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What Tribalism is Doing to Your Brain (and How to Stop It)


Call me old, but I remember a movie called Panic Room starring Jodie Foster. The premise is that this family had a secure room they could all run to if and when there was an intruder. Spoiler alert: there's an intruder and they flee to the panic room.

In many ways, this is what happens in our tribes when we encounter someone or something we view as a threat. No matter the tribe (political, family, social, church) and no matter the threat (political policy, theological difference, offensive post), we circle the wagons looking for safety and validation in and for our tribe.

I’m guessing that dynamic is familiar to most of you. What might not be so familiar is the origin of that dynamic: our physiology.

Stick with me for a 3-minute lesson on what happens in our bodies and brains when we're threatened. By the end, you’ll learn what to do to de-escalate tribalism in your life and in the lives and communities around you.

What happens to you when you’re under threat:

1. Your body recognizes the threat.

In the face of threats, our bodies go into protective mode via our autonomic nervous system. This system has two main highways - the sympathetic and parasympathetic.

2. Your adrenaline starts pumping.

When threatened, our sympathetic system activates. Think of this as the accelerator. The blood rushes away from our extremities and towards our core because we're prepping for a perceived fight where our hearts need all the blood it can get. Our adrenal glands pump cortisol and adrenaline throughout our body to prep for the impending threat.  

Once we're on this sympathetic highway, there are three main responses - fight, flight, or freeze. Fight means we rise to the occasion and attack whatever/whoever is attacking us. Flight means we run away, just like the family in Panic Room. Freeze means just that - we're paralyzed and don't do anything.

3. You hit the brakes.

What gets us off the sympathetic highway, allowing us to back off the fight/flight/freeze response? Our parasympathetic system. Think of this as the brakes. One of the main ways we begin accessing the breaks is simple: slow and steady breathing. My kids call it "taking turtle breaths." 

When we slowly and consistently breathe our diaphragm expands and pushes on our adrenal glands. In the face of that slow and consistent pressure, the glands stop the flow of the hormones, and eventually we become more relaxed.

This is how the body works to protect us and keep us alive. While helpful when facing a Grizzly bear, our sympathetic system’s reaction to threats can cause some issues in modern life.

Here’s how:

  • You’re not thinking clearly.

When our bodies and brains are in fight, flight, or freeze mode, we cannot think coherently. Literally. The most advanced part of our brain is called the prefrontal cortex (PFC). It is responsible for synthesizing, assessing, and evaluating situations, information, and more. When it's working, it helps us calmly respond in and to stressing, confusing, and complex situations.

  • You rapidly search for safety.

When we experience a threat, our PFC goes offline. Think of an ostrich burying its head in the sand. When this happens, we begin frenetic reaction to make quick(er) choices with the hopes of gaining safety faster.

  • Your brain learns to stay in panic-mode.

The more we experience and practice frenetic reaction, the easier and more natural it becomes. Why? Because "neurons that fire together wire together." This is known as Hebb's axiom, named for Donald Hebb, a neuropsychologist who was known for his work in associative learning.

Hebb’s axiom teaches us that every experience, thought, feeling, and sensation triggers thousands of neurons in our brain to form neural networks. Therefore, when we repeat an experience again and again, our brain learns to trigger the same neurons each time.

Are you starting to see where and how this might be relevant in our tribalistic times?

For example, the most recent headline from the Wall Street Journal on my iPhone states, "Putin threatens to abandon grain deal, further squeeze energy supplies to the West."

This is the epitome of a threatening post. It draws us in through fear and uncertainty. For those of us interested enough, we will read because in some way we believe our survival depends upon it, which naturally sends our bodies and brains onto the sympathetic highway. If if if we read on, which many will not, we learn that the global price of wheat is up 4%, our systems get wound a bit tighter and we become a bit more nervous, anxious, and perhaps even scared.

But Austin. Come on. This is just one post. I'm smart and wise and aware enough to not be sent into frenetic reaction by one post. You're probably right. But what would happen if we were exposed to 100 of these headlines per day? 500? What about 1,000?

As of 2021, the average person is exposed to 10,000 media messages every single day. Journalism isn't an independent enterprise. It's a for-profit institution, which means they're going to do whatever they can to get more eyes on their page. And what get eyes on pages? Getting us to believe that our survival is at stake.

Now, I’m not saying we should stop consuming news and media. But perhaps we should take a step back and consider not only the political, theological, and social impacts, but also the physiological and neurobiological impacts of what we’re taking into our brains.

What if one root of the tribalism that’s currently dividing our society, steadily compounding in intensity, isn't somewhere out there but is instead in our own (neurological) backyard

Here are four things you can do to resist this physiological impact of tribalism.
These aren’t one-time "Hail Mary's" to instantly reverse the effects of tribalism. Instead, think of them like "workouts at the gym. One workout won't make much difference on the road to health, but ongoing and consistent ones will.

1. Reflect

Reflect on these questions to identify what’s effecting you.

When does your brain and body enter the sympathetic highway, triggering a fight/flight/freeze response?

    • What content, circumstances, and/or communities do you find threatening?
    • Where, how, and to what degree do you find yourself frenetically reacting?

2. Own up

Yes, things happen to us that are out of our control. But this does not absolve us from taking responsibility for how we react to those things. That Wall Street Journal article might make me angry, frustrated, or fearful, but I still have a choice of what to do with those emotions.

 Will I share the headline (maybe without reading the actual article?) to my tribe to justify myself and vilify the other side? If so, I need to own the fact that I did not react in a Christ-like manner, apologizing to and asking for forgiveness from anyone who requires it.

3. Breathe

Yes, I just said that. Remember, breathing applies the brakes and engages our parasympathetic nervous system, enabling our thinking brain get back online so we can begin to calmly respond in greater degrees.

One effective technique is 7/11 breathing: inhale in for seven seconds and exhale for 11 seconds. 4 rounds of this on a consistent basis will start to make a big difference.

Don't know where to start with breathing techniques? Read about a simple breathing exercise that can actually help you calm anxiety.


4. Listen, then listen some more, and then (maybe) speak

If you'd like to completely disengage from the public discourse, you're free to try. For me, that's not realistic nor desirable. I want, and need, to engage.

James offers some wisdom on how to do so biblically: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.

This means, we must listen to what others are really saying. And then we need to listen some more to make sure we’re really getting it. You’ll know you’re understanding when you can articulate the other side's concerns in a way they'd accept, or maybe even better!

Once we do all that, we can attempt to speak.

Am I being completely naïve in the face of such fierce tribalism? Maybe. Will any of these be effective against it? Possibly. Is this how I can be faithful to Jesus in this moment? Absolutely.  

I'm not sure where and how these four workouts will reduce tribalism in your life and the lives of others. But I do know it will be difficult, slow going, and entirely worth it.  

Why? Because these four steps—reflect, own up, breathe, and listen—will help others trapped in a world of fear, insecurity, paralysis, and rage experience and embody the joys of peace, security, charity, and unity.

Do you want to learn more about how and why your brain reacts the way it does to circumstance in your life? Don't miss the new podcast from The Crossing's counseling team, With You in the Weeds. Listen to hear honest conversations about how to manage your mental health, stress, emotions, and more!