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David Noer: Don’t let the perfect storm drive you crazy

David Noer: Don’t let the perfect storm drive you crazy

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“It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it,” Dolly Parton sings in the 1990 movie “Nine to Five.”

The pandemic, economic meltdown, a fractured political system and racial unrest have combined to create a perfect storm. It has eroded our routines, comfort zones and belief systems. We are adrift in a tumultuous sea filled with personal, financial and psychological rocks and shoals. In order to emerge as healthy and productive survivors, we can’t let it drive us crazy, and that requires willpower and perspective.

Seemingly minor things that, in combination, aren’t so minor, collude to help drive us crazy if we let them. Greensboro’s Fun Fourth became a None Fourth. The Greensboro Grasshoppers will not hop this year. A&T grads will not come home and the Greatest Homecoming on Earth is now a non-coming. The Wyndham Golf Tournament will have no fans. High school, college, and professional sports face cancelled or emaciated seasons. Restaurants and bars were shut down, kind of reopened, and kind of re-shut down again.

There are more profound paths to craziness. The opening of our schools faces an ambiguous prognosis and parents, teachers and students are nervous and anxious. Small businesses are going belly-up and larger employers are cutting payrolls and laying off employees. At a time when they most need it, terminated employees are losing their health insurance and North Carolina’s draconian legislature refuses to expand Medicaid.

It takes strength and courage to not give up, play the “Ain’t it Awful” game and allow the perfect storm’s rip tide carry us away to unproductive, isolated craziness. For the sake of our society and our own mental health we can’t let that happen. Unfortunately, we have no coherent national leadership to ease the way. Churchill provided empathy, optimism and enthusiasm to help England weather devastating German bombing. Aacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s prime minister, delivers clear, empathetic and straight communication. In contrast, our president has chosen to politicize and diminish the magnitude of the virus, deflect the validity of racial injustice, and frame any action only in the selfish interest of his reelection.

Like it or not, we are all survivors and need to muster up the courage to take individual and community action to stay afloat in the current storm. When it recedes — and that will take longer than we wish — it will have washed away many of our mental models and existential assumptions. A return to normal is an unrealistic oxymoron. Life will be different, and we will need to emerge psychologically and creatively healthy to deal with it.

Psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton studied survivors of events such as the Hiroshima atomic bombing and Korean POW incarceration. Our perfect storm may not initially seem as severe, but his observations on survivor adjustment are directly relevant. He concluded that survivors of traumatic events either “open-out” or “close-in.” If they open-out, they connect with others, formulate positive, self-affirming future visions, form supportive relationships, and develop the psychic capacity to cope with new and, often, unsettling events. If they close-in, they become isolated, self-absorbed, depressed and trapped in futile attempts to oversimplify complexity.

Mental health professionals advise that ways to survive the perfect storm and not let it drive us crazy include connecting with others, exercising, engaging in pleasurable activities and limiting self-induced depressants such as alcohol and negative social media. Accessing others through safe personal interaction or technically through applications like Zoom is a primary opening-out activity.

A psychologist colleague once advised me to overcome a problem by interacting with “nutritious others.” That’s an outstanding description of the kind of people we need to access. Nutritious people are positive and affirming and stimulate opening-out. They can be friends, members of a faith group or professional colleagues. We need to avoid the opposite: toxic others who drag us down and cause us to mutually wallow in our joint discontent.

A powerful way to ensure our own healthy survival is to become a nutritious other to someone else. It’s a double-win. We feel better and they get helped.

Community columnist David Noer (david@davidnoer.com) is an author and organizational consultant who lives in Greensboro.

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