Brexit and the psychology of threats

PUBLISHED: 17:20 22 August 2017

PA Wire/PA Images

PA Wire/PA Images

PA Wire/PA Images

Brexit-supporting politicians have issued their own threats indicating that if the EU doesn't like what they're proposing they can lump it.

We are used to political language being robust – take unpopular, big-mouthed, unapologetic Donald Trump, who since his election at the end of last year has appalled and angered much of the world with his aggressive and rude tone. But this time he is ear-bashing someone very, very few of us hold in high esteem, the dictator of North Korea, Kim Jong-un. Last week the President’s language tipped over into open threats, promising “fire and fury” and warning that “military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded”.

Threatening language is meant to alarm. As psychologist Dr Rick Hanson author of Hardwiring Happiness writes “whether it’s an individual who worries about the consequences of speaking up at work or in a close relationship, a family cowed by a scary parent, a business fixated on threats instead of opportunities, or a country that’s routinely told it’s under ‘Threat Level Orange’ – it’s the same human brain that reacts in all cases”.

Our brain has evolved to keep us safe. We respond much more readily to negative stimuli than positive. For example, in research studies, people recognise angry faces more quickly than happy ones, and the ancient fight-or-flight limbic system of the brain will be activated by barely glimpsing those fearsome faces. The amygdala uses about two-thirds of its neurons to look for bad news: “It’s primed to go negative.” Negative events and experiences get quickly stored in memory while positive events are more likely to slip away.

So, on one level, threats work – they make us feel endangered by kicking off an automatic feeling of panic. But threatened subject can flee, or give in, which is what Trump hopes that Kim will do, or they can – with the benefit of increased oxygen, raised heart-rate and contracted muscles – stay and fight.

On the welldoing.org site therapists can highlight the areas in which they have expertise, and it’s noticeable how many people seek their help for what amounts to feeling threatened: bullying at work, violence in relationships, trauma from childhood. Therapy can help people recover and calm their terror.

Hanson warns we have to learn not to be triggered by anything that might remind us of a perceived threat; very often the risk is not real. Back on our shores, the Brexit-supporting politicians have issued their own threats indicating that if the EU doesn’t like what they’re proposing they can lump it. But from what we can see so far, Michel Barnier remains calm.

Louise Chunn is the founder of therapy platform welldoing.org

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