Woofers and Tweeters: How Fight-or-Flight Holds the Key to Ending the Shutdown

January 24, 2019 by Melody A. Kramer
LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 07: In this photo illustration, the Twitter logo and hashtag '#Ring!' is displayed on a mobile device as the company announced its initial public offering and debut on the New York Stock Exchange on November 7, 2013 in London, England. Twitter went public on the NYSE opening at USD 26 per share, valuing the company's worth at an estimated USD 18 billion. (Photo by Bethany Clarke/Getty Images)

For years I have made a pilgrimage to Colorado to attend a paradigm-smashing event called “48 Hours of Adrenaline.” This event features self-defense training involving the powerful forces of fight-or-flight, the body’s instinctive reaction to feeling threatened. What I learned there has helped me in other aspects of life and I think can help in solving the current government shutdown.

Understanding fight-or-flight helps you understand human nature. The body reacts the same way to any kind of fearful situation from dealing with an armed attacker to fears like public speaking. Sweaty palms, rapid heart rate, tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, are all symptoms of fight-or-flight, preparations to fight or run away.

The instructors at “48 Hours of Adrenaline” have perfected the art of tricking students into fight-or-flight. The developers of this training have refined the art of “woofing.” Woofing is taking on a bad guy persona and confronting a student trying to complete a simple task. Physical contact isn’t required, just foul language, crude innuendo, or personal insults until something snaps in the brain. It rarely takes more than five seconds to provoke a fight-or-flight response. You can see the unmistakable switch in the student’s eye. We all have triggers like this. If you don’t know what yours are, just ask your spouse or kids—they know.

Woofing is a sport played in politics too, especially on Twitter. Insult a politician, it pushes a button, instantly riling them up, just like woofers do. Once triggered, nobody thoughtfully considers the content of what is said, they just attack back, viciously and without thought of any long-term consequences. This is because while the body reallocates resources to increase physical strength and stamina, it takes those resources from elsewhere, including reducing fine motor skills and . . . critical thinking skills. That’s right. If you are mad, woofed into a state of fight-or-flight, you’ll have a hard time picking up a penny or solving a crossword puzzle.

In fight-or-flight mode your brain shuts off the critical thinking circuits that would otherwise look at the big picture and see creative solutions to problems. All your brain knows in the moment is to survive the immediate threat to your reputation, your ego, your chances of re-election. You shoot off that vitriolic, well-deserved, responsive tweet and then the other guy acts like he’s being attacked. Sure, he may have had it coming, but that no longer matters. His body’s perception that he is under attack becomes the reality. It shifts his body chemistry and allocation of resources because he’s in fight-or-flight mode too, his critical thinking skills and ability to pick up pennies is also gone. Now both sides just look like two dogs barking at each other because, in fact, they sort of are. Barking dogs aren’t known for problem solving.

Professional woofers understand that cooperation isn’t all that interesting. It doesn’t get people to “Like” or “Comment” or “Follow.” It doesn’t sell newspapers, books, or advertising. So, insults are hurled from behind computers and phones without thought of consequence and perceived and real threats become our steady diet. Even uttering the words “wall” or “no wall” are now buttons that can be pushed at will to piss off people and shut down their critical thinking.

Regarding the shutdown, indications are that Trump did not “start” the current standoff. You might have already felt an adrenaline rush with that simple sentence, but let me explain. The White House’s budget had certain funding requests in it and, by all accounts both Republicans and Democrats more or less agreed to all of them. No big battle, bipartisan vote in the Senate, ready for a vote in the House. Then something happened. He woofed at other people, trying to regain control of the situation by acting like a predator instead of prey. Did he think through his actions carefully? No, because his critical thinking skills were gone. Some could argue they have been gone for his entire presidency because he has perceived attacks from every angle. Is his feeling of being attacked warranted factually? It doesn’t matter. Trump feels threatened and therefore his body acts like he’s under threat, and thus no critical thinking skills.

So here we all sit in this stew of adrenaline without a critically thinking mind in sight and a quarter of our government is shutdown. We need to acknowledge the physiological piece of the puzzle and mitigate its effects.

First, stop treating this situation as a standoff. “Standing strong” is counterproductive. Do we all want to be here a year from now, two dogs “standing strong” atop a destroyed government and devastated economy? Of course not. Strategic movements away from each other to reduce tensions are essential. Back up a bit so everybody feels less threatened.

Second, each side needs to give the other something it wants. I’m not talking about trading chunks of money around in a budget, I’m talking about something they can feel good about. Once I was able to settle a huge, intractable lawsuit by simply acknowledging the effort of the other attorney. The last thing you want to do is to give something of value to a person who just ticked you off, but it works, and at the end of the day, don’t we really want what works?

Third, stop worrying about the vagaries of voters and polls. Congressional representatives were elected to make good decisions for their constituents and the country and those are their decisions to make. Media and political pundits, even political parties, have their place, but they aren’t the chosen decision makers. Occasionally, shut off your TV, step away from your computer, put down your phone. Regain your sense of service and duty that caused you to run for office in the first place. Even a good night’s sleep helps reduce the perpetual fight-or-flight reactions in your body. The country needs your calm, clear leadership, to pick up those pennies lying on the table and thus to harness your critical thinking skills to pick up the pieces of a government shattered by dysfunction.

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