On Political Fear, Part II

By August 22, 2016 12 Comments

On Political Fear, Part 2

What is your preferred mode of responding to what’s happening in the U.S. election?

Talking with friends with like-minded views?
Turning away from the horrible headlines and focusing on your family?
Volunteering or using your network to try to rally votes for your candidate?

When humans perceive a threat, we feel fear. Then almost immediately, our bodies go into a fear response. Although fight/flight is the most well-known and well-studied of human fear responses, neuroscience research has in fact found there are six classic human (and mammalian) fear responses:

1. Fight: try to defeat the danger
2. Flight: try to escape
3. Tend: focus on caring for offspring
4. Befriend: reach out to the social group for support and mutual protection
5. Freeze: play dead until the threat has passed, so you won’t be targeted
6. Appease: try to placate or please the predator

Right now, across the political spectrum, most of us are showing up in the world with our responses to our fear.

We see many people in “fight” mode – using words, dollars, and a host of other strategies to defeat the threat they perceive.

We see some people in “flight” mode, avoiding the news or imagining moving to Canada.

We see some people doing “freeze,” like elected officials laying low and quiet until the election cycle ends.

We see some people going in “tend” mode: “I just can’t deal with how horrible this situation is, and I need to focus on my kids right now anyway.”

And many of us find comfort in “befriend” mode, commiserating with like-minded people on Facebook for hours on end, or venting with friends about the latest appalling news.

Fear vs. The Fear Response

These are all ways of spending time in our responses to fear. None of them are bad. What can be problematic about them is that they are often automatic and wholly unconscious.

After all, our hard-wired responses to fear (fight, flight, tend, befriend, freeze or appease) come from the oldest, reptilian part of our brains. Our fear response is designed to be instinctual and immediate because way back when, if a predator suddenly visited, we needed to respond, with action, in that instant. No time for thinking.

So today, if we go with our instincts, our responses to a threat – a political, emotional, or physical threat – will generally come in the absence of any consideration, before there is even a moment for thought. Think reflex, think kneejerk response.

This is why in the fields of mindfulness, personal growth and psychology, we talk so much about being in touch with how we are feeling and slowing down to investigate it and process it, before taking action. That is why we advocate for the importance of spending time in the feeling itself rather than only responding to it. We know about the incredible opportunity presented by that moment – as Vicktor Frankl put it, “between the stimulus and response.”

It’s there that we can process our feelings in a healthy way and make wise choices about what to do next.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous line, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” is often understood to be a criticism of fear.

But the words that immediately followed suggest otherwise. Here’s what he in fact said to Americans, as they faced the Great Depression in 1932:

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

He is speaking about one kind of fear: fear that hasn’t been named, reasoned through, or understood. And the real threat, he says, is retreat – the way fear can send us into a flight response if we don’t bring consciousness to it.

Maybe we leave out the second part of the quote so often because Americans like the fantasy of “No Fear” more than we like – or even understand – the act of naming fear or reasoning through fear.

It’s our unconsidered responses to fear that do harm. And of course, this is true not just for political fear, but for any fear you feel in your life – the fears that are intelligible and especially those you feel that you cannot yet describe or name.

Let this be your practice for today. Use writing, talking it out, or meditation to do it. Sit with the fear you feel around our political, social, civic situation right now. Investigate it: what is the core, underlying fear? Let it take you to what you most cherish. Breathe into the fear. And then inquire, what truly wise action can I take to respond?

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Join the discussion 12 Comments

  • Tara, a thoughtful invitation for all of us to consider where we land in the chaos. What I love about your work is how multi-faceted the application can be.

  • Thank you so much, Tara. These articles have been so well written and based on the truth of what is really happening. We need to be intelligent about fear. Sitting in that icky feeling is not fun, however, it brings the gold to the surface. The more we practice this, the easier it becomes, in any situation.
    I had a teacher who once said “when emotions go up, intelligence goes down”. I’ve never forgotten that.
    I look forward to these emails and thank you for the work you are doing and what you are bringing to the world. We are truly evolving!

  • Lee says:

    So, I have been on the path for 30 years, doing transformational work, hanging with these kinds of people and teachers.

    I’m a former Peace Corps staffer, drive a Subaru, believe in a woman’s choice, etc etc, yet sometimes I think there is something really wrong with me because I simply do not think about politics the way most of the people around me do. Certainly not the way most of Hollywood or the media or the press frame it these days. I just don’t share that viewpoint.

    I believe in smaller government, lower taxes, personal responsiblity, etc etc. I resonate with much of the Libertarian platform. I have always been a registered Independent. I am not, nor have I ever defined myself as a Republican, nor as a Democrat, nor would I ever identify as a Progressive.

    And I often wish I didn’t think the way I do about certain things because no one around me shares my views. So I always feel like the odd one out.

    But I feel the way I feel and I need to honor this. So here’s my deal: I am supporting Trump.

    When you refer to the fear we are feeling around our political election today, are you meaning fear about Trump becoming president? Do you include fear about the prospect of Hillary Clinton becoming president?

    Because rather than fear, I feel more excitement about the possibility of someone like Trump breaking up the corrupt system as it is – to allow for some fresh new ways of doing things to open up something new in the political sphere. No more politics as usual. Heck, give him four years. He couldn’t do much worse in foreign policy than Obama has done. And he could do a heck of a lot more for the economy.

    He is an outsider, not owned by special interests, donors, foreign governments, etc. I personally like many of his ideas. And I see them as possibilities for fresh, positive change. He’s not perfect, but then there is no such thing.

