Tis the season to be spooky, not jolly.
Yes, I must be referring to America’s election season; aka, Halloween.
Though a week apart on this year’s calendar, I can’t help but notice that our mega advertising industry is pushing a singular theme: fear of the other. Whether the product line is a costume party or a political party, the selling point is simple: BE DIFFERENT - BE AFRAID!!
So what is it about us as humans that we are so easily triggered, indeed motivated, to fearful decision making in today’s world? Why does fear sell like those proverbial hotcakes on today’s market?
It was by presumed coincidence that the issue of Psychology Today published on election day of 2021 carried an article by Jeremy Shapiro, PhD, entitled, “Two Parts of the Brain Govern Much of Mental Life: understanding the roles of the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.” Shapiro’s main points were these:
· The brain is not one unified entity but an amalgamation of modules with different functions and operating characteristics.
· The prefrontal cortex operates slowly and is logical and precise, while the limbic system works fast and is dominated by emotion and impulse.
· In many ways these two modules are complementary opposites, often in conflict but extremely effective when coordinated well.
In my own work of psychotherapy, I offer this article https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/thinking-in-black-white-and-gray/202111/two-parts-the-brain-govern-much-mental-life quite often as “reading material” for those clients who notice themselves struggling with either a sense of rapid anxiety or sluggish depression or some of both. The work of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helps clients learn how both of these brain functions contribute to behavioral outcomes of success or failure. More specifically, our brains are designed such that our first responder to any experienced event is our limbic system (containing the Amygdala). I simply call this module our “emotional brain” for clarity. This module has no capacity to reason. It exists only to set off alarms in the event of actual danger. However, by lacking the capacity to reason, it must operate only on the assumption that anything different is therefore dangerous. This part of our brain then signals our Adrenal glands to produce stress hormones that energize our bodies for rapid action: either fight or flight or both. The downside being that the Alarm sounds whether actual danger exists or not, since “different” is most often wrongly assumed to be "dangerous."
Can you say “false alarm?” More importantly, do you know how to shut off a false alarm in your own body before it stresses you out and brings about an actual danger of stress-induced illness and premature death?
Back to the subject of Halloween Election seasons, it is little wonder that decisions based on fear are made in response to such current events in our calendar. The “emotional brain” is the first to speak where the human brain is concerned. Irrational and unreasonable, but first nevertheless.
Therapy, and the healing of our behavioral brain dis-ease, happens when we learn the use of our prefrontal cortex, what I simply call our “rational brain” for clarity purposes, in assessing whether or not different really is the same as dangerous. Most often it is not. Hence, most alarms are false. Shutting off such Alarm stress requires this module of our brains being the last to speak. The emotional brain will always speak first inside our thought process. The rational brain had best speak next and get the last word in when it comes to that argument we experience within our own minds.
The analogy I often offer my clients in counseling is this: our emotional brain is like the first responder that yells fire in a crowded theater. Our rational brain is like the fire chief who then comes along and finds that someone had just been smoking in the restroom, and the place really wasn’t on fire. Turn off the Alarm and get everybody back in the theater so the show can go on. Because art imitates life, and vice versa, the show may well be yet another “horror movie.” Always popular with the brain’s limbic system that speaks first about which show to go see.
Even Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), however, is not without some risk. The brain’s prefrontal cortex has no capacity for empathy nor any emotive energy to motivate progressive action. It realizes that different is usually not dangerous. In political terms, it is more in agreement with the progressive or liberal party rather than the conservatives who fear differentness or other-ness is thus catastrophic. It has no use for anxiety, but in shutting off emotional alarms it risks emotional depression and a no-energy, no-motivation existence. Its only stress becomes a life of boredom and hopeless fatigue. Its only political candidate is “the one I meant to vote for but knew my vote wouldn’t matter so I didn’t feel like going.”
The rational brain turns off the false alarm and, with it, turns the house lights off so the silly Halloween kids won’t ring the doorbell. And a couple months later says, “Bah humbug!” Therefore, CBT works best when it trains the rational brain to communicate effectively with the emotional brain. Listen. Accept. Validate that part of our emotional brain’s effectiveness in doing its proper job as first responder. Respect the inner voice of our own stress response. Restate the emotional brain’s assumption. Then and only then should the rational brain challenge that assumption by posing this important question to the emotional brain: “do you have enough actual evidence to back up your assumption?”
What’s the evidence? Where are the facts? Could it be possible that different means better not worse, safer not danger, right not wrong?
Likewise, the emotional brain can learn to ask these same questions of the rational brain but in reverse: where is the evidence that different means better or safer or right? CBT can teach us a healthy form of self-talk that empowers both the emotional and rational voices within to have a better conversation aimed at a unified decision. Such self-talk can produce self-help in the very best sense of that term.
So what do you think?
Can we unite our brains as an American people and use both the emotion of Halloween and the reason of Elections to make this season helpful for all concerned? Can Halloween be the initial voice of our limbic system and Election Day be the voice of our prefrontal cortex to follow? If so, then hopefully our elections won’t leave our nation feeling quite so anxious and spooky. Or quite so depressed and droopy. We'll actively listen to each others' feelings and then we'll make our final decisions based on the actual and factual evidence.