The constant barrage of news, cloaked in attention-getting words and images, is playing havoc with instinctual behavior that is millions of years old. There is, for me, a direct connection between fight or flee, chronic stress, and how we have chosen to use the medium of digital communication. Digital media is an out-of-control fear machine.
We are born with certain instinctual behaviors. By what every means it is passed along, all of us have a fight or flight instinct when faced with danger. Can we all agree that when we fear for our lives, all of us fight or flee?
While it has many names, there is a consistent underlying physiologic response. Our sympathetic nervous system prepares us among other changes:
Speeding up our heart, increasing its ability to contract, and increasing and deepening our respirations to provide limitless oxygen.
- Shunt blood to our muscles, reduce flow from our GI tract
- Reduce our vision and hearing to focus on our perceived danger
- Liberate energy to make it quickly available to our muscles
It also alters our emotions and thoughts
- The greater the intensity of our emotional response, the more we are likely to feel anxious or aggressive.
- We are more attentive to negative stimuli that are signaling danger. That attention includes an enhanced recall of negative words and the perception of uncertainty as dangerous.
- It modifies our perception of control, some finding themselves empowered, others disabled
Fight or flee has garnered much attention, but it is only the first stage in what is described as a general adaptive response that grew out of the work of Hans Selye . Fight or flee was followed by a transitional phase as the body’s homeostatic mechanism tried to counter the earlier “shock” phase. One of two possible pathways would follow in the final resolution phase – either homeostasis would allow a balanced recovery or those physiologic responses would continue until exhausted, leaving the body more susceptible and less resilient to further episodes of fight or flee. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is in many ways the exhaustion phase of the general adaptation response.
We are no longer on the Savannah. While lions and rhinos can still kill us, they are not feared animals we come across in our daily lives. On a daily basis, we might run across a rat, spider, or snake, and for many of us, a fight or flee response will kick in. There is another hardwired, innate trait; we are social creatures, like all of our primate ancestors and relatives. We form tribes, although relabeled as family and friends. Again, we are fearful for reasons we may never fully understand, of “the others,” those outside our tribe. And because that is in part a cultural inheritance, “the other” varies from tribe to tribe.
Among the stress-induced alterations in our emotions and thoughts was the enhanced recall of negative words, words reflecting danger. It is not hard to understand how words that clearly have a social origin may reflect culturally inherited fears.
The Fear Machine
The underlying goal of Internet media is to hold your attention while serving up ads, likes, shares, anything to keep you on their page. This is not just social media, but the digital versions of newspapers and magazines that were in the attention business long before Twitter was an idea or Mark Zuckerberg was born. All of these outlets for communication employ algorithms optimized to maintain your attention, serving up a variety of “if you like this, you will like, or maybe love, that.”
We are not hardwired to pay full attention to happiness; as Joni Mitchell said, “you don’t know what you got till it's gone.” But we are hardwired to attend to danger - “if it bleeds, it leads.” The media that delivers our news is driving us mad. It does so by constantly arousing our fight or flee response by signaling danger. The signals include the readily appreciated, like “breaking news,” and the more subtle, the repetition of the same emotion-provoking news packages on a 20 or 30-minute cycle.
Our two million-year-old instincts to fight or flee in the presence of danger are no match for a 24-hour news cycle. And let’s be honest, you don’t need to know anything immediately other than what will directly affect you, inclement weather, traffic problems, or the rogue shooter at the mall. Hearing five times a day about the mask mandate or the latest thoughts of Governors DeSantis or Abbot or Dr. Fauci doesn’t advance your knowledge, but it does, because of how you choose your media, provoke a stress response. The Internet drives us mad by creating continued stress – in our adaptive response; we are exhausted – the Internet as a medium is causing all of us some form of PTSD.
Look back at stress’s physiology. Attention to negative words, interpreting uncertainty as danger (and with a novel virus in pandemic mode, far more is uncertain than known). The changes in the function of our hearts increase our blood pressure, the effects on our metabolism promote higher blood sugars. It would be a reach to claim that the Internet causes hypertension or the increased insulin resistance of Type II diabetes. But that said, many studies have suggested that chronic stress plays a role in both of these conditions. Could it be that the Internet, or at least the way we have fashioned it to communicate among us, is a public health risk?
In my opinion, we do not need Big Tech to become corporate censors. We need Big Tech to turn off the algorithms driving our attention. Instead of algorithmically serving up another news package of fear, return control of the news feed to the individual. Let them seek out the news for themselves. I'm betting we stay just as informed and far less stressed.
 In full transparency, Selye acted as an expert on tobacco legislation, arguing against health warnings and limits on nicotine and tar. He received undisclosed research grants from Philip Morris. This unethical behavior should not detract from his much earlier work.