    Things cannot continue as they are. The money being raised and spent on the election is obscene – and totally unnecessary. Dragging a campaign out for a year or more?! Totally unnecessary. We need to transform the election process from the primaries to the general.

    Do something like begin Labor Day and campaign until November election day. Alot so much air time to each candidate. No more of this drawn out obscene money spending nonsense. There are SO many possibilites to transform the system. To shake it up. To break it up. To allow the chaos to produce real change. For the better.

    What is the saying? Chaos before creation? Giving birth to the new is a messy painful process. And here we are.

    And in my view, it will never happen with Hillary Clinton moving back into the White House. Trump? There’s a real possibility there.

    I actually feel more anger and more fear and more disgust at the prospect of the Clintons moving back into the White House – a place they should never be, IMO.

    Again, he’s not perfect, but I believe there is possiblity for positive change with a Trump presidency.

    I believe strongly that there is only the possiblity for more corruption and more scandal with a Clinton presidency. She is like the character Pigpen from Peanuts with a cloud of scandal and corruption following her wherever she goes — for the past 30+ years for as long as she has been in the public arena. And that will only amplify if she becomes president.

  • selena says:

    I like this very much Tara and will share these six responses to fear. Perhaps we should use our Divine connection with the Higher Universe and “re-invent” fear. Perhaps we should explore ways in which to re-design or re-purpose fear. We ALWAYS have the power to choose another paradigm. Do we need to continue to follow the definitions of things that have been given to us by a world system that values fear to maintain power? Perhaps we can get creative about creating a new canvas for fear.

  • Leah says:

    You nailed it. This post seems well-processed and thought out. It’s interactions like this that bring about consciousness and healthy discussion.

  • meredith v. says:

    Totally eye opening to read the full quote from Roosevelt. I’m ready to convert retreat into advance. Thanks for elevating the discussion!

  • Lee says:

    hi again Tara,

    I was thinking about my comments and as I review your article again – as well as the comments here from other readers – I realize I am in the wrong place taking time to comment here.

    You said in your post that ‘when humans perceive a threat, we feel fear.’

    I am not clear what you mean by that. Do you mean we are perceiving Trump as a threat?

    Because if you are assuming that all deep thinking, intelligent, educated and evolved women are supporting Hillary Clinton, you are dead wrong.

    The greater threat as I see it is in Hillary Clinton being elected in November. She is a mess. She is a self promoted underwhelming candidate. She is not a ‘leader’ – she is power hungry – and she is utterly uninspiring as the first woman candidate – which is her first and foremost reason to vote for her b/c there’s not much else.

    Not in this lifetime would I cast a vote for this woman. And the prospect of her moving back into the White House sickens me. I wonder if they will take the china and silver and furnishings when they move out this time – just like they did the last time. They are the worst. And she will bring nothing but scandal and corruption to the presidency if she is given that great honor – which she utterly and absolutely does not deserve.

    Best of luck with sharing your views with your like-minded following here. You can all talk about how to handle your fear of a Trump presidency. I will find my community elsewhere.

  • colleen Nolan armstrong says:

    Lee – i appreciated reading your reflection. I may not share your views, but I respect your courage in setting your voice out in the world. I have not been brave in doing that. It isn’t the point to surround yourself with those who only agree with you, but rather to risk debate and open a conversation across the aisle. Neither may change her views, but that’s okay.

    I would challenge you to reflect on your second post – in which I sense a retreat (possibly a fear response? As Tara outlined.

    Thank you for being brave today – I learned a lot from your reflection and your words helped me see that not all Trump supporters are as I assumed they were…

  • Houk Amber says:

    Tara Mohr,
    These can be horrifing times. The implications for politcal disaster are boundless. There is a legit psycho running for president. How did he get there? A lot of money, bullying and threats. Take your personal power back.
    My view point, vote for Hilary, pray Trump doesnt rig the election and win. Washington will work with Hilary. They may not like it but she knows how things work on the hill.
    My vote counts. I can encourage open and rational talk among my friends on this election year. Not much in washington is going to be influenced by anything else I do. Look at and plan ways to protect myself financially.
    Consider where I would be safest should the worst happen. Thats what I plan to do while we see how things play out.

  • […] Mohr is speaking directly to what I’m feeling right […]

  • selena says:

    There is fear all around in America. Unfortunately, most forums are not courageous like Tara to help Americans detox from these fears. People fear a Hillary presidency as well as a Trump presidency. But fear can only be dismantled through honest discussion about how to understand and dissect our fears. I believe this is what Tara is offering us. However, true healing will only come to Americans if we lay it all bare on the table and examine all the clouds being formed by both candidates. Here’s something that should concern all citizens about being “safe” in America. http://www.alternet.org/election-2016/10-hate-crimes-inspired-donald-trumps-hateful-rhetoric#.V8BxVHSDow0.email

  • Lee says:

    Colleen, Thank you for sharing your response and your challenge to reflect on my last post.

    I’m guessing this is not going to be seen or read at this point, however, for my own sake, I wanted to share my insights since I last posted my comments.

    One insight is that giving voice to my opinion feels new and risky to me, especially in an “arena” that feels in opposition to the validity of what I believe. A fear we all share.

    I recognized an old unconscious belief: that when I share and put forth my opinions I will be overpowered and dismissed and that what matters to me will be invalidated leaving me to feel negated and shut down.

    The breakthrough for me is to acknowledge and honor that what I am feeling and observing is valid and true for me — and rather than get angry and shut down or defer to other opinions as more true or valid than my own – is to learn to stand for what I believe.

    Thank you for this forum to engage the political debate in a deeper, more civil way Tara. Peace, Lee

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