February 12, 2017

America is having a Psychotic Episode, & Maybe that’s Okay.

I am a therapist who writes articles about nervous system science, and I have one question:

Is America going crazy?

Actually, I like the phrase going nuts better.

We say we are going nuts when we feel craziness inside ourselves—craziness on the verge of some sort of intense expression. Nuts crack open.

I grew up in a home full of what Kellyanne Conway called alternative facts. Like in Trump’s tweets about the size of the crowd at his inauguration, facts in my home did not add up. It was crazy-making to hear my mother saying, “Your father loves you,” as a way to try to explain my father’s confusing behavior.

As human beings, when we feel scared because things don’t add up, we shoot off adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol creating that chemical cocktail we call fight/flight. If we do not see any way to fight or to flee, we shut down.

Many Americans do not want to shut down, and are taking action. But if the action sets off fight/flight chemistry, it will exhaust the body. If we get stuck bouncing back and forth between exhaustion and bursts of fighting, which creates more exhaustion, our searches for solutions might crack a schism in our brains.

What if America is going nuts?

My personal journey has included a kind of psychotic episode. I also have family members who have had psychotic episodes and I work with clients who have psychosis. It occurred to me yesterday that what is happening in America, after the election of President Donald Trump, looks familiar.

I resonate with the psychiatrists who liken psychotic episodes to Native American vision quests. Vision quests and psychotic episodes create opportunities for gaining new points of view. Our unconscious effort to carve a new neural-pathway forces us to search far out beyond anything we currently understand.

If we imagine our country as one collective body, half pulling to the extreme left that is fighting the other half pulling to the extreme right, it seems we are on the verge of cracking open like a nut in a nutcracker. Hopefully, the cracking will expose the meat.

The meat of a nut is the part that nourishes us. If we quest for vision, we may get to the meat of the issues. We may sift through the coverings, the pieces of shells and find what sustains us.

The newest treatments for psychosis suggest that the most important part of the treatment is family and community therapy. When a person has gone “nuts,” the reactions of others make a huge difference in how quickly new and improved thinking can solidify.

Perhaps the best way to protect our sanity, in these times of alternative facts, is to maintain some empathy for the people who are going nuts. We must do what we can to protect ourselves from becoming collateral damage, but if we can be less shocked by the craziness, perhaps we will feel less of the fear that threatens our own sanity.

The science of nervous system, according to Stephen Porges, tells us a more nuanced understanding of our nervous system biology than we have ever had before.

Polyvagal theory helps us understand what is happening in our bodies when we are able to stay sane versus when we go nuts:

  1. When we feel safe, we operate out of nervous system functioning that allows us to keep our wits about us.
  2. When we sense life-threatening danger, we lose it (our executive functioning). We shoot into fight/flight and then if we cannot find a way to fight or flee, we go into shut-down. If we bounce back and forth between fight/flight and shut-down, we may need to blow our minds.

Is there a way to open our minds without blowing our minds? Yes.

  1. Walking and bike riding are good for connecting right brain creative functioning and left brain logical functioning.
  2. Conscious breathing helps us feel a sense of control over our biology.
  3. The yoga poses called Warriors, help us feel our wisdom to know when fight/flight would be useful.
  4. When we feel grounded, risking conversations with people of opposing views creates the potential for expanded community.


Author: Dee Wagner

Image: Flickr/Amy

Editor: Deb Jarrett








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