The key to a better future lies in our subconscious

How do we override the unconscious responses that we all have to the stresses and strains of everyday life? And why should we even want to? I’ve been thinking a lot about "fight or flight" this week. This autonomic response is hardwired into our DNA. Even though we no longer live on the Savannah, need to kill for our supper or protect our young from carnivorous predators...

By Chris Barez-Brown

The primal "fight or flight" response

I’ve been thinking a lot about "fight or flight" this week. This autonomic response is hardwired into our DNA. Even though we no longer live on the Savannah, need to kill for our supper or protect our young from carnivorous predators, we’re still tuned to react with "fight or flight" to pretty much everything stressful or mildly threatening that happens to us (I use the term as a catch-all for all the autonomic responses including freeze and fawn.)

I’ve been thinking about how, rather than letting this primal leftover control the way we respond, we might instead be able to control it, and free ourselves from being in a constant state of fight or flight. And whether there is any value in doing such a thing in the first place.

After much noodling, I think there is. 

It was the neuroscientist Andrew Huberman (I’m a big fan, if you don’t know his work I heartily recommend it) who got me thinking about this. Talking on his excellent podcast he said, and I paraphrase, that humanity’s greatest opportunity is how we manage our autonomic responses. Of all the rather brilliant things he said in that podcast, it’s this kernel that has stayed with me. Simply because he’s so right. 

The human brain is not optimised for today’s world. We no longer live in the kind of conditions the "fight or flight" response was born out of. But our brains have changed very little over the years, so we are still scanning our environment, constantly looking for dangers. This creates a bit of a problem. 

The influence of media

None of us has to move very far these days to witness some kind of visceral, life-threatening danger. War and disease and pretty much every threat you can imagine is streamed into our phones 24-7. News feeds and social media are packed full of horrific stories every single day.

This isn’t because good, happy things aren’t happening in the world. They are. It’s because the media knows, and has always known, that the stories which engage and shock the most are the ones that sell copy. The old adage ‘if it bleeds it leads’ is just as true today as it ever was. The news of danger speaks to our nervous system as if we were still out there in our animal skins.

It’s why we can’t stop watching when Russia invades Ukraine and why we do as we are told when the news of a life-threatening virus is broadcast into our homes. It's in our very nature to filter out the good, safe and wholesome news and hone in on the terrifying stuff. Even though we might think and say that we are depressed by the news, that we feel sick to our stomachs seeing yet more tragedy everywhere, we still look.

Sadly,  some unscrupulous media outlets use this insight to manipulate us. The politicians and others in power who influence the media outlets also wish to control us, even if they believe on some level that they are doing so for a good reason. Our innate human nose for danger becomes unhappily re-purposed and creates a space where the very worst of human nature – the need to exert power over others – finds the perfect conditions to flourish. Our ancient response to danger – to fight, run (flight), do nothing (freeze), or to fawn (become sycophants to the powerful) – kick in.

The power of tribes

We have always known there is strength in numbers and so to bolster ourselves we find and form tribes. On the Savannah, a real tribe meant that we were protected and had support, and that vastly increased our chances of living another day. It has therefore hard-wired our need to belong. That’s why it’s still so important for us to have meaningful social connections and why they make a huge difference to our well-being.

The tribe you belong to can be one you choose or one that is chosen for you. It can be your nation, religion, sexuality, football team, gender – anything. However it's defined, it will dictate the way you react to different, seemingly opposing tribes. Any tribe that isn’t yours can pose a threat. So the people and places of other tribes can make you feel nervous and agitated. Because these reactions are subconscious, you have no idea why you feel this way, but you feel them all the same.

As with the visceral response to the danger itself, the need to find allegiance and identify as part of a tribe when faced with it is a physiological throwback. It’s also part of our very nature, our survival instinct. Sometimes this can still be enormously helpful and rewarding but just as often it is what drives so much of the unnecessary human conflict and cruelty that we see today. 

It’s why we are pointlessly sending refugees to Rwanda, moving human pieces around a chessboard. They represent a threat to our tribe. Or at least, to the tribe currently in power. Politicians are particularly skilled in maintaining these artificial divisions in order to manipulate the masses and maintain power. They know we can’t be controlled when our tribes become allied. And so we find ourselves trapped. Captured by our old mindsets. And ultimately, controlled not only by those in power but by our own subconscious responses to their fearful news. 

Overcoming subconscious reactions

This is where things can change. 

When we are reacting subconsciously, we lose our ability to respond consciously. When we run around reacting out of fear and the need to belong, we make irrational decisions, and we trust anyone who promises to take away the danger.

We will never be able to change the news feeds – it’s a powerful economic model that thrives on spreading the gospel of disaster. Sure, we can watch less of it, and ask ourselves if they are sharing information for the common good or otherwise. But this is treating the symptom and not the cause. More effective, I believe, is to stop reacting from our subconscious to everything going on in our lives. 

We are living our lives as though we are in mortal danger when we are not. And it is only when we stop doing this that we can look at our situation in the cold light of day and make decisions driven by a sense of rationality and a need to serve the higher good – rather than the animal and selfish one of personal survival. It's not easy. It essentially means overriding our ancient programming, by becoming more conscious and deliberately responsive. But it can be done.

Try experimenting this week. When you notice yourself having a visceral reaction – perhaps a news story makes you feel angry with the world, or a colleague does something that makes you feel threatened. Instead of allowing that feeling to take over, take a moment to pause instead.

Sit or stand straight, take a deep breath in, and smile. It is so much easier to shake off a "fight or flight" response when you see your primal sequencing for what it is. Just a part of who we all are. Once you adjust your physiology and breathe deeply into your lungs, the stress response starts to dissipate, and you can ask yourself what your reaction is about. 

The Talk It Out app is invaluable for this. I use it to help me see things more clearly and ask myself what I’m really thinking. So often we see things as right or wrong, good or bad. We interpret things as life-threatening rather than a bit salty or mildly annoying. Our caveman brains do this to us so that we can trigger a strong "fight or flight" response.

But when you begin to really see those interpretations you start to realise just how ridiculous they are. They become almost laughable and lose their power. You are no longer experiencing an unconscious response to danger but can see it unfolding and choose a conscious response that is appropriate to who you are and what's going on. When we're not running scared, we make better decisions for humanity and for the planet. We appreciate the people that we share this world with and start making it spin better, together.

So much of the communication in the world is divisive, designed to separate us and create factions. Intended to pit each of us against each other rather than unite. We have so much more in common than not, and are more alike than different. When we see that we can raise each other up.

Put simply, when we stop reacting, we become conscious beings. And conscious beings always know what's right and what's wrong. And when there are enough of us on the same page, I believe Andrew Huberman is right, our future will be bright.