Unpacking the Polycrisis

How we navigate our increasing collective anxiety will make all the difference for our future.

Crisis. The word itself evokes an immediate reaction, as defined by its root meaning, “the point at which change must come, for better or worse.” Reports of increasing collective anxiety in the face of our climate crisis tell us that young people are especially overwhelmed, and disillusioned by the enormous burden they feel their generation needs to carry. Furthermore, a constant and increasing state of multiple crises, or polycrisis, has led to widespread depression and hopelessness.

With wars and other extreme events occurring, coupled with divisive narratives exploited through misuse of social media, our psyches are paying the price. And for those of us who live in extreme adversity – as refugees, displaced peoples, or in war conflicts – the impact is felt directly, becoming a matter of life and death. For those who are living directly in war conditions or are experiencing acute PTSD, professional and community support are both essential for healing.

As we live in our respective circumstances and act through the agency we each have, there are possible approaches to support how we navigate our global state of polycrisis. As with every complex issue, there isn’t one simple answer to this complexity, but I’d like to offer some insights and propose steps that invite us to walk together. Notably, I’d like to invite a deeper shift in the conditioned and habitual ways we view our world.

Seeing Beyond the Individual

As an individual, we may have learned that fear is something to get rid of and solve so that we can move to the next action step in life. In our hyper-individualized societies, we superimpose intellect on top of our emotions, versus sensing and feeling. We know that indigenous and pre-colonial societies favored collective wisdom and intelligence. Our postmodern cultures have swung to the other extreme, valuing the individual above all else.

The reason why we often experience recurrent fear or an underlying, chronic anxiety is because we suppressed these emotions by trying to “rid ourselves of them” in the past. We may have done this in our childhood because we couldn’t integrate our overwhelming fears, or our ancestors did this because their trauma was too much for them. Or, our cultures did the same because they experienced atrocities too grave to integrate and process.

The fears that are surfacing in so many people recurrently are often signposts pointing to our unintegrated past, a past that is screaming for our attention. However, what we often do is look away and try to avoid seeing what hasn’t been integrated, leading to a stagnant vicious cycle.

Ancestral and Collective Dimensions

Whenever we see fragmentation in our society, we tend to reject it. This then creates a rebound effect, fueling the impulse for it to return in a stronger form. We need to see the pieces, allow some things to fall apart, reflect on this process, and be with what is happening, even if it’s uncomfortable. The stronger the walls to that which we resist, the stronger the “other” side gets. We must include the fragmenting force, and then integrate it, which will move us forward into the next step of our development.

To do this, I believe we must change our approaches to include a much wider lens, one that sees the ancestral and collective dimensions of ourselves, along with that of the individual. This begins with vulnerability. When therapists and practitioners work with groups, these aspects need to be included and treated if we want to integrate the inner experiences that are arising in billions of people as they face our world’s polycrisis. It can’t be solved by what we perceive as the separate self.

Even with sophisticated therapeutic techniques, the individual “container” is limited. We need to include the larger context, what I call the “ecosystemic,” which refers to the individual, ancestral, and collective contexts into which we’ve been born and currently live.

Only by opening this lens to see that our nervous systems are not just individual but deeply relational, ancestral, and collective, can we gently begin to open the release valve on the pressure cooker that so many people have constructed deep within themselves.

The World Within Us

As the world continues along a path of dramatic change, we can begin to see that what arises in ourselves is not a problem but part of a larger change process. We can’t get rid of our climate fears; we need to learn how to relate to them – and digest and integrate them.

We may also find that some events trigger intense emotional responses – or numbness and avoidance. These are also parts of ourselves we must learn to relate to, step by step. We must detox those fears, grief, and other emotions as we delicately move through this change process. If we suppress them because they seem to be a hindrance, this can then lead to a state of stagnation which brings about further suffering.

When we try to suppress emotions with inner numbing, absencing, or painkillers, we end up dissociated from ourselves. Or, this manifests in the collective as inner and outer addictions – to our devices, the Internet, alcohol, and other substances. We then perceive life as meaningless. Only in digesting and integrating the pain of the past in skillful ways can we grow beyond our current selves and contribute to expanding the world we are living in.

