What do you do when stress escalates, becoming distress? How about when you feel the white-hot anxiety burn?
A husband feels discounted by his wife’s superior intellect so he becomes overly assertive, even slightly aggressive in his posture and mannerisms.
A manager is caught in relational binds between the executives and the front-line staff, finding herself chewing her fingernails to the nub.
A Christian man moving through his midlife transition gravitates toward fundamentalism, unconsciously trying to find something solid in his life.
Therapeutic types have a phrase that describes these typical anxiety-based reactions: regression.
Sigmund Freud first described regression, labeling it as a defense mechanism for coping with anxious experiences.
Simply put, when anxiety goes up, our functioning often goes down, reverting to more primitive and less developed thoughts and actions.
Regressive tendencies under stress are unconscious, happening below our awareness.
It turns out that our brains conspire toward regression. When anxiety-provoking events occur, our attention immediately flees from our large prefrontal cortex (our “thinking cap”) just behind our foreheads, moving two levels down to the amygdala.
Resting just on top of the brain stem, the amygdala is the most primitive part of our brains, telling us what to do in an emergency (fight, flee or freeze).
Thankfully it is there, making the decision to slam on the brakes when a child runs out in front of the car when we round the corner.
Though adaptive and helpful in an emergency, the amygdala is not a great place to hang out or spend much of our time.
When guided by the amygdala, our reactions are primitive, designed to alleviate emergencies. We regress to very basic operations.
Given this, I understand more clearly the rampant anxiety-based reactions in our world.
Regression explains why otherwise sophisticated and rational Christ-followers seem to trade in their understandings of God for more primitive forms when anxiety skyrockets.
In particular, it’s very clear that many Christ-followers appear ready to trade in Jesus for the “Warrior God.”
Early in humanity’s history, survival of the fittest was the rule. Our ancestors tended to extremes when it came to demonstrating their fitness for survival, especially regarding violence.
When one of our family members was killed, we would take out the perpetrator’s entire family in return. You kill one of our tribe’s families; we wipe out your entire tribe. Retribution was swift and excessive.
Into this context, the Hebrew people received guidance from God that introduced fairness. “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,” literally. This retribution rule was far more compassionate than previous practices.
But then the bar was raised again. The advent of the Prince of Peace occurs. This Prince rules with love, believing self-sacrificing love has the power to actually transform the world.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist the evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matthew 5:38-41).
Jesus actually models how to live with love as one’s guiding principle, demonstrating the spiritual poverty of those who oppress and violently rule others.
Christians around the world know these things, favoring Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) as a pinnacle of his teaching.
Yet, when anxiety rises, our tendency is to flee to the amygdala, abandoning the Prince of Peace and his teachings.
We “go primitive,” preferring the Warrior God over God’s son, Jesus Christ.
Evidently, it takes a very disciplined brain and mature faith to stay with Jesus when stress escalates and regression calls.
I pray that God will help us rise to the occasion in this new year, rejecting regression, guided by the power of love modeled and taught by our life teacher, Jesus the Christ.
Mark Tidsworth is president of Pinnacle Leadership Associates.