Wednesday, September 30, 2020


Kwei Quartey--Wednesday

That Jittery Feeling 

I noticed a couple of days ago that on waking up every morning, my first thought has something to do with the state of the nation at present: Covid, racial tensions, political strife, looming elections, and Trump. It's not just a thought. It's a real sense of worry, apprehension, and nervousness. The feeling is all encompassing. For instance, besides during hurricane season, when have I ever worried about the people of Florida? Now, my stomach lurches every time Ron DeSantis makes a new, reckless announcement.

I've also noticed an increase in headaches. I am a tension-headache sufferer, but they appear to have become more frequent. Headaches are among a number of symptoms being experienced by many Americans in 2020 under the umbrella of stress, which can cause headaches, fatigue, insomnia, GI symptoms, or chest pains. 

Stress is a physiological, mental or emotional tension that develops in response to external or internal events or stimuli. The classic reaction is the "fight-or-flight"("FOF") response, first described by Walter Cannon. It's the initial stage of endocrinologist Hans Selye's three-stage stress response: 1. alarm; 2. resistance or adaptation; and 3. exhaustion or death.

Walter Bradley Cannon

In this FOF, the adrenals release cortisol, resulting in a turbo boost of glucose, and adrenaline, which quickens the force and speed of the heart, increases blood flow to vital organs, dilates the pupils, and so on. The conventional wisdom is that this cascade of events served our prehistoric ancestors well as they faced physical danger from multiple sources (for some reason, people always use the example of being chased by a lion.). Once the danger passed, cortisol levels returned to normal levels. 

The stress response is familiar to us all. Whether it's a domineering boss yelling at employees or a close call in traffic with another vehicle, we feel that rise of heat into the face and neck, our hearts pound, and our breathing rate increases.

In modern life, we seem to be cycling through Selye's stages repeatedly. Indeed, many of us hover chronically between two out of the three Selye stages, or maybe among all three, but the bottom line is we are sustaining our cortisol at levels higher than we really need. This is definitely a case of "more is not better," or "too much of a good thing." Cortisol increases obesity, decreases insulin sensitivity, decreases lean muscle mass, and increases protein catabolism. Perhaps this is why people practically kill themselves on the treadmill every day and never lose significant weight.

Stress, 2020 style

So, in 2020, the number one stressor has been arguably Covid-19: fear of the disease, anxiety over the unknown, loss of a job. Will my loved one get it at work? Will I get it? What will happen to the kids? But there's more. What about loneliness, and the profound grief from losing a loved one to Covid? These are intense stressors. Suicides and suicidal gestures are up, and so is anxiety and depression. Perhaps some of the anxiety attacks people are experiencing are also stress responses.

Second, and this is most applicable personally to me, witnessing wanton brutality inflicted on black Americans provokes a classic stress response in me, and much of the time I purposely look away from these horrendous images to protect my emotional health. Whenever there's a protest march, I'm afraid of an outbreak of violence and/or chaos from any source. Nowadays, besides shooting, that includes mowing people down with a vehicle. 

Election Jitters

I can't tell you how high my level of apprehension is at the prospect of electoral dysfunction this coming November and the possibility of gunfights in the streets between pro- and anti-Trump factions. This is not as far-fetched as you might think. Kentucky, for example, is an open-carry state. You can legally walk around with rifle bigger than you. Louisville, Ky, was the site of a recent fatal shooting, and we all remember Kenosha, WA. Whatever is the outcome of the election, it is fraught with the possibility of civil unrest, which could easily involve firearms. The black and white militias NFAC and 3-Percenters are among the most well known and they have already clashed in Louisville. Another white militia group is the Proud Boys, whom Donald Trump stated in the first presidential debate on September 29 should "stand back and stand by," which the group has adopted as part of their new logo and a call to action.

NFAC: Not F*****g Around Coalition
(Image: Alex Kent Photography/Shutterstock)

Proud Boys and Alt Right protesters at a 

Patriot Prayer rally in Portland Oregon

(Image: Eric Crudup/Shutterstock)

These groups promise to take action if there is election chaos. It remains to be seen if they really will. I pray not, but in a must-read article by Goldstone and Turchin, who predicted some ten years agothaton the basis of U.S. history, the nation was heading toward the highest level of vulnerability to political crisis seen in this country in over a hundred years. Some of the factors used in their model included the following: elites seeking to take a larger portion of economic gains for themselves; tightening up the path to mobility to favor themselves and their progeny; and doing everything they can to resist taxation of their wealth and profits. Leaders who seek to benefit from and widen the political chasms bring the crisis closer. Elites go up against those who want reform, and each side paints the opposing side as a fatal societal threat. The authors propose that these were the conditions that led to the U.S. Civil War. In their model, the "Political Stress Index" has been rising rapidly in 2020 while the "Well-Being Index" has been plummeting.

The Great Escape

Whatever happens, if there's a way you can avoid Selye's stress response as we enter this precarious period, do it. Bearing in mind that escaping may be easier for some than others, that could be a nice hike, a movie, spending time with your pets (I am a horse lover myself), and above all, staying away from your phone and computer screen (that would be me.). 

Writing In The Face Of Stress

How has writing been for me in 2020? As far as I can tell, my creativity has not suffered, but the time I spend creating in the face of the distractions of the social and political upheaval has definitely diminished. I'm hoping for a regular, calm, boring 2021. I like boring. Boring is good.



  1. I definitely agree about boring! 'May you live in interesting times' is a Chinese curse remember!

  2. Great article, but I can't see who wrote it.

    1. Sorry about that. I forgot to say. It's Kwei Quartey, I'll correct it. Thank you.

  3. I wouldn't paint an equal sign between groups that are defending themselves and outright white supremacists who identify with Nazism and wear Nazi insignia. After all, it was white supremacists who seceded from the Union because they wanted to maintain the economic system of slavery, established their own army and government and led to the death of millions and atrocities. And well we know what the Nazis did in WWII, causing the death of up to 60 million people. The ultra-right is the threat, based on history. And where is anyone in the guy in the WH's party denouncing what he said, urging on the racists? That is enough to give us all migraines.

  4. Great post, Kwei. The concerns you raise are real...and getting more so everyday. Some were the subject of my son's sermon on Yom Kippur to his Texas congregation. As for how boring post-Covid days may be, I have a somewhat different take. We've long heard about the "Roaring [Nineteen] Twenties" and how wild they were. Rarely mentioned is what preceded them: years of The Spanish Flu. It's as if those confined and frightened for so long just wanted to break out, put all that grief out of their minds, and P-A-R-T-Y. We shall see...hopefully soon.