Emotions of our Ecosystem

We don’t often think of our ecosystem as a sensing body that can engage in a healing process, but in my work with collective trauma, we focus on embodiment and the mechanisms that include our environment and the greater ecosystem in which we embody, reframing our place as not simply “part of”. We may feel emotions within ourselves as individuals, or coming through us from our collective and ancestral realms.

The ecosystem tries to heal itself through us, as us. The self-healing mechanism of life tries to heal life, and we experience that as an inner detox process. We can choose to collaborate with that self-healing mechanism, but often we don’t want to feel the discomfort of our unintegrated past.

This is an important step to notice in this healing process; at this stage, the self-perception of a “separate individual” (also often referred to as ego) is threatened by the process. On top of this, this sense of separation means we are often trying to undergo this process alone.

Together as an Interdependent Body

We don’t have to do it alone; we must do it together.

Transcending the predominant notion of a separate self is what I would call a we-skill”. I believe this is an initiation into the next level of humanity’s evolution. No one is alone but each of us might often feel very alone. When we understand that the emotions and inner experiences arising during our current polycrisis are pointing to the path we need to follow, we no longer need to numb ourselves. When we embrace this shift, we actualize an alive detox process of many layers of unresolved and unintegrated past. As this detox process unfolds, we must learn the skills to mindfully digest them individually and in communities.

In a collectively traumatized world, our inner container or vessel from which we embody the world is broken. Because of this, we will feel collectively separate from the ecosystem, society, and nature. A deep sense of interconnectedness comes in when we dissolve the sense of separation and feel the data flow of the individual, ancestral, and collective nervous system again.

This flow may speak to us as “I am one with the system I am living in.” Then we embody not just an intellectual understanding that we are all part of the ecosystem, we engage in what I would call eco-systemic sensing. We are all part of data sharing, the Internet is just a technological reflection of that in which we already exist.

Sensing through an eco-systemic perspective doesn’t mean a generalized, broad awareness of our world or merely openness when envisioning a system; it means that our capacity to be attuned, to be in a state of systemic sensing, is always specific. It means I apply a wider lens to fine-tune my perception to include many variables and factors in the system – this could be my body, family, community, and the entire world. When we are not engaging in an ecosystemic perspective on life, something is being excluded. In practicing this level of seeing and sensing, we learn the essentials of attunement.

Love is actualized in specificity

When we attune to a person, we are talking to that person specifically, choosing to attune to precise aspects of their developmental stages, which could be when they were hurt or traumatized, or where their inner gifts and resources lie. Doing this means we apply a specific focus and attunement to that part of the person’s inner experience.

For example, it might be fears from age two that the person is suffering from. When we become specific, we address the developmental age of a person’s inner struggle; there is no generalization about fear. We attune to that specific fear.

In the approach I have introduced to groups, we work on individual, ancestral, and collective levels of development. As we do this, we notice how these levels apply specifically to our exploration. For example, when we work on intergenerational trauma, we first begin with the individual.

Let’s say that their grandmother was traumatized by a war. Those of us witnessing this person, often the facilitator and other group participants can attune to the person’s nervous system to sense the emotions and other information that may be available. As the facilitator and person dialogue about the trauma, the facilitator’s nervous system can become a holding space for this process to unfold. As this process becomes more refined through experiential learning, the precise attunement can potentially unlock information that has been locked for multiple generations.

The same is true for the collective. We can be collectively specific. The collective is not just a big field out there, our attunement makes the collective specific in the many aspects we are working with – for example, racism, sexism, colonialism, and genocides.

This is a very important principle to understand since otherwise, we fall into the trap of generalizing because we haven’t learned the relational competency to sense and precisely attune to others. This is an especially critical competency for therapists, facilitators, healthcare professionals, and coaches.

Simply talking about trauma is ineffective in the healing process. Instead, in the beginning, talking from the stored, unintegrated, and disorganized information opens the door to integration which can be supported by a strong therapeutic or facilitation process.

Thomas Hübl / Lori Shridhare

This is part one of a two-part article. Read the second part here: The Message of the Polycrisis