Our family walked down to Hillsborough Bay, where a spectacular view of the fireworks could be enjoyed. Bayshore Boulevard, with its seemingly ancient stone rail, stretched along the water, just down the street from Grammie’s house. I stood on my six-year-old tip toes to see the salty water below lapping against the rocks. This walk down to the water was a common ritual on visits to Grammie’s house, especially on the Fourth of July. As we stood waiting for the fireworks to launch over the water, my father hoisted me up and put my feet on the railing. I screamed in terror! “No, no, put me down!” My Dad held me securely, insisting I was safe, but I remained unconvinced. He finally relented and put my feet back on the firm, safe, concrete sidewalk. Never was concrete so comforting.
This, my friends, is a tale of the amygdala, a tale of fear. The amygdala, an almond-sized part of your brain, tells you when “fight or flight” is necessary. It’s the alarm going off in my six-year-old head, saying, “Get off that railing before you plummet to your grisly death!” Perfectly reasonable fear, right? (Please don’t take my Dad’s side!) Some of our fears, however, are less rational.
Why Belief Discussions Trigger the Amygdala
A belief discussion is a conversation about religious, political, moral or other kinds of important beliefs. I think that we fear belief discussions for the same reason we fear physical confrontations–fear of being hurt. But the injuries we fear are mental and emotional, not physical. Of course, if we know that the other person agrees with us completely, then no fear! But typically, we suspect there will be disagreement. And disagreements often feel like mental punches, bruising and even crashing through our worldview. I’m not saying that all conversations about beliefs are “fights,” but they often can be.
Our amygdala normally helps us to avoid danger and protect our bodies when necessary. But it can get a little too jumpy. In our age of social media and high-stress work environments, our response systems are on high alert too often. “The result,” writes New York Times columnist Kate Murphy, “is often a juiced-up amygdala more apt to flip you into fight, flight or freeze mode in response to even the slightest concern, and keep you there, rather than return you to a state of calm in the absence of clear and present danger.”
Calming Your Amygdala
So what do we do? There are several options. First, you can avoid all belief discussions. This seems neither realistic nor desirable. It lies outside reality because any community we engage with will draw us into belief discussions. To avoid these conversations is to avoid meaningful relationships altogether. It is undesirable because without engaging in dialogue with others about important issues, we never mature in our own views. We remain as children, clinging to simplistic perspectives with inadequate support.
A second approach is learning to suppress your amygdala. I’ve read a number of articles on practices and techniques for avoiding amygdala-triggering. Psychologist/author Arlin Cuncic writes that, “Emotionally intelligent people know how to de-escalate their own emotions as well as those of others by becoming engaged, focused, and attentive to their thoughts and feelings.” Dr. Matt Lieberman found that when people label their emotional reaction, like saying “I’m feeling angry,” the amygdala response decreased. “Psychologists and neuroscientists are also finding that the amygdala is less apt to freak out if you are reminded that you are loved or could be loved.” Dr. Ried Wilson writes that we can train our amygdala to not freak out by simulating stressful scenarios with positive outcomes.
I think these techniques are helpful, but I want to propose a third approach. Rather than training ourselves to suppress our amygdala, why not take a preventative strategy? I think we can find a way to prepare ourselves so that belief discussions don’t trigger the amygdala at all, or at least trigger it far less often.
Strengthening Our House
Remember the tale of the three little pigs? The story teaches us that a well-built house, though it takes more time and and effort, provides peace and security. The first two pigs probably experienced fear and anxiety when the wolf approached. But not the third pig. Now, I’m not saying that those who disagree with us are like dangerous canines who must be barred from our lives. The analogy in the story only goes so far. What I am saying is that a strong house/worldview, constructed carefully with solid bricks/beliefs, decreases our fear of injury.
So if you want to experience less fear and more confidence in belief discussions, you might take a page from all three play-books mentioned above. Avoid unnecessary, hostile conversations. Learn to de-escalate your panic reaction by labeling your emotions, remembering that you are loved, and even practicing belief discussions with safe people. But most of all, do a little “home improvement.” Survey your worldview, reflect on important beliefs and your reasons for holding them. Shore up sagging cross beams, repair the leaky roof, replace parts that are weak or inadequate to bear the load of a mature set of beliefs. This takes time and effort, but the payoff is peace, intimacy, and even the ability to persuade when needed.