Remember Cambridge Analytica? Back when I was campaigning against Brexit at Avaaz, I spent a lot of time thinking about the effect they’d had on both the Brexit referendum and Trump’s big win in the US.
I was fascinated by how they’d been able to use psychology and social media to weaponise our own anxieties against us, pressing our buttons with surgical precision to prompt enough of us to see the world in them-and-us terms to help tip an election.
I wondered: how can we inoculate ourselves and our societies against this kind of manipulation?
Because it’s not just Cambridge Analytica that has both the motive and the opportunity to push us into them-and-us mode.
Social media algorithms do it every day – feeding us content that will scare or outrage us because that’s what keeps us scrolling and monetises our attention most effectively.
The news media are at it too, as when TV shows book guests whom they know will end up in a furious shouting match with the host or each other, prompting us to take sides in our minds too.
And it’s the same story with politicians – not just populist strongmen, but more mainstream ones as well, as they search for ‘dividing lines’ to make people vote for them instead of their opponents.
In each case, the effect is to deepen polarisation and tribalism, making it harder for us to come together to address shared challenges from Covid to climate change and from refugees to racism.
So how can we keep these hidden manipulators out of our heads – both for our own mental health, and for the health of the democracies we’re part of?
In our Larger Us Course, we talk a lot about conscious self awareness, especially in how we react to perceived threats and whether we have the presence of mind to be able to choose how to respond rather than suddenly tipping into fight-or-flight (or more accurately, fight-flight-freeze) mode.
Whether or not we’re familiar with the term, we all know how it feels when our fight-or-flight response lights up. Adrenaline and cortisol course through our veins. We breathe faster. Our heart rate accelerates. Blood pressure spikes. Our pupils dilate. We’re getting ready to fight, or flee, for our lives.
When this happens, a cluster of cells at the base of the brain called the amygdala is running the show. A key part of its job is to keep us safe – and when we’re faced with physical danger, it’s incredibly effective.
But what about other things that can also fire up our sense of anxiety or threat perception – lockdown, Twitter, the news, road rage, the views or values of people with whom we totally disagree?
These are clearly a different kind of threat: social or political, not physical. But our amygdala isn’t great at telling the difference – and unfortunately, fight-or-flight mode is not just useless but actively unhelpful when the threats we’re facing are collective ones like climate change, Covid-19, or political polarisation.
This is because when we’re in fight-or-flight, our responses are primal, not considered. We become anxious, angry, overwhelmed. We focus on our individual interests, not those of the collective. We’re less empathetic, more vulnerable to extremism, worse at telling the difference between what’s real and what’s hypothetical or illusory.
The good news is that we can respond to threats with a different part of our brain, the pre-frontal cortex (PFC). In contrast to the amygdala, it’s calm, reflective, rational, and lets us take conscious, rational decisions.
But it also takes work to be able to put the PFC in the driving seat when we feel threatened – both ahead of time, and in the heat of the moment. Because the amygdala is a powerful engine and more than capable of “hijacking” (as Daniel Goleman puts it in Emotional Intelligence) our state of mind once activated.
To start with, a mindfulness practice is incredibly helpful. It might be meditation, or journaling, or just making a habit of critical or reflective thinking; in all cases, the effect is to build up an ability to stay aware of what’s really going on, both inside our minds, and in the world around us, creating space for conscious rather than automatic responses.
What about in the heat of the moment?
Here are three techniques that can help.
Before we can do anything else, we need to slow ourselves down and give the PFC a chance to take control from the amygdala. In practice, a great way to do this is to give our minds something to focus on.
Counting is one simple way of doing this: look around and count 10 objects of the same colour, or how many lights there are in the room, or how many different shapes you can see. Focusing on our breathing is also hugely helpful, especially when slowed down with long, exaggerated exhales.
Second, let the body discharge stress.
Stress is as much physiological as psychological, and our bodies have a built-in ability to discharge it. Some of the ways we do that: trembling and shaking; yawning; goosebumps; spontaneous deep, diaphragmatic breaths; warm sweat; feeling hot; and gurgling stomach.
You can probably recognise some or all of these as things you’ve felt after intense situations. When they happen, we don’t need to do anything other than notice and let them happen – one symptom at a time – until we feel calm again.
Finally, discharge emotional stress, too.
Taking a ‘stiff upper lip’ approach to repressing the emotions that come with fight-or-flight responses is a bad idea, as pretending we’re not feeling what we are feeling has the effect of actually increasing the physiological stress response.
Instead, a better starting point is to notice what’s going on emotionally, without judgment – perhaps through labelling our feelings (“I feel sad”, “I feel panicky”). Second, it’s hugely helpful then to disclose it, either by talking to someone, or through writing our emotions down. Here too, we’re engaging our thinking brain – the PFC – and gently easing our amygdala out of the driving seat.
These habits and neural pathways take time to build up, but it’s worth the investment. They’ll make us not just happier, but better citizens too: more resilient to trolling and attempts to divide us; less of a them-and-us; more of a larger us.
Of course there are many more practices out there. We’d love to hear about those that work for you so please drop us a line if you have something to recommend.
Up for a challenge?
How about committing to watch how you respond to perceived threats for the next three weeks?
You could keep a journal of when your sense of threat lights up, and what kinds of things trigger it – noticing where there are patterns, and thinking about how those could be disrupted.
You could pick one of the techniques above to slow things down and take back control, and try out what happens if you try to implement it.
You could discuss the idea with friends, family or colleagues, and try supporting each other to change unhelpful behaviours.
Or why not join our gathering on amygdala hijack next week (1-2pm BST, Thursday 1st April – sign up here) when we’ll be exploring the concept and its implications in more depth?
Want to find out more?
A few experts whose work we love on stress, threat and trauma (many of whose ideas we’ve borrowed from liberally above!):
1. Gina Ross’s EmotionAid approach (YouTube, 16 mins on discharging stress through the body);
3. Stephen Porges in the Guardian (talking about polyvagal theory, an idea that’s driving lots of buzz in thinking about trauma);
4. Christine Runyan (for instance this podcast with On Being on the psychology and neurology of our stress responses); and
5. Diane Musho Hamilton (we love this HBR piece on calming your brain during conflict).