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Managing Stress in an Apocalyptic World

In the shadow of nuclear threats, racial conflict and climate disaster, how can we better function on a daily basis?

During the last few weeks alone, we’ve seen neo-Nazis take to the streets (Charlottesville); apocalyptic hurricanes line the Atlantic like a procession of 747s on final descent (Harvey, Irma, Jose, Katia and Maria); and Cold War-style nuclear brinksmanship (“[North Korea] will be met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before,” President Trump has promised).

It’s no wonder that stress levels in America are higher than ever.

So it seemed like a good time to check back in with our friend Dr. Kathleen Hall, founder and CEO of the Mindful Living Network and the person world leaders turn to when they’re losing their chill. Because if anyone could help us figure out a way to de-stress in the face of this constant existential tumult, it’s her. And as she explains in more detail below, no matter the stressor, the answer is basically putting the Serenity Prayer on a loop: “God grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Stressor #1: Nuclear War

“You can’t do anything about North Korea, so I suggest surrendering to the universe on this one,” Hall says. “You can reach out to your congressperson, but even they’re limited in what they can do. You do, however, have control over your response and survival plan. Maybe have a call list and an email ready to send to people you love. I’ve already made my list of brothers and sisters — two whom I haven’t gotten along with — and what I’ll say to them: ‘No matter what I’ll always love you. Always have, always will. Separation is an illusion.’

“Similarly, have you looked up what you’re supposed to do and where you’re supposed to go in the event of a nuclear attack? Where are your kids? Do you have a plan for them? Your spouse? Your pets? It sounds terrible, but if you have 20 minutes, every moment is precious.

“Planning ahead can bring some peace of mind. I grew up in Florida during the Cuban Missile Crisis. We did drills under our desks at school and learned what to do at home — pile into the closet and put a mattress up against it. What we didn’t do was live under chronic anxiety. We ate dinner together and jumped rope. My parents turned on Walter Cronkite for 30 minutes and that was it.”

Stressor #2: Climate Change

“This is something you’re in control of — and it’s your responsibility to do something about it,” says Hall. “Admit that every time you fill up your car, use too much water or don’t install solar panels on your home that you’re partly responsible for climate change. You don’t have to blame yourself, but vow to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem — through education, not fear. If you have children, find somewhere to volunteer once a week to pick up trash in a park. Donate to Greenpeace together. Whatever you do, try to make a difference.”

Stressor #3: Terrorism

“Again, control what you can control here, which is your response,” Hall explains. “For example, this morning a guy came on the train with a backpack and was acting very strangely, yelling at another guy. I thought, Wow, that guy could have a bomb on his back. So I moved away and continued about my business. I’d probably do the same if I realized I was in a group of people standing in the street and vulnerable to a truck attack. But if there were any kids around, I’ve decided that I’d always jump on them to shield them from whatever happens because I’ve lived an amazing life. These are decisions you pre-make; by doing so, you feel in control.”

Stressor #4: Deportation of Family and Friends

“I have [undocumented] students in my school who were making straight As and are now making Fs,” says Hall. “Many aren’t showing up for school because they figure, ‘If they’re going to send me back anyway, why would I try?’ Their whole identity is gone. I tell them the same thing about identifying what they can and can’t control. They cannot control what happens in the White House. They have no control of whether their parents get sent back to Guatemala. They do, however, have control over their self-esteem.

“To keep it high, they need to be around people who love and respect them. You and I can be those people. Reach out to one of these kids and say, ‘I’m on your team, and I want you to know that I’m doing everything I can to help you.’ It’s very powerful for an undocumented child to hear that from a white American adult. We have to be their advocates. Write your congresspeople. Call your local school board or Latin community association — anything to help them realize that they’re not objectified and not alone.”

Stressor #5: The Politicization of Everything

“You may think Tom Brady is acting like a jerk for having a Trump hat, but who are you to decide someone else’s behavior?” Hall advises. “When you see him on TV, train your brain to smile and move on with no attachment or judgment.”

Stressor #6: All the Shit in Your World — i.e., Your Job, Your Money, Your Relationships, Your Health, Etc.

“I suggest a number of things,” Hall says. “First, do something every day for at least two to five minutes that brings you peace. Second, exercise — preferably outside. Walk around the block or do yoga stretches in your car — anything playful that will release endorphins and serotonin. Third, call somebody you love. Or connect with someone around you — or even on Facebook. Finally, eat something. Ideally, something that will calm you down such as fish and other food rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

“Most of all, when it feels like you have nowhere to vent, think of something really stressful and feel the anxiety. Then smile, take a deep breath and say, I surrender. I have no control over this so I surrender, and I’m moving on to some joy in my life. Life is too short and precious to be living in the hell of worry all the time.”