How Our Disembodied Culture is Keeping us Stressed and What We Can Do About It
Hey friend. How are you doing?
Asked more than a year into the global pandemic, this question is a loaded one. I no longer feel like answering with a customary ‘fine’ or ‘I’m ok — hanging in there’ or even ‘you know…doing the best I can given the circumstances.’ And I’ve noticed among friends and colleagues increasing degrees of outright confession that, in reality, we’re not fine, or ok, or even doing our best. As we continue to unravel, our best attempt at gratitude is to acknowledge that we’re safe, we’re healthy, and there’s no need to complain. But how healthy are we?
A marked decline in what we think of as “mental health” is becoming pervasive, even among those that have and recognize their relative privilege in this whole mess. A report released by the Government of Canada at the one year anniversary of the first lockdown showed:
One in five Canadian adults aged 18 and older screened positive for major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The rates are three times higher among young adults (18–24) than among older adults (65+), with women reporting higher rates of these disorders (24%) than men (17%). An epidemic of psychological decline is upon us. We are languishing, as organizational psychologist Adam Grant pointed out in a popular New York Times article. He says:
Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield.
Given this crisis of wellbeing, are we really imagining that once lockdowns are eased, reopening begins, and we all start to resume some semblance of pre-pandemic life that we can all toss our anxiety meds, delete our meditation apps, and get back to ‘normal’?
Of course I’m being glib here, if only to caution against over-attributing the pandemic itself to our state of declining wellness. As it has with almost every other sociocultural dynamic embedded in our world, the pandemic has amplified already existing systemic conditions, making them more visible to us than ever before. The pre-pandemic world was full of conditions that systemically compromised our wellbeing and a post-pandemic world remains on track to do the same, unless we intervene.
A Re-Integrated Concept of Health
How we commonly conceive of and misunderstand health — especially ‘mental health’ — is at the root of our dilemma. The Western worldview has fundamentally shaped our sense of self as disembodied, propagating the notion that mind and body are separate. We’ve been taught that the rational, thinking mind is the locus of knowledge, superior to its lesser counterpart — the body.
Separation of mind and body is a popular myth still lingering in the architecture of modern society. This 400 year old wholly incorrect view of the human condition, a product of the Enlightenment Era of Rationality, remains an organizing principle within the structure of present day social systems, including our healthcare system. Our very concept of health is disembodied one. That is, how we understand, diagnose and treat human health separates the physical, psychological, and social aspects of us that are always dynamically interacting.
Consider for a moment your own state of “mental health.” How would you describe it? Tired? Unable to focus? Lacking in energy? Heart racing? A knot in your stomach? Notice that what you are actually describing is a set of physical sensations. It’s neither possible to uncouple mental and physical health, nor is it possible to uncouple the health of a living being from the health of its environment. Humans, like all living beings, are dynamic self-in-the-world creatures. For humans, however, this world is not only a physical one, but a cultural one too.
The Health Legacy of a Disembodied Culture
The disembodied culture we are embedded in — the Western, neoliberal, post-industrial, hyper-capitalist world shaped by values of progress, production, and the externalization of human value — is making us sick. The ethos of this world is rooted in the exploitation of human value commodified as a resource. In this world our sense of safety, connection, and self-worth — conditions we are biologically hardwired to seek — have been linked with achievement, progress, and production. We are on an accelerating track of bigger, faster, and more at the expense of our wellbeing and the health of our planet. This condition is not only perpetuated by big, bad, profit-driven corporations. We embrace this do-more-for-less attitude everywhere — in our social sector organizations, cultural institutions, schools, hospitals, homes, and for so many of us, in how we live our private lives. We are deeply shaped by and embedded in this ethos, and recognizing the truth of that is the first step toward creating a culture that values being well. Any further expansion of the old world will not serve our prosperity or wellbeing, but rather come at the expense of it.
So, how do we build our capacity for resilience in a culture that is designed to keep us stressed, during a pandemic where safety and the familiar ways we seek social connection are incompatible? What can we do to counter the overdrive of unfettered capitalistic progress we are all so accustomed to as we move toward re-opening?
Re-Incorporating the Self
Re-membering and re-integrating ourselves as embodied beings is a starting point for change. Slowing down and connecting to the felt sense of ourselves and our natural systems of embodied knowing will help repair the false mind/body divide that Western culture has created. In this act of reincorporation (literally rooted in the Latin word corpus, meaning body) we are reconnecting ourselves to our natural capacity for resilience; that is, our ability to recognize and recover our feeling of aliveness from the the deluge of stressful events and conditions that are currently pervasive in our daily lives.
What does wellness feel like? Have we forgotten?
When we are well, we embody a natural state of open expansiveness where we can simultaneously feel both calm and energized. We feel present to our experience by being in touch with ourselves and also open and receptive to others and to the world around us. In this state we are curious, creative, and able to hold multiple, even contradictory, perspectives. We are collaborative and able to learn and evolve. We can imagine a positive future.
When we are stressed, we are none of these things. Often under pressure we contract and hold tension in our bodies. We quite literally close down physically and psychologically. We become myopic, ego-driven, craving of pleasure, praise, and reward. We retreat into our respective ideological corners where we feel validated and understood. We seek relief from our discomfort through escapism and distraction in the form of social media, food, alcohol, drugs, Netflix, and the like. We chase something elusive that never satisfies. Am I basically describing our general state of existence right now?
To be resilient is to recognize when our stress system is activated, momentarily embrace the discomfort of it, and then return to a state of open aliveness after experiencing moments of stress or adversity.
How do we mount a resistance (personally, organizationally, and systemically) when there are so many forces present in the environment challenging our ability to be resilient?
First, we can learn to self regulate and practice it until it becomes a natural habit. Try this:
Look away from your screen. Open your gaze and see everything at once. Cast your eyes onto a long and imagined horizon. Lift your cheekbones to feel a sense of joy and expansiveness. Breathe deeply.
Our bodies are miraculous. We can experience positive sensory states in real time, simply by using our imagination. However, we need to ritually practice our ability to connect to positive states, slowly developing this resilience muscle so that it is available to us under pressure. The next time you’re folding laundry, brushing your teeth, doing the dishes, or making your morning coffee, try this exercise:
Feel both feet on the ground and lower your gaze or close your eyes. Breathe in for 4 counts and out for 7 counts. Repeat this for several rounds to activate your body’s natural state of rest.
(PS: this one is also helpful if you have trouble falling asleep)
Second, leaders can centre care, safety, connection, and respect for others, thus stewarding new cultures of being within their organizations. These are the seeds of larger systemic change. What do those in your care need in order to thrive? Are you willing to accept that those needs might be incompatible with all of what your organization plans to accomplish? What is most important? Most essential?
At the level of self is where the seeds of systemic change are planted. Countering bigger, faster, and more with smaller, slower, and less might feel more akin to a world of artful living than a world where the mass production of disposable goods and services reigns. These new behaviours become a counter culture — a resistance in action, focused on righting our relationship to our embodied selves, to each other, and to the natural world.
What are some of the ways you are sensing stress and self-regulating as you encounter triggering or uncomfortable events in your day?
What are some of the ways that you are centring care and supporting wellbeing in your organization, community, or family?
In a disembodied world, embedding a culture of care is nothing short of a revolutionary act. It is transformational work rooted in a vision for the future where wellness is the state of being produced by a healthy, integrated self-in-the-world dynamic. In this imagined future, we are embodied, resilient, and connected to our sense of aliveness. From this state of wellbeing, all is possible.