A Survival Guide for a Dark Winter
Tips, ideas and humour
Welcome to the web version of Need to Know: Science & Insight, a newsletter on what we all Need-to-Know about climate impacts, energy transitions, the decline of nature’s support systems, living safely during a pandemic and more. It comes with an often funny personal story and some useful ideas. All in a 5 to 10 minute read in your inbox once or twice a week. It’s free. No ads. No spam.
Thanks for sticking with me the last couple of months. I’m re-focusing NtK on the elephant in the room: How are we going to cope with the fear, uncertainty and dread around the pandemic, politics and so on through winter? I normally love winter but this one frightens me.
So how in hell are we going to make it to spring?
I’ve been digging deep for solutions, tips and ideas and hopefully inspiration to help me, to help us, get through this. If you have some thoughts, please share them.
But first, how thinking about a night in Paris prevented my heart attack.
Can a human head literally explode?
That was my panicked thought as all the blood in my body forced its way into my head. The pressure and pain left me rigid in my window seat on Flight 420 from Toronto as it finally touched down on the runway atCharles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) in Paris. The flight had been seriously delayed leaving Toronto putting my connecting flight to Johannesburg in serious jeopardy. There was only one flight a day from Paris to Johannesburg, so I’d spent a long star-filled night pleading with the jet stream to push us across the Atlantic at Concorde-like speed.
And this was just the first few hours of an exhausting and risky 70-day reporting trip in Africa and Europe.
“Welcome to Paris,” said the lovely french-accented voice. “The local time is 08:45.”
My connecting flight to Johannesburg was 08:55. My stomach clenched into a tight ball trying to squeeze even more blood into my pounding, swollen head as the plane took a leisurely tour of CDG’s runways, taxiways and aprons, with the oh-so-polite Canadian pilots courteously stopping for all manner of airport vehicles buzzing around.
When the plane finally rolled up to the gate I leapt out of my seat in Row 53 ignoring the “fasten seat-belt” sign only to be blocked by an enormous man wrestling an absurdly large bag out of the overhead bin at Row 49. Thinking the bag might come crashing down and knock the man into a row of seats, I readied myself to dash by but no such luck. Worse, the man was disinclined to use his bulk and bag to shove the 290 people in front off the plane like squirting toothpaste out of an aluminum tube.
At age 54 I was still fairly limber. With passengers all jamming the aisle, the empty space above the seats was an inviting opening. However, I had to rule out crawling over the seat backs due to my bulky backpack. I was dimly aware of being of one of those hated, self-important travellers who believe their needs outweighed any one else’s.
I was still stuck at Row 49. The pressure in my head ratcheted up higher with each passing second and my chest was so tight I could hardly breathe. “I don’t need this shit!” I mumbled in disgust and anger.
And then I thought: What is so bad about spending a day and night in Paris?
Immediately my throbbing head eased and my stomach unclenched. While thinking about what I could do in Paris, a city I’d never visited, I hardly noticed the line had moved and was finally off the plane. I strolled into the terminal relaxed and eager to see the city but to my dismay the flight to Johannesburg was waiting for late arrivals like me.
Stress is often self-induced
The 12-hour flight over the length of the African continent allowed me to think about how, in just a few seconds, I went from a full-blown anxiety attack to my normal laid-back self. It was a startlingly clear lesson of how your mind can affect your body, and most importantly, how stress and anxiety are often self-induced.
The phrase "you are stressing me out" is meaningless. Stress is our response to a situation. The Need-to-Know is that we can choose our response. When I let go of my worry of catching my flight and looked at other possibilities, my response was entirely different even though I was in the same situation.
This was an important insight for me at the beginning of a long, complicated solo trip to a dozen countries I’d never been to before. Knowing I was able to choose my response was extremely helpful while I was gently mugged in a dingy storage room in a Lagos airport, or in dealing with machine-gun toting kids, and a what-the-hell-am-I-doing in a dance club at 3 AM in one of the world’s most dangerous countries, plus a bunch of other weird things that happened.
An unfortunate Need-to-Know is that choosing your response isn’t easy. I’m finding it very hard to choose to be relaxed during the pandemic. Stress is our natural response to danger: the fight or flight response. The key point here is that danger is what we think or perceive as dangerous. I perceive danger at the top of a step ladder, my partner Renee does not. Another Need-to-Know insight is that we live in our heads, not the real world. That’s why scary movies can get our hearts racing.
Depression and anxiety are at record levels
We’re all suffering from heightened levels of stress due to the pandemic, the economic downturn, the political situation and the state of the planet. There’s tons of evidence on how chronic stress, over weeks and months, can cause a host of seemingly unrelated symptoms: excruciating headaches, hair loss, upset stomach for weeks on end, jaw pain, sudden outbreaks of shingles, flare-ups of autoimmune disorders and lots more.
This is happening because our bodies keep pumping out stress hormones as long as we feel unsafe. This wears out our bodies, leading to increased inflammation, and a poorly functioning immune system. If we think we’re unsafe and helpless the stress will continue.
We often focus on things we can't control like the US election or the weather. Or in my case whether anyone will read this. This leads to feeling helpless, frustrated and depressed. The ancient Greeks recognized that trying to control the uncontrollable, including trying to control the future, was the main source of our misery and unhappiness.
A few days ago a journalism student in Doha, Qatar asked me if I thought my 25+ years of environmental journalism had made a difference in the world. I said something like this:
“I have no control over what people read, or what they do. All I have control over is writing the clearest and most accurate article I can about a particular subject.”
Right now I’d like to feel less helpless and more in control of my life. The Need-to-Know to do this is to avoid focusing or dwelling on things I can’t control. Instead, I’m trying to keep my focus and energy directed towards things I can control. One thing I try to control is my exposure to depressing pandemic reports, political shenanigans, crime reports and other depressing/scary information. I rarely watch TV news, and limit my online time. (I learned to do journalism without the Internet.) I also try to limit conversations about the pandemic and politics, although lately I’m not doing so well on the latter.
Here’s a bit of wisdom that helps me apply the brakes:
'Your mind is like tofu; it tastes like whatever you marinate it in.’
— Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist and professor at Harvard Medical School, citing his meditation teacher.
Here are a few other things I’m trying to use to make it easier to choose to be relaxed and calm right now:
Go for walks no matter the weather. I do my best work after a walk.
Go for walk and talks with family members or friends. Those were key in maintaining a strong connection to my kids in their teenage years
Learn new stuff. Books, seminars, courses, lectures, hobbies. Anything that helps me stay off-line is what I look for.
Humour. Seek it out where ever you can find it. Try creating humour yourself. (Sadly, my climate change stand-up routine is still pretty lame.)
Connect with friends and classmates. Call up a couple this week and try not to talk politics.
Get extra sleep. I’m horrible at this, but recognize there are big benefits.
Have a routine. All the experts recommend it. I’m even worse at that!
There isn’t any one thing that will make us feel better. That’s another Need-to-Know we have to accept. Coping with stress is like strengthening an aging muscle, only a variety of gentle exercises will keep it strong without tearing it apart. So try to be gentle with yourself and others.
Until next time, stay safe.
P.S. Do send me your ideas on how to cope either by email (email@example.com) or as a comment. I’m going to write more on this and feature what other folks are doing.