One day, I was leisurely walking down my street, lost in my thoughts, when a dog leapt at me from nowhere. With a jolt of five hundred million years of visceral wisdom, the instinctive part of my brain triggered a ‘fight or flight’ response. A carefully orchestrated yet near-instantaneous sequence of hormonal changes sent my heart pounding. I clenched my fists, my muscles tensed, pupils dilated, and with all my might, I threateningly extended my arms towards the danger. With lightning speed, my brain assessed how I could most likely survive this threat, and without any conscious awareness, my brain determined to ‘fight’ rather than to run away, ‘flight’. Ready for a duel, arms extended, yelling gibberish at the vile beast, it took me a few moments to recognise that the creature was behind a fence and posed no mortal danger to me. As I regained control of my breathing and relaxed, the rational-social parts of my brain kicked in, and I quickly started scanning around me to see if anyone saw these theatrics.
The fight or flight response narrated above is a part of your and my everyday life. This evolved as a survival mechanism millions of years ago, enabling reptiles, mammals and humans to react quickly to life-threatening situations, whether real or imaginary. During our caveman days, this response kept us safe from predators like lions, bears, snakes and saber-toothed tigers. However, for a modern city-dweller who doesn’t face beasts, apart from pet dogs,
Is it possible for our mind to perceive a threat in the absence of an actual physical stimulus? A hundred-thousand years ago, our ancestors also responded to ‘unseen danger’. When they sensed or heard a sign of danger—a movement in the grass, a rattling behind a bush, a strange shadow—their fight or flight response was set off. This made them respond quickly to a predator by searching for it, hiding, running away, or for the truly brave, throwing a stick and then running away. Modern man might have evolved socially and intellectually, however, our threat perception is governed by a brain that is remarkably similar to our ancestor’s from thousands of years ago. Much like when I threatened a perceived attacking dog,
Likewise, every other stakeholder is considering a version of this: how will my wealth, my political scion, my leadership position, my motherland, my constitution, my twitter handle, my talk show’s rating, my mental health, or my privilege survive this event? These will set off energetic cycles of fight or flight throughout the society as people try to make sense of a threatening event.
Individuals with a history of trauma, suffering, or loss are more likely to have a baseline state of hypervigilance or being on ‘high alert’, constantly tense, ‘on guard’ and always on the lookout for hidden dangers, both real and presumed. Hypervigilance may be especially pronounced in individuals as well as in communities that carry scars of transgenerational trauma (e.g. from wars, terrorism, famine, genocide, sectarianism, holocaust, colonialism etc.). This disproportionate ‘high alert’ reaction to situations is a coping mechanism. The mind is trying to avoid the recurrence of traumatising or terrorising situations that it has previously had to endure. For such people, even if the trauma happened decades ago, the fragility of the nation state or the likelihood of economic or social collapse will be at the forefront of their concerns. In a way, the ‘on guard’ inner-state presumes the repetition of the violence, subjugation, control and devastation at the hands of ‘others’ if these ‘others’ haven’t already been conclusively defeated.
There is another contributor from our caveman days that helps explain our innate hatred for that random driver that cut us off, the kaam waali, the super-power-man, army-man, justice-man, diesel-man, corrupt-man and all the other types of man. This is the us-versus-them thinking—oversimplifying and distorting complex problems by dividing the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’, and scapegoating and vilifying the latter. Ten-thousand years ago, a tribe ‘threatening’ to take over our water-hole and cattle was in direct competition with us, and we were likely to experience hostility toward members of that group to ensure our own survival. Although we now live in a world where a competing tribe is less likely to take over our land, the moment our mind perceives a threat to ‘us’, it will split off everyone else into ‘them’, and distort the reality to justify why we need to unleash a ‘fight’ response against them.
You’ll notice how your mind is possibly splitting even me into ‘them’ depending on where you stand in the present political divide. The us-versus-them attitude is not just prevalent in politics. It can exist on any number of differences, real or inconsequential: corrupt vs. insaaf; patriotic vs. beggers; maghrabi iqdaar vs. mashriki; naanka vs. daadka, fauji vs. civilian; cool vs. paindu; Man U vs. Liverpool; Depp vs. Heard etc. All we need is an identification of ‘us’ belonging to a particular category and our mind starts minimising the ‘other’.
Can we do something about these games that our mind plays on us? Here are some things which could possibly help. First, facilitate guided and honest conversations between warring groups to bridge the us-versus-them divisions. It would be very interesting to see a competent psychotherapist guide a conversation between competing parties instead of the usual anchor-persons who might not be specifically trained in the skill set of conflict mediation. In psychotherapy groups, we see transformational shifts happen with individuals learning to listen to the ‘other’ no matter how much they disagree with them. As individuals learn to dial down their own fight or fight response, they start acknowledging the reality of the ‘other’.
As an exercise, try to read this article as my views on this topic, which could exist in opposition to yours, you may acknowledge this as my view without agreeing to it.
Second, there is a dire need to end the communal legacy of pain and trauma shared in our people. Important people in the corridors of power today (media, legislature, armed forces, judiciary etc.) belong to a generation called the ‘baby boomers’ who were born between 1946-1964. These boomers were raised by parents who carried the scars of the Indo-Pak partition. Whenever I work with the boomers, we inevitably uncover that they still carry the war-scars of their parents’ losses which forms their own fighty-flighty world view e.g. ‘mulk nazuk halaat se guazar raha hay’. What is often a component of collective trauma is the way that those who are responsible for a tragedy, e.g. war crimes, colonialism, displacement, looting resources etc. deny responsibility, and retreat from the victims without any expression of regret or apology. Healing of communities can only occur if we first understand what is damaged, and that damage can only be repaired if it is truly acknowledged and addressed. What has damaged our boomers? I want to assume ignorance before malevolence in the journey towards healing.
Last, take a breath; say to yourself, “it is going to be okay, change can happen in lots of different ways.” Remember when COVID first struck? At the beginning of the pandemic, it felt like this was the end of human civilisation. Didn’t quite happen, did it? To every calamity there’s an equaliser. Crises unnerve and overwhelm us, but as we stay with these, and let each functionary of the society play their part, eventually a balance is restored. Processes such as social development, corruption-reduction, civil-military harmony, judicial-restraint, political maturity etc. are long term corrections that pan out over a longer period of time than just our own lifetimes. Remember America electing Trump? Complex societies can move past hiccups along the way.
Now when I pass my unfriendly neighbourhood dog, I try to remind myself of its nature. Maybe it is trying to protect its masters. Maybe it feels threatened by me. Maybe it senses my fear and mortality. We can’t talk to one another, so maybe we just don’t fully understand each other. I am very clear, though, that if we are to coexist, which is a right both of us have, we’ll have to find better ways to not set off our fight or flight response.