When the going gets tough…

Things are tough. No two ways about it.

Personally, people are taking strain. There is fear and uncertainty. Our amygdala’s have commandeered our brains and our behaviour. Uncertainty abounds and people are somewhat panicked.

There is a phenomenon known as the amygdala hijack, coined by Daniel Goleman in 1996 (Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ). To understand this, you need to know that the amygdala in our brain (in the temporal lobe) is responsible for giving meaning to emotions, and attaching associations and responses to those emotions. Conditions such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and phobias are suspected of being linked to abnormal functioning of the amygdala.

We all know that in the face of a threat, humans tend to flee, fight or freeze. This response is due to the amygdala which activates the fight-or-flight response by sending out signals to release stress hormones that prepare your body to fight or run away. This response is triggered by emotions like fear, anxiety, aggression, and anger.

The thing that stops us from attacking or running, in most instances, is the cerebral cortex (frontal lobe). This part of our brain is our more ‘adult’ brain, and enables us to think, reason and make decisions. The cerebral cortex allows us to process and think about our emotions. We can then manage our emotions and decide on a logical response. Unlike the automatic response of the amygdala, the response to fear from your cerebral cortex is consciously controlled by you.

Enter Corona Virus…

Fight. Flight. Freeze.

Panic. Mayhem. Depression. Dissension.

Our Amygdala’s have got us putting on our tinfoil hats, donning our face masks, deodorising with sanitiser, and seeing danger everywhere. What’s up with this?

Humans have an intrinsic need to know why. That’s what.

Think about it… you hear a loud clanging at night, your senses are heightened… your heart races… and your assumption is that there is a threat lurking. Some of you want to jump out of bed and go get it, others bury under the covers and hope it goes away. But then your trusty rational brain kicks in, and you remember the precariously balanced baking tin on the dry rack, and that the window was open… and your brain comes to the realisation that it was just the wind that knocked it over into the sink. Body systems return to normal…   deep sigh of relief. Crisis over.

But Coronavirus is the unknown. It is a new threat that we don’t know enough about yet, although that knowledge is growing daily, but our rational brain is battling to figure this one out, and to find an intentional causality, and as such we seem to be relying on our amygdala to direct us. Emotions are high. People are sensitive. And desperate for answers.

Enter… Corona Theories.  

Why are they so prolific at the moment? What is making people so vulnerable to even the craziest of them?

Our brains have a built-in need to search for patterns, solutions and answers, but sometimes those brains we rely so heavily on, will find patterns where there are actually none. Add to that the fear we feel when we’re not in control of a situation and other psychological principles like confirmation bias, and we have the perfect recipe for our brains to investigate bizarre explanations.

Quite honestly, I don’t really care what explanation you ascribe to. This is not what this is about. Whether you believe it’s a god-sent virus to counter overpopulation, or you think it’s the doings of some eccentric individual or syndicate, or a mysteriously high power radio frequency developed by sinister Dr Evil sitting above the clouds, or even if you believe it is some alien virus brought to us by Barney the dinosaur, flying Santa’s unicorn-driven sleigh over the earth, sprinkling these nasty, spiky balls of contagion… I honestly don’t want to know and do NOT want to spark a debate about who is right. That is for our own brains to figure out.

What I do care about is our mental health.

What I care about is that we understand how our brains are functioning at the moment, and why we are scouring the media, following the loudest tweeters, and listening to any and all theorists.

It is because our brains are desperate for an explanation.
So that we can then understand it.
So that we can then find solutions.
So that we can finally feel in control again.
So that we can get rid of this feeling of being under threat permanently.

It’s the same part of our brain that initially panicked that the loud clanging sound in the night was a hooded psychopath, coming to rid you of both your kidneys and your right big toe to sell on the black market for some off the wall cure for impotence.

We need to acknowledge our amygdala. But also recognise what it is doing to our cortisol levels, our stress, and our brains.  

I also care that we understand that this virus will leave us eventually, or at least become less threateing. And what we will be left with are the people. Our people. And those relationships need to be protected now, because those are what are going to keep us sane, support us, and sustain us through these times.

So regardless of your views… take a deep breath. Recognise how your brain is functioning at the moment, and try give it space for your frontal cortex to step in and try calmly figure things out for you. Stay human and protect your relationships. Those matter more than anything else. They did pre-Corona, they do now, and they will post-Corona.

And for Pete’s sake do not let your overactive amygdalas hijack more than you want. Stress exacerbates anger, aggression, fear and the fight-or-flight response, which can result in us reacting illogically, and irrationally to situations.  Actions we will probably regret later on.

Love thy neighbour people, even if it is from a 2m distance, and even if they have opposing views to you. This is your brain’s coping mechanism, but don’t let that impulsive amygdala muck everything up for you.


Stay safe…stay sane

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