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?