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Happy New Year 2012: Lessons from the dementia ward

Keeping calm is an art form we all need to practice.

The other day I was trapped on the ninth floor of a retirement complex during a fire. No-one was allowed to move, and many of the old folks couldn’t anyway. I could hear the fire alarm, smell the smoke and see the fire trucks.

While I waited in a reception area on that floor, two staff member came up to me. “Would you like some tea and doughnuts?” one asked.

These two staffers were looking after a collection of older people with various levels of dementia. Many were in wheelchairs. There was a fire somewhere below.

Yet these two guys were the soul of calm. They couldn’t do their jobs otherwise. Life on the ninth floor can get pretty crazy. Stressful, most of us would say.

We sat and talked for a while. Every now and then they got up and patrolled the halls. One wore a headlamp in case the power went out. After more than an hour the alarm was turned off. The fire was out. I was allowed to walk down the stairs and out the front door.

I had learned a big lesson.

In our society today we are constantly over-reacting to threats, some real and some imaginary.

For example, in the morning I drive along the lake listening to music on the car radio. I am in a groove, planning the day in that spacey way that driving allows. Then on comes the “news.” Within seconds my focus is shifted to death, destruction and economic “crisis.” No more feeling good. No more planning the day. I turn off the radio. Gradually, my mood returns.

What’s with these news people—these “nattering nabobs of negativity,” as a friend of mine used to say?

The answer is simple: They are exploiting the “negativity bias.” Our brains are wired by evolution to pay attention to the bad stuff of life over the good stuff by a ratio of three to one.

This helped us to avoid sabre toothed tigers back in the day, but nowadays these negative signals mostly just raise our blood pressure and cortisol levels, decrease our ability to think straight and send us to an early grave. In the least, they steal the joy of life.

The daily media are taking the easy way out by pushing these buttons in our limbic brains. But it doesn’t help us to move ahead in our lives.

Every day scientists find cures for disease, philanthropists give huge sums to great causes, volunteers change the world and wonderful new products and services are invented and sent to market. The headline writers don’t care. They are taking the easy way out.

But there is more to it.

Lately I have been learning about hypnotism and having some sessions with Donald Brown, MD of Halifax, NS. He has been practicing medical hypnotism for over 40 years and is an international expert in his field.

Hypnotism (autosuggestion while in a trance state) has been used for centuries to reduce the need for anesthetics in operations, ease childbirth and other forms of physical pain, help people recover from psychological traumas like car accidents and child abuse, and overcome addictions.

I learned that we go in and out of trance states all day. The classic example is driving, where you can travel many miles on autopilot, your attention turned inward, while your powerful unconscious mind navigates and avoids traffic.

Turns out there are many types of trance states. One is the flow state, where you love what you are doing and lose all track of time. Another is a group trance. This has a simple definition: It’s where everyone believes the same thing.

So here’s the rub.

My theory is that government and the daily media broadcast the same negative signals every day, especially since 9/11. The world is a dangerous place, these messages imply, and individuals are at the mercy of dark forces beyond their control.

This has been amplified by the “financial crisis.” If you look around our increasingly connected globe there is always a financial crisis somewhere we can all obsess about.

The message by the Bush government after 9/11 was that a gang of well-organized and well-funded terrorists threatened the very existence of the United States and its allies. By extension, the world is a dangerous place and we need to spend fortunes, start wars, and tolerate a loss of individual freedoms to improve our collective security.

Of course, this is what the “terrorists” hoped would happened. They succeeded beyond the wildest dreams.

In reality, although they were and remain a threat, they weren’t that brilliant, that well organized or that well funded. The pilots of 9/11 were so inept they could barely fly and it took a certain amount of luck for them to accomplish their suicide missions en route to meet imaginary virgins in a dreamworld paradise.

Bin Laden and his cronies were—and are—bad dudes to be sure, but they don’t represent that kind of “existential threat.” Saddam was an evildoer who attacked Libya and terrorized his own people, but he did not have “weapons of mass destruction” and there was no evidence of them.

As Newsweek magazine calculated, the total cost to the US of this overreaction has been almost three trillion dollars.

It’s a big world. There’s always lots to be worried about. But as psychologists, hypnotists, neuroscientists, filmmakers, politicians and news editors know, most of our brain can’t tell the difference between real and imaginary worlds. We react the same way to a horror movie or a newscast as we do to a real emergency right in front of our eyes.

But fear wears out our bodies and reduces our creativity and problem-solving ability. By making us dysfunctional, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Somehow the people who move the world ahead focus on their own goals, interests and values whether the sun is shining or not.

As I learned recently, if everyone believes the same thing, especially in light of pretty flimsy evidence, they are in a trance.

I told Dr. Brown about my theory of the over-reaction to 9/11 and the financial crisis. This climate of fear is being propagated by politicians, media types and other interest groups for their own purposes, I suggested. There is a group trance.

He agreed with my theory. “Someone has to stop this,” he said.

So that’s my resolution for 2012. Let’s get out of this trance and reprogram ourselves to make a better world—and enjoy our lives.

In 1942, in the middle of a world war, folksinger Woody Guthrie wrote a bunch of resolutions in his notebook. They included: Keep hoping machine running. Stay glad. Help win war—beat fascism. Love everybody.

Great thoughts. Thanks, Woody.

Happy New Year and all the best for 2012!

What’s your take on this? Email me at: editor@optimyz.ca

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Uploaded by David Holt