiving arguments that weren’t really there, but this was not the case. In fact, going to a party triggered the freeze response in me, and this would shut down my facial expressions, making me look angry and arrogant, and people would respond defensively to that. It took me a while to figure out this was what was happening, and that the way to break the feedback loop was to focus on my self-acceptance rather than other people’s reactions.  I eventually drew this graph to explain it to myself.

The only way I could manage my nervous system, back then, was through booze. It didn’t work very well, because I would over-drink and behave inappropriately; the hangover the next day made me more anxious; the booze stopped me ever learning better coping methods; and I could easily have become addicted. I still use booze to calm down during socially stressful situations, but slowly, Buddhist practices, in particular the teachings of Pema Chodron, are helping me learn to tolerate uncertainty, physical anxiety, and social ambiguity (her teachings really fit well with Somatic Experiencing, by the way – she mentions it in her latest course, I’ll put the full quote in the comments).

Back in my 20s, CBT / Stoicism was certainly helpful for me. It slowly trained my automatic self-talk, so that instead of saying ‘this is a threat, this is a disaster!’ it said ‘this is a threat, oh well, big deal’. I learned to shrug. But that was a long, slow process. Luckily, the CBT course I followed – Overcoming Social Anxiety Step By Step – incorporated body-focused exercises like relaxation and slow-reading. Traditional CBT does not pay sufficient attention to the body and the ANS.

We can join up the two approaches – the Socratic and the somatic. After all, Epictetus said ‘it’s not events, but our opinion about events, that cause us suffering’; while Peter Levine has said ‘trauma is in the nervous system, not in the event’. The cognitive and the somatic are connected – both involve judgements, they merely process those judgements in older and younger systems. A good therapeutic approach will work with both systems.

Here are five ways to manage your nervous system:

  • Deep breathing

Last week, I went to play tennis, and noticed my mind and body were all over the place. I switched into 5/7 breathing – breathing in for five seconds, breathing out for seven seconds – and did that between every point and between every game. It totally turned my game around. Before, I’d been very agitated, swearing at myself every time I hit the ball wrong. Now, I shifted into a Zen-like calm, and gradually my body relaxed and I hit the ball like I wanted to. I go into 5/7 breathing whenever I notice I am slightly stressed, in a meeting say, or on the Tube. It activates the vagal nerve at the back of the neck, and switches our body into the parasympathetic nervous system. I suppose one could over-use this technique – sometimes one is too relaxed on the tennis court, and one needs to shout at oneself a little to get one going. Homeostasis doesn’t mean being totally relaxed all the time.

  • Connection

Last year, I wrote about learning to scuba dive in the Andaman Islands, and how, on my first deep dive, I got into trouble and started to hyperventilate. For a second, I thought I was going to die. My instructor reacted perfectly. She saw I was panicking, and gave me a hug. This calmed me down sufficiently that I started breathing more slowly, and could continue the dive. Hugging tells our body we’re safe and OK. Physical connection is an important mammalian healing response after trauma – look at how chimps groom each other following a clash. Some universities have tried to de-stress students by introducing petting zoos, which is a nice idea but might be stressful for the animals. As soon as my life is a bit more settled, I plan to get a dog – dogs are incredibly healing, especially for the English, because it helps us communicate affection at a non-verbal level, something the English struggle with.

  • Come to your senses

Tuning into our senses can help us switch out of physical stress. The therapist David Field calls it ‘orientating yourself to beauty’. Rather than heeding your internal rumination narrative, you focus outside, on the beauty of the sensory world. On my second deep dive in the Andaman Islands, I was worried I would panic again. Instead, I focused outside of me, and was totally absorbed in the beauty of the underwater world. That was tuning in to vision, but one can equally tune in to touch, taste, sound or smell. Last year I interviewed Anthony Fidler about how he has learned to navigate occasional psychotic episodes using spiritual practices like mindfulness, Tai Chi, connection practices and flower remedies. It’s interesting how embodied his practice is – he suggests that part of being prone to psychosis is having a very sensitive nervous system. The technique that sounded a bit idiosyncratic to me was the flower remedies. But I guess he’s tuning into smell and using that to navigate highly stressful moments. It reminds me of a moment, on an ayahuasca retreat last October, when I felt very scared. I asked for assistance from the facilitators, and a lovely guy called Joel came and sat next to me. He said ‘you’re going to find that perfume bottle very helpful’. We’d all been given a bottle of magic perfume, called Agua Florida, which Latin American shamans are very fond of. We were advised that we could use it in ceremonies if we felt anxious – just dab a bit of it on our face or arms. This sounded like crazy advice to me – how was cheap eau de cologne going to help me? But now I think, maybe it did. It helped me come to my senses, rather than going into a fight-and-flight or a freeze response.

  • Sing and dance

David Field suggests that trauma – the freeze response – shuts down the part of the brain that’s capable of nuanced thinking, so we become very black-and-white in our thinking, shaping the world into simplistic narratives of goodies and baddies. Someone in the audience said ‘that sounds like Israel and Palestine – they’re traumatized, and stuck in black-and-white thinking’. That’s what my brother is researching at the moment – how political polarization is connected to trauma. But how can a community collectively respond to trauma and process it? One method humans have evolved is singing and dancing together. It feels good, it synchronizes our breathing and heart-beat, it releases pent-up emotions, it articulates our inchoate suffering, and it directly affects our vagus nerve and activates the parasympathetic nervous system. I remember watching the Manchester One Love concert, a few weeks after the bombing, and feeling incredibly moved. I thought how powerful music is as a means of collective response to trauma. Dancing alone or together is also a powerful means of healing. Aristotle suggested in his Politics that the good society should have ecstatic rituals to help citizens find catharsis and shake off the nervous discontents of civilization. Any form of shaking – from jumping up and down to running or even bouncing on a trampoline – can help us shake off nervous tension. Think how central shaking is to ecstatic rituals, from the Quakers to Shakers to Holy-Rollers to the head-banging worshippers of Cybele.

So: deep breathing, connecting, coming to your senses, and singing and dancing. Those are some basic ways one can affect one’s vagal nerve, increase your ‘vagal tone’ (which is your ability to go into threat-response and then calm down quickly), and activate your parasympathetic nervous system to rest, heal and bond. All of which makes me think how important rituals are – they absorb our consciousness, slow our minds and bodies down, engage our senses, and give us the opportunity to sing and dance together. That’s how humans have healed ourselves for hundreds of thousands of years. Socrates and his rational talking therapy is a relatively new approach. The old ways still work too.

By the by, what I’ve described here is a fairly personal take on somatic therapy – I’ve missed out many of the key concepts and methods of Somatic Experiencing, so if you want to learn more I recommend you seek out the writings of Peter Levine or a book called The Body Keeps the Score, which people often recommend to me but I haven’t read yet.