Dealing with the World’s Polycrises in 2024

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Another tumultuous year has come to an end, and based on most people’s gut feelings, there have been more things to worry and be upset about than to celebrate in 2023. During this last year, we have discussed many of these topics here in the MGC Newsletter. Rising rates of diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity, colon cancer and inflammatory bowel disease affecting younger age groups, chronic pain conditions, the opioid crisis, the Covid-19 pandemic, poor gut health, poor dietary habits, accelerating climate change, dramatically increased numbers of migrants on our borders, political polarization and a world-wide rightward shift in Western political systems, wars in Ukraine and the Middle East are just some of the negative news that we are bombarded with in the social media on a daily basis generating a constant state of stress and anxiety.

“…there is little indication that the unfolding polycrisis causing chronic persistent stress and driving this unhealthy emotional state, will improve any time soon or suddenly disappear.”

Anxiety levels amongst Americans, in particular younger people have gone through the roof, and there is little indication that the unfolding polycrisis causing chronic persistent stress (referred to as allostatic load), and driving this unhealthy emotional state, will improve any time soon or suddenly disappear. The term polycrisis has been defined by the Cambridge dictionary “as a time of great disagreement, confusion, or suffering that is caused by many different problems happening at the same time so that they together have a very big effect.”

“… there are 3 different types of psychological stress”

However, it is important to differentiate between at least 3 different types of psychological stressors:

  1. The objective acute stress that humans have always been exposed to, and to which our brain responds to in a highly adaptive manner by turning the stress response system on (stimulating norepinephrine and cortisol release throughout the body), and which is terminated quickly as soon as the stressful situation has passed. This system has saved our species from extinction many times in evolutionary history. The problem is that this acute, beneficial stress response becomes useless or even maladaptive when engaged constantly, and continues running in the background without a way to turn it off.
  2. When exposed to such chronic stress, even when it is not a real threat to our own physical health or integrity (like many of the elements of our polycrisis), the brain no longer turns off the release of the stress mediators which affect many of our organs and systems, including the immune system, the metabolic system, the cardiovascular system and our memory making them more vulnerable to chronic diseases.
  3. The third and maybe most important aspect of the stress response system in today’s world has to do with perceived stress and subjective stress reactivity. By evaluating the saliency of a particular event for our own personal health and survival, it is our individual brains that make the decision to trigger the alarm bells of the stress system, not the stressful situation itself.

“If two individuals are exposed to the same type and severity of stress, it is the interindividual difference in this subjective threat assessment that determines how much cortisol and norepinephrine an individual produces.”

If two individuals are exposed to the same type and severity of stress, it is the interindividual difference in this subjective threat assessment that determines how much cortisol and norepinephrine that individual produced, to what degree our immune system is engaged and to which degree pain facilitatory mechanisms are recruited to increase pain sensitivity. We know many of the factors that underlie this increased stress perception/responsiveness, ranging from genetics, adverse early life events, lack of resilience mechanisms, and lack of a social support system. It is primarily the subjective stress sensitivity which is enhanced to a significant degree by the bombardment with negative news, and which has been identified as the cause for negative mental and physical health consequences.

“…we can greatly change the way we perceive and respond to the 24-hour daily negative news cycle”

Fortunately, it is also the subjective nature of the personal stress responsiveness that provides us with a way to deal with the unfolding polycrisis. While it is very limited what a person can do to combat climate change, to prevent mass extinction, or to slow the epidemic of chronic noncontagious diseases, we can greatly change the way we perceive and respond to the 24-hour daily negative news cycle:

  1. Becoming aware of the connection between our health and well-being and the constant flood of worrisome news from around the world displayed on our smart phones.
  2. Implement healthy lifestyles with documented effectiveness, including regular physical exercise, sleep hygiene, a diet which is good for us, our gut microbes and for the planet, and ignore the online chatter of snake oil sellers. Popping supplement pills is no substitute for the adoption of such a lifestyle.
  3. Learn emotional non-responsiveness to such negative events that are out of your control. Engaging our fight and flight stress response system has absolutely no effect on the outcome of these crises and instead makes us ill.
  4. Practice mindfulness and breathing meditation.
  5. Instead of worrying about yourself, practice compassion with victims of climate disasters, forced migration, and the chronic disease epidemic.
  6. Focus your attention on the positive events that are unfolding all the time around us, which may be hard in the beginning but get easier with practice.

Here are a few health related examples of such positive news to get started with: The successful recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the continuous increase in longevity as documented by the number of centenarians in the US, the success in our fight against many cancers, which have turned breast cancer and some forms of melanoma from a death sentence to a chronic disease, the development of new medications to treat obesity and its metabolic complications, which have the potential to combat our chronic disease epidemic, and the recent introduction of a vaccine that for the first time is able to prevent malaria.

And last but not least, there is reason to celebrate the unfolding paradigm shift in the West, from a reductionistic, linear understanding of the world which has gotten us into all the unfolding crises, to one of interconnectedness of all systems, ranging from the invisible microbes in the soil, to human and planetary health. Like a massive aircraft carrier, it may take a while to turn around our obsolete Western world view around, but I am convinced that this paradigm shift will eventually get us out of our current dilemma. This is definitely a goal to invest our energies in!

Let’s celebrate this positive news, embrace the paradigm shift wherever we see it, and take simple actions, instead of ruining our health by seeing the world with the eyes of attention-catching news networks creating anxiety, worry and fear!

Emeran Mayer, MD is a Distinguished Research Professor in the Departments of Medicine, Physiology and Psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, the Executive Director of the G. Oppenheimer Center for Neurobiology of Stress and Resilience and the Founding Director of the Goodman-Luskin Microbiome Center at UCLA.