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Under Siege: Stress in a Polarized World

In the current polarized political climate I am hearing from more and more people who are feeling stressed, exhausted, and as though they are constantly under attack.

To be honest, I’m feeling it myself.

It's that feeling as though you're constantly under attack!

It feels as though the waves get bigger and bigger with no lull in sight. They just come one after another.

The fear grows, the sense of feeling unsafe grows, and the feeling of being perpetually “under attack” is real.

So why does this happen and what can we do about it?

Let’s look at the brain and how the brain responds.

Stress is a result of a perceived threat.

If the threat is perceived to be mild, the stress response is mild; if the threat feels extreme, the stress response is also extreme.

Stress causes us to feel discomfort, and may even lead us to feel anxious. It causes chemical releases in our brain and body that allow for more oxygen to reach the parts of the body needed to keep us safe.

A little stress, a little anxiety, helps us to be sharp, to be on top of our game, and can be helpful for things like a job interview, or a presentation.

But if the stress is too much, and overwhelms our ability to cope, our thinking brain—the prefrontal cortex—the part of our brain that allows us to think, and plan, and remember, and work together—that thinking brain goes off line.

That’s unfortunate because that part of the brain is what helped us get to the top of the food chain.

Top of the food chain or not, let’s remember we have a caveman brain in a modern-day world! A big threat is perceived by our brain as a life or death situation: as though there is a saber-tooth tiger right around the corner.

Our caveman brain doesn’t understand the difference between that big existential life or death threat and the externalized stress and threat posed by a big work deadline, or political issues that strike fear in our hearts.

Back to the brain:

When the thinking front part of our brain goes offline, we are left operating in more primitive areas of the brain: the emotional or limbic part of the brain, and the survival, reptilian part of the brain.

When stress is extreme, we may feel anger, but anger is often a secondary emotion.

Under the anger is often fear.

When fear is present and guiding our responses and our reactions, we don’t have access to the thinking brain. Instead we are acting from our emotional, overwhelmed, part of our brain and often don’t have access to those capabilities and capacities we have available when the whole brain is online.

If the perceived threat and subsequent fear is big enough that it triggers our sense of needing to survive, the reptilian part of our brain takes over and engages the fight/flight/freeze response. Stress hormones--cortisol and adrenaline--are rushing and we feel like we need to either fight the threat, flee from the threat, or freeze momentarily while our reptilian brain assesses whether our camouflage will keep us safe, or whether fight or flee are the only choices.

In the current political atmosphere I see folks from across the political continuum operating from a sense or place of fear.

Fear for livelihood, fear for financial security, fear for the future.

As a species we have a long unfortunate history of clannism or tribalism—an us-versus-them mentality that means in any situation there is a winner and a loser. But it’s not always this way.

As a species, when we’ve been able to accomplish the most, we have engaged our full capacities and have worked collaboratively to achieve goals. An us-and-us, we’re in this together view, allowing for a win-win approach that provides the opportunity to recognize competing needs, but overlapping needs as well, and enables us to work together to compromise.

When we are no longer in our thinking brain (with full access to all we are capable of--including the ability to think, to consider, to strategize, to communicate, to collaborate)—when our thinking brain is offline, we are instead operating from fear and not able to make our best decisions nor able to collaborate with the perceived “them.” We revert to our tribalism view of the world. A winner and a loser--and I don’t want to be the loser!

Where does the fear come from?

In our current climate a lot of the fear, the fanning of the flames, comes from our exposure to 24/7 media, and especially social media. Both sides participate in this operation to keep everyone fearful.

When I work with clients struggling with anxiety and fear related to what’s happening currently in our nation--or closer to home in our state (with budget vetoes and a legislature that is unable to come together to address possibly overriding those vetoes), the threats are very real.

Threats to livelihood, to financial security, and to the future of the nation and our state are perceived as danger.

People across the political continuum are feeling threatened, leading to the stress and fear response, leading to people feeling very unsafe.

I encourage people to consider what is contributing to their fear. What is keeping their alert system on “high?”

Often it’s reading unbalanced media, or exposure to politicized and polarized memes and other information on social media.

I encourage people to realize there is a billion-dollar advertising industry aimed at keeping you scrolling on social media. There are people who have studied how to keep you looking.

And it is the looking that is fanning your fear, making you feel perpetually unsafe,


at risk.

With regard to ways to cope, I look at it this way:

Perceived threats lead to stress which leads to an emotional response including anger and fear. If social media and unbalanced media sources are heightening your sense of threat, increasing your stress, and making you more angry or fearful, then step away.

More simply:

If you have a hose in your mouth and it's on full blast and you feel like you're drowning, then drop the hose and step away.

Take a media break.

Look for more balanced media reporting.

Talk to people.

Stay off social media.

When the threats (real and imagined--and often magnified in media and social media) are no longer constantly in your face, minute to minute, you'll probably start to feel safer and less fearful.

When you're feeling safer and less fearful, you'll probably start to think more clearly and be able to take productive action.

You’ll probably be able to feel more confident and capable, less threatened, and more able to be present in your thinking brain.

And being more present feels safer.

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