Soothing the Hive Mind
“That which is not good for the beehive cannot be good for the bees.” -Marcus Aurelius
These days, the air is abuzz. People are tense, unsettled, and reactive. I see it on Instagram, at the grocery store, and on the steps of the Utah Capitol building close to where I live. That sort of energy is highly infectious; it’s seemingly in the air we breathe right now. I suspect you feel it, too.
When we feel threatened, we have a menu of ways that we can respond. The ideal way – the most constructive, loving way – is through open, gentle, connective communication. Polyvagal theorists and mental health professionals call this a “safe and social” mode, and it requires that we have internal emotional resources to regulate our stress response in order to not sink into more ancient, more primitive (and ultimately anti-relational) patterns. In an ideal situation, with resilient, healthy people around us, we can also borrow emotional “ballast” from them to settle our dysregulated nervous systems, but this is difficult to do in moments when so many of us are stressed and unsettled.
If we lose our hold on that “safe and social” mode, we start to devolve into the well-known “fight or flight” response. We all know that this looks like, and it was on very public display this past week in Washington. The sympathetic stress response is a warm-blooded mammalian response: mobilise to conquer or escape from a perceived threat. Note that perception is reality here. You do not have to see an actual snake in the grass to be startled; it could simply be a stick, but it’ll still make your heart pound pretty hard. Fighting (and the threat of fighting: posturing) is often fueled by the emotional currency of anger, which drives us to take action to mitigate the perceived threat. Again, perception is everything. As social mammals, we also cluster into groups to fight against a perceived threat; the fight response is still somewhat “social” and cooperative with those we view as like us. It feels empowering, and that’s one way that we offset our own internal fears. We may or may not have the option of fleeing the threatening scenario, and if we can’t get away, we either fight more viciously or we devolve further.
If fighting or fleeing doesn’t work to relieve the perception of threat, you might freeze or submit. If you’ve ever woken up in the middle of the night, thinking that you’ve heard an intruder outside your bedroom door, you might have experienced a freeze response. You are definitely not feeling safe, but for that moment, you might not move towards fighting or escaping. If you feel exceedingly vulnerable, and trapped in place (unable to run away), you might freeze. Fawning (submitting) is a close cousin of freezing, and it also indicates a significant stress response. It is a more reptilian response, and is also anti-relational. (In those instances, you are betraying your own needs in order to preserve life and limb.) Since the more ancient life forms had less (or no) social cooperation, this atomising pattern, indicative of a more severe perception of stress than the fight-or-flight response, makes us even less able to cooperate and moves us even further away from the “safe and social” mode that would allow us to resolve conflict constructively and in pro-relational ways. Social engagement from a place of feeling safe is the best way to think clearly, appreciate context and nuance, and communicate in non-confrontational and healing ways. Empathy, forgiveness, and openness to others’ perspectives require the safe-and-social mode.
Okay, so why does this matter? It matters because the more angry posturing that we do, the more we freak out other people around us. Once we start expressing our perception of threat as aggressive posturing or overt violence, we make it much more difficult for those around us to stay safe and social. It easily becomes a chain reaction, and those can be Hiroshima-level catastrophic. Sometimes, when we feel unsettled, threatened, or unsafe, instead of working on settling our frazzled nervous systems to return to a pro-relational state, we externalise that perceived threat and we lash out (posture or fight). We distract ourselves (which is a form of running away). We shut down and withdraw (freeze). We collapse under the stress and give up (which is submitting, and a part of depression). There are many different ways to respond to threat, and I’m seeing a lot of all of them these days. What that means to me is that we’re all feeling the stress these days, and my daily reminder to myself – and to you – is this: if you can pull back from the tunnel vision and hyperfocus on the problems “out there”, you can work with the unsettled feeling “in here”. The more you settle your nervous system, the more you can see clearly, use your rational mind, slowly rise from the depths of the more primitive impulses to battle, run, or shut down, and choose how you respond instead of being driven around by your less-relational mammalian brain or fully-individualistic reptilian brain. Just as a parent can act as emotional ballast for a child who is emotionally spun out, we can each act as a steadying influence for those around us. Settling your own body means that you are contributing to settling the hive mind, the human superorganism, and we desperately need that right now. Compassion and true understanding can be accessed through many avenues, and not surprisingly, many spiritual traditions (including yogic and meditative practices) contain elements that mediate our perception of threat, giving us access to more loving and connective experiences. And if there’s anything we collectively need right now, it’s more love, safety, and connection.
I’ll reiterate: working with your own body gives you additional resilience – ballast – to be a settling, stabilizing influence in your family, community, and country. There are real, serious problems, but they will not be resolved by regressing to the anti-relational strategies of posture, fight, flee, freeze, or submit. Complex, nuanced problems require complex, nuanced conversations, and we cannot have those when we are collectively dysregulated and isolated. So I’m starting here with a loving, steady declaration: I’m here, I’m open, I’m safe, and I’m resilient enough to use gentle and relational human strategies. I hope you can feel that through the aether. Onward, friends. We’re okay.
I feel like this is an echo of parts the “the body keeps the score”, by Bessel van der Kolk. I’m doing deeper learning about trauma and how the body and mind and brain are all interconnected. If nothing else, having the ability to see and understand the process at work behind the seemingly senseless actions of others, gives some context. It doesn’t make it right, but I can comprehend.
I feel like the world needs a shift, away from this frenetic energy of instant cancel culture and mob attacks in every direction, to a receptive attitude of listening and talking with compassion. It’s unlikely that will happen, but I can hope.