Facing the barricades kindly: the mental inflammation epidemic

It sometimes seems like people are queueing up to reject attempts to make the world better.

Brain conflictWhen I’ve been thinking about barriers to change, worldview bubbles and all that, there seems to be one thing at the base of it all.

Our brains have a directive to keep their processing workload down. They use all sorts of tricks to protect themselves.

There’s a marketing principle I came across for the first time recently: “The confused mind says no.”

When too much thinking is required, we reject the whole thing rather than working through it. But how does the level of ‘too much’ get set, and how do different people react?

One way to look at it is inflammation that’s built up over time.

Inflammation-type processes

Do you know what a panic attack is? I experienced it a couple of times several years ago, and responded in typical fashion by getting a book and learning more about it. (Panic Attacks by Christine Ingham – recommended if you’re interested.)

A panic attack happens when something that’s not actually that serious triggers your system into a fight or flight response. Adrenaline is released, heartbeat and breathing increase, senses heighten, etc – the things your body would need to fight bears or run away from them. 

That can feel like something really serious is going wrong – especially when there’s no obvious external cause. In my case, I needed to get a medical person to tell me I wasn’t having a stroke. (I’d got run down – metaphorically! – and then was worrying a lot about an eye problem. All was fine in the end.)

There are two things behind it. Continual nervous system stress builds up, so our coping systems are on a hair trigger and something small can push us over the edge. And we process things as threats when they can’t actually harm us, like criticism. It’s an old system that doesn’t serve us well in the modern world.

Something similar seems to be part of asthma. The respiratory and immune systems are on high alert from continual exposure to stuff they struggle to deal with, and then one more thing becomes a trigger that closes up the passages to the lungs with swelling and tension.

There was a story circulating recently – which may have triggered this post coming together – that some researchers now think physical inflammation is one of the causes of depression.

Mental inflammation in action

Maybe a similar thing is happening here. The background requirements of dealing with the world put people on continual alert: information input, social interaction, changes to technology and to familiar structures in society.

It’s also true that there are some people who are hypersensitive to this by nature. The edges of their worldview bubble are raw and tender. Any change or threat causes them to draw away and react angrily.

I think this is the common factor that draws people into the political party UKIP. They can’t tolerate changes in their environment, or being told what to do. Different coloured faces on the streets, different languages overheard, wind turbines on the skyline: it triggers them into a process of “No, no, no!” (I don’t think the party has a long-term future, because many of its members can’t tolerate a governing structure or, indeed, each other.)

Perhaps the heavily-armed ranchers currently occupying a wildlife centre in Oregon are there because of a similar process. They’ve overloaded and the urge for a way out has bypassed their common sense. They’ve focused all their dissatisfaction on the government telling them what to do (kind of its job…) and proclaimed a separatist commune. I’m sure there are lots of possible explanations. It’s very odd to read about.

It’s probably a large part of the appeal of Donald Trump. His supporters want to be told they can have all the good stuff, and all they have to do is blame the right people and take uncomplicated action like building big walls. It’s the promise of solving large and complex problems without thought and effort.

Being change doctors

It’s a cry for simplicity – and peace, really. But that cry is hard to answer, because we’re living in a time of transition that unavoidably creates challenge and uncertainty. Old ways of doing things have run up against the buffers, the cracks are showing, and the quick fixes people keep coming up with fall apart rapidly.

Actually I think there are simple answers to a lot of our problems – or beginnings of answers anyway – but our psychology prevents us from accepting them. We could settle in to new approaches and directions that would take us where we need to go. We need the leadership to help us do that.

But at the other end of the process, we need to help people have less mental inflammation in their lives so they can breathe in the new stuff and not feel the panic.

What sort of antihistamine could we use to reduce these reactions?

Life coaches and productivity experts are already telling us the answers. It all ties up together.

Easing the ties to social demands and expectations. Taking control of our information load: checking the internet less often, reducing exposure to advertising, maybe watching less TV. Being kinder to ourselves with our schedules, and being clearer about which things are important.

At the same time, we need to get more in touch with what soothes and restores us. Listening to music, looking at art, making music or art, playing with the kids, walking the dog, spending time in nature, meditating, cake with friends, playing games.

Mental inflammation is not wellbeing. Prescribe against it when you can. And see people regain a form of circulation, with a flow that connects their values, ideas and actions.

The relaxed mind says, “Let’s…”


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