Sunday, January 1, 2012

Fight or Flight

I saw the new year start from a bed in an emergency room.  A sudden loss of blood pressure had left me light-headed and nervous to the point of barely being able to walk.
Though I had experienced the blood pressure loss before, lasting only a few seconds per episode at a frequency of, at most, once a year over the past 15 years, and several times during the last six months, this was the first time it was accompanied by the other symptoms, and it lasted much longer.

An electrocardiogram, blood analysis, chest x-rays, and a CT scan of my brain all came back normal. The ER doctor informed me that I likely had vasovagal syncope, a not-uncommon condition where the body has a fight-or-flight response to some stimulus; because there is no real threat, a nerve controlling blood pressure reduces the blood pressure, sometimes overcompensating and drawing too much blood from the brain. Luckily I hadn't fainted, which happens to many people with the condition. It's not life-threatening, just very annoying. The best way to treat it is to find the triggering stimulus and become desensitized to it. To cope, I'll need to drink lots of water, and try to elevate my feet if I feel an episode coming on.

The first time I heard about the fight-or-flight response was when I was researching a paper in college on the relationship between behavior and how people experience the space around them. Experiments with animal populations had shown that as competition for critical resources increases, animals become more stressed, sometimes to the point where they experience the fight-or-flight response. Because the problem is lack of resources, they can't flee, and fighting can lead to increased mortality, but the main killer – which leads to population crashes – is the physiological effects of stress that can't be alleviated by taking action, such as lowered immunity to disease.

It may be an odd coincidence that the trigger in my case may be related to a rising level of anxiety I've felt about the future of the world, which over the next two decades will likely include effects related to an impending crash of the entire human population, accompanying the already frighteningly high amount of crashes of other species that we have precipitated. Because I'm aware of this future, I'm probably reacting to it early.

Flight is, I believe, out of the question. Global environmental and social collapse will be inescapable by even the most hardened survivalists. Spaceflight, another method of escape, is similarly implausible in the time we have left, but would likely fall prey to the same underlying problems, even if it were initially successful for the small number of people lucky enough to participate. On a personal level, I could try to ignore the news and analysis, and try to live a more "normal" life; but that will just ensure that I'll be both a victim and a perpetrator, along with everyone who does the same thing.

My particular brand of fight response has involved writing and thinking about ways to avoid the crash, and, like others aware of the problem, trying to anticipate what a healthy world might look like and attempt to get a running start on creating it. That fight is going slower than I'd hoped, especially given the demands of my personal economic reality; and the success of others is mediocre at best, suggesting that no matter what I do, the outcome is practically inevitable. Because I am fundamentally opposed to the idea of giving up, a search for other approaches is a necessary part of the fight.

When I read about greedy, anti-science (read: anti-reality), authoritarian bigots gaining traction in the political process, I want to scream as loud as possible that they are dangerous for not just the U.S., but the world. I want to shake the people who share my values and have a lot more power, point to the threats I see, and make them admit that the time for incrementalism has got to be over. For once, and for all, I want all of us to have a frank, adult conversation about values, and determine who is in favor of the survival of life on Earth and who doesn't give a damn about anyone who isn't just like them, and then find a way to isolate the latter so there will be a future that doesn't involve death on a scale we've never seen. I want truth and justice, and an American way that doesn't involve rape, pillage, and murder of anybody or anything that gets in the way of our having more and more of less and less. I want realistic hope for a life worth living, instead of just holding on until it all turns to crap. That's what I've got to be successful at fighting for, so I can relieve the stress that is an annoyance now, but may kill me – and everyone else – later.