Enter the Culprit
By Laurel Hughes, Psy.D.
Today’s unrest is often blamed on politicians, journalists, social media, and the like. This blame is misplaced. The real culprit actually lives deep within everyone’s earliest beginnings.
Fight or flight wiring has been saving our skins for eons. Adrenalin triggers us to fight, run, freeze or hide, call out, or even pretend to be dead—all of which are great for basic primitive survival. Oxytocin encourages us to quickly bond with others, creating greater firepower and safety in numbers when facing common foes. This neurochemical soup also temporarily blocks nonessential brain and body functions, so full energy and attention can focus on knee-jerk survival reactions during threat.
This is all well and good if you’re running from a lion or doing battle with a neighboring tribe. For today’s socially conflicted world, these fight or flight urges don’t work out as well. We see it every day in today’s divisive community:
– Feelings of being threatened, angry, attacked, or even ill
– Becoming defensive
– Lashing out at others
– Using challenged logic
– Not tolerating differing opinions
– Withdrawing from social engagement and other hiding behaviors
– Pretending the problem doesn’t exist, or insisting “it’s always been this way”
– Dividing philosophies, individuals, or ideas into categories like “all good” or “all bad”, completely right or completely wrong, and other forms of black or white thinking
– Clinging to those who are like-minded, no matter how irrational extreme beliefs may become, and making enemies of those who think differently
– Widespread polarizing and groupthink
Fortunately, once a crisis is over, neurochemistry returns to normal. But today’s constant exposures to socio-political stress offer little chance for recovery. Our panic buttons get pressed over and over again. The gut brain goes on believing it’s fighting for its life, with higher thought stuck on the back burner indefinitely. Our reactions thus may continue the way of the caveman.
The good news, thankfully, is that our brains are able to override urges of fight or flight. But with so much chemistry polluting the mix, the game plan for how to do so often gets blocked.
Primary topics of social concern may have changed over the last half-century, but taking extreme opposing views is still alive and well. The rigid defiant approach—my way or the highway—once again is so ingrained that even Congress can’t seem to dig its way out. Gut brains are on high alert over today’s issues, and they won’t back down without a fight.
On the other hand, how might the intellect judge our status? Well, we’ve been exposed to the protests. We’re painfully aware of opposing positions on the corona virus crisis, racial injustice, policing practices, the presidential election, and the like. As was the case in sixties, however, letting the gut brain carry a sign and shout out its dismay won’t in itself create solutions.
In spite of this, the gut brain still strives to override intellect—unless, we purposely choose to step in. Once we recognize what’s originating in fight or flight, acknowledge it, and put it in its proper place, intellect can rise above misplaced emotion. Our better reasoning can then be dedicated to revamping the process of dealing with conflict, rather than focusing solely on the opposing positions that the gut brain gets so worked up over.
We’re in luck. Thanks to brain science research of the past couple decades, we now have a smorgasbord of options for getting fight or flight chemistry in check, such as: slowing down, listening instead of reacting, examining our thoughts, and mindfulness practices.
. . . and much more. Future articles will describe many ways to take control or even make use of excess fight or flight chemistry, all the while seeking new answers for managing divisiveness.
Take heart, my young friends. This step of your journey will become one of many in finding you are part of something much bigger than yourself. Patterns can indeed be broken. You’ve got this.
About the Author
Laurel Hughes, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist specializing in disaster mental health, is author of “The Cogjam Effect – and the Path to Healing Divisive Community and Fractured Science,” www.thecogjameffect.com