All the flags are flying at half-staff this week, and we are all in mourning. Not just for those massacred in Sutherland Springs but for our own loss. When a gunman invades a church and cold-bloodedly sprays everyone with bullets, we all feel robbed of our safety. There but for the grace of God go I. There is no safe or sacred place, no sanctuary left in America.
2017 has truly been annus horribilus for us all, to invoke the Latin phrase Queen Elizabeth II used in reference to her family’s scandals and heartbreaks in 1992. Charlottesville, Las Vegas, New York, Sutherland Springs, Harvey, Irma, Maria, unprecedented wildfires in the West.
Texans especially grieve after so much loss in our state. Our beloved coastal playgrounds have been wiped away, our largest city underwater, 1.2 million homes damaged, lives forever changed. And now, Sutherland Springs. How could this tiny town most of us had never heard of be the site of the worst mass killing in Texas and in any American church, the fourth worst mass killing in our nation’s history? The loss is unfathomable. We can’t really wrap our arms around it. We can’t understand how this could happen. How do we cope?
When I decided two weeks ago to write a series about the four dimensions of grief—spiritual, physical, psychological and social—I never guessed the raw emotions of grief and loss that I—and the nation—are experiencing this week. I intended to entitle my blog, “I Think I’m Losing My Mind”—the way most of us feel in those early days of deep grief. But that doesn’t fit any more. I think the country is losing its collective mind. The world has gone crazy. We are all bereaved. So much that we valued seems lost.
Even before New York and Sutherland Springs, Wall Street Journal columnist Elizabeth Bernstein wrote Seven Ways to Reduce Stress in Anxious Times. Her article begins:
“Wine. Chocolate, Binge-watching ‘The Crown.’
“How are your coping strategies working for you these days?
“Therapists have, for months, been reporting a significant increase in clients who are stressed and saddened by current events—hurricanes, fires, the threat of nuclear war. In some cases, they say, these large-scale worries are undermining people’s ability to cope with their own private stressors.”
She describes me.
I was all too aware of overwhelming stress when I heard the news on a Wednesday that Hurricane Harvey was aimed at Corpus Christi. Lev and I rode out Celia with a 3-year-old and a baby. We boarded up frequently and evacuated often; but this was the first time I had to do it on my own since his death.
My brain was not functioning properly. It took four hours for me to remember what I should have known instinctively: Fill the car with gas, buy bottled water, get cash from the bank, check flashlight batteries. My son called and told me to come to Dallas, but that’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to wait until Thursday morning, when storm forecasters would have a better idea of where the storm would make landfall. I preferred driving to his lake house in Marble Falls, though that wasn’t even an option—it was under construction.
My daughter called to check on me while I was staring at the American Airline website that evening. One first-class, fully refundable ticket left for one flight to Dallas the next day. Cost: $1,300. She was emphatic.
“Buy the ticket! You can cancel tomorrow if the forecast changes in the morning. You have no business driving to San Antonio (or anywhere else) when everyone else is also trying to evacuate.”
Feeling so much stress, aware that I wasn’t capable of making rational decisions, I simply did what my children told me to do. Thursday night, in Dallas, I met my son, grandson and granddaughter-in-law for dinner. Sarah is a neuroscientist, and I described to her both my unprecedented stress and my acute awareness of cognitive dysfunction. She confirmed what I had heard before.
Clear, analytical thinking is nearly impossible in times of great stress. The amygdala, the part of the brain that activates the fight-or-flight response when a person is under great stress, and the prefrontal cortex, where reason and analytical thinking occur, are like a toggle switch. When one switches on, the other switches off.
“The experience of short-term stress can be adaptive, mobilizing you into action. Stress can be harmful, however, even toxic if it is intense and persists—for example, in people who become enraged at every frustration, from traffic jams to checkout lines, or who feel overwhelmed under extreme and enduring conditions of danger, turbulence, or poverty….
“The longer stress persists, the more those cognitive abilities are hurt and the more permanent the damage, ultimately leading to mental as well as physical illness. Thus, the part of the brain that enables creative problem solving becomes less available the more we need it….
“The architecture of the brain is literally remodeled under chronic stress. Hamlet didn’t stand a chance. When his stress persisted, his cool system, specifically the prefrontal cortex, crucial for problem solving, and the hippocampus, important for memory, began to atrophy. Concurrently, his amygdala, at the core of the hot system, increased excessively in size. This combination of brain changes made self-control and cool thinking impossible. Further, as his stress continued long term, his amygdala went from hypertrophy to atrophy, ultimately preventing normal emotional reactions. No wonder Hamlet was a tragedy.”
This explains not only my reaction when I felt the threat of Harvey, but also as a new widow after Lev’s death. It’s probably why widows are advised not to make any important decisions that first year. There’s nothing magical about a year; but gaining mastery over our emotions after loss takes a long, long time.
This may also give us a small window into the minds of psychopaths who kill so easily. Is it a lifetime of stress or abuse or deprivation or alienation that leads to permanent changes in their brains, where they are incapable of normal emotional reactions? If so, it raises another frightening question. Are they neurologically capable of changing? Judging from the books by social psychologists I have been reading in recent years, the answer is a qualified “yes.”
As Sarah explained to me, the brain can be rewired, but it takes hard work and almost always requires professional help. Our choices are not as free as we think. We are conditioned to respond in a particular way, and to change our response requires great intentionality. I question whether our nation’s mental health institutions have the capacity to provide that kind of therapy to those who are at most risk to society.
How do you cope in times of stress, anxiety, depression?
Many readers have found Max Lucado’s essay, This Brutal World, helpful as they struggle to make sense out of Sutherland Springs. I recommend it.
The Four Dimensions of Grief:
Many of my blogs focus on the emotional, psychological part of grief. I described bereavement—the sense of being robbed—here.
Resources for Widows includes a list of books—many of them by social psychologists—that I found helpful as I made my journey from grief to joy.
Ella’s memoir, RECLAIMING JOY, is scheduled for publication in 2018 by the Baylor University Press.
 Mischel, Walter. The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2014. Chapter 3.