Rick Hanson has written an elegant and timely newsletter article about how to avoid intimidation and fear from paper tigers and media demagogues.
I love his weekly email newsletters and it is again time to encourage readers of this blog to sign up.
One of Rick’s themes, elegantly outlined in this most recent article, is how we evolved to be much more responsive to threats than to positive news. It was a survival technique that worked well for hundreds of thousands of years. But may no longer be serving us well in an era when threats are not immediate and clear (like a hungry tiger) but distant and complex (like Kim Jong-un’s isolated regime in North Korea).
To keep our ancestors alive, Mother Nature evolved a brain that routinely tricked them into making three mistakes: overestimating threats, underestimating opportunities, and underestimating resources (for dealing with threats and fulfilling opportunities). This is a great way to pass on gene copies, but a lousy way to promote quality of life.
So for starters, be mindful of the degree to which your brain is wired to make you afraid, wired so that you walk around with an ongoing trickle of anxiety (a flood for some) to keep you on alert. And wired to zero in on any apparent bad news in a larger stream of information (e.g., fixing on a casual aside from a family member or co-worker), to tune out or de-emphasize reassuring good news, and to keep thinking about the one thing that was negative in a day in which a hundred small things happened, ninety-nine of which were neutral or positive. (And, to be sure, also be mindful of any tendency you might have toward rose-colored glasses or putting that ostrich head in the sand.)
Additionally, be mindful of the forces around you that beat the drum of alarm – whether it’s a family member who threatens emotional punishment or political figures talking about inner or outer enemies. Consider for yourself whether their fears are valid – or whether they are exaggerated or empty, while downplaying or missing the larger context of opportunities and resources. Ask yourself what these forces could be getting out of beating that scary drum.
This bias towards threat is even more strongly present in people who have been exposed to trauma. Posttraumatic stress disorder is a brain mechanism that was designed to “turn up the gain” on our already hyperactive threat detection system. A crude but effective system for making us even more watchful after we have been exposed to serious threat.