This is What Brainwashing Feels Like

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I open up social media, craving some sort of connection, and the bombardment begins. “Stay home, stay safe,” one friend urges. “There are conspiracies everywhere!” another insists. I’m sad and exhausted quickly, and I regret opening that window.

But I’ll do it again. And again and again. I’m controlled by a hard-dying hope in humanity. It causes me to blindly endure the physiologically-stressing ramifications of anxiety, over and over and over.

Perhaps this is why my closest friends have confided in me that they lay awake at night, convinced that the pressure in their chest means they’re dying of the virus. We’re terrified, angst-riddled and near-panic at all times. Beneath it all is a desperate confusion and mistrust of our own judgments. What IS the right thing to do? When all of reality is constantly shifting, how can we possibly make the correct decisions for ourselves?

I’ve experienced these sensations before. This is exactly what brainwashing feels like.

I was tortured by my stepfather from the age of 3 until I turned 12. He beat and raped me on a weekly basis…well, weekly-ish. He wouldn’t dare develop habits or consistencies that might offer a secure sense of predictability. This man was as meticulous as he was deranged. He liked to keep me on my toes, confused and tired.

Does that hit home a little bit? It should. Open, closed. Mask, no mask. Immunity, no immunity. Kids are invulnerable, oh wait not so much. Elections and death bats and murder hornets, oh my! The narrative of our lives recently has shifted gears so many times, it’s hard to keep up with.

Of course, doctors accurately point out that this is the very nature of nature. We’re dealing with a novel virus. Nobody knows the path it will take. But we can clearly see what the result has been on society: fight, flight, freeze. Those are the go-to responses to any crisis.

We’ve evolved over the years with a clear-cut, biological call-to-arms deep within our bodies. It’s in our nature to recognize danger and respond to it with urgency. This logical action began in the time of cavemen stalking for food and running for their lives. Adrenaline. We all know that coursing, heady rush when our heart palpitates, sweat forms on our brow, our breath quickens and pupils dilate. Some report a tingling in their nerves, a heightened pain perception that lets them sense danger closing in as quickly as possible.

The problem is, that urgent response was not developed for the issues of today. The hazards we tend to face now are prolonged, eery, looming threats with no true beginning or end. Our adrenaline rush is more like an adrenaline rollercoaster – bobbing up and down, weaving in and out as our lizard brain shouts “threat!” but our academic brain reasons, “shhh, I’m processing important information.” We have absolutely no way of knowing what warrants our attention, so we ping-pong between the most urgent-seeming crisis to the next. 

We weren’t built for the utter chaos and noise of emotional turmoil. We definitely weren’t built for the age of “fake news.” Our body interprets all of this input as war. With our pulsing veins and overstimulated senses, we may as well be under attack. After all, the PTSD present in brainwash survivors and in military veterans behaves the same, by-and-large. When a traumatized brain struggles to process what it has endured, it gloms onto all sorts of weird answers and solutions. Whatever looks like a fix, that psyche will clutch onto HARD. And unfortunately, the often offered-up answers and solutions in most modern-day crises are…well…not super helpful.

Bill Gates is the enemy. The government is poisoning us. Guns are the answer. Scientists are evil. Inject bleach!

I'm a political moderate who tends to take everything with a grain of salt (years of being lied to by family members will do that to a person). After decades of therapy focused on undoing my previous brainwashing, my brain is now fairly well-versed in NOT responding to propaganda. That said, even for me, the state of the world has been absolutely overwhelming as I try to assess news without reacting emotionally. For already-primed brains that tend to follow extreme party lines without question, the back-and-forth has to feel even more confusing and disheartening.

I’m now married with a bunch of kids and a house and business to focus on. You'd think the sheer volume of things requiring my attention would drown out the nonsense. But nah. I still work daily to quiet voices embedded deep in my head. They whisper the grossest, most asinine things and attempt to steal my focus from what really matters. Maybe rape IS my fault. Perhaps I AM crazy. I bet I’m letting everyone down. My family is too fragile to survive this. 

That’s just me, one victim of brainwashing by one person who was focused on a singular issue. On a global scale, the ramifications of group-think and dysfunctional messaging are horrifying. What we end up with, collectively, is a dramatic impairment in our own ability to judge situations on their face and respond appropriately. Brainwashing trains the mind to do incredibly odd things. It latches onto falsehoods as fact and outright denies the truth if it doesn't jive with the more-convenient narrative. 

Slowly but surely, the recipients of brainwashing learn to quiet the voices in their mind that question when things don’t add up. The situation becomes so frenetic and polarized, people eventually learn that voicing their hesitations only causes more discord. And the brain that cries out for calm will do anything to keep chaos from occurring – including silence and submission.

Brainwashers delight in confused, exhausted minds that eventually become so malleable they can plant their messages to be repeated verbatim.

Repetition and time are powerful things, especially when they’re played against a hopeful soul that keeps on coming back for more.


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