Surviving the pandemic: old brain versus new brain
If we had a dollar for every time the phrase “living in unprecedented times” was mentioned, we would all have shiny new yachts in the harbour by now. Well, maybe not quite, but we might be much less worried about our Belco bill.
So what do these so-called unprecedented times really mean in terms of our brains?
Well, we can think about of our brain as being separated into two parts: old and new. The old part of our brain derives from simpler times, and so is programmed to deal with basic survival functions, and, mainly, being chased by lions and bears!
This part of our brain stores our safety system (the amygdala) and it is pretty basic in that it has only three settings: fight, flight or freeze. Our fight or flight response basically tells our body to get ready; and, with a surge in cortisol and adrenalin, our hearts beat faster and our energy moves to our arms and legs, and away from functions not required for a fight or a sprint. Our freeze response is essentially a paralysed, play-dead approach. Although threat responses were pretty effective for our predecessors, they don’t always help us out in modern times. Here’s why ...
Old brain trumps new brain
The more modern parts of our brain — the executive functions in our frontal lobes — which help us to imagine, plan, sequence and envisage consequences, tend to be harder to access when the threat system in our old brain is activated. This means that, sometimes, regardless of what our new brain has to say about it, our threat system is still going haywire, and we feel the emotional and physical impact of anxiety. It also, rather unhelpfully, means we are less good at problem solving when we are emotionally aroused.
Of course, there is a serious threat, so our threat mode is activated. But, with our limited options of fight, flight or freeze, we aren’t really geared up for a virus pandemic. We cannot punch the virus or outrun it. Staying frozen for more than a year probably isn’t all that doable, either. You see the problem here, right?
Our brains have us agitated and ready to attack or run for the hills, but what we are really told we need to do is work from home, avoid others and put in a moderate grocery order. So where does all the excess energy go and what do we do with all these physical symptoms?
Acute versus chronic
Another downside to our old brain is that it’s really programmed to respond to acute threat. Enter Covid-19. That’s right, another fail. Now, we have a threat-activated brain telling us to fight or run, over and over. Meanwhile, Covid is still there; and, if anything, getting more and more angry. It’s no surprise that we feel tense, agitated, anxious and downright weird. And we haven’t even started talking about the knock-on stress and trauma caused by the pandemic. Add to that, the collective grief and anxiety of society, and ... well, you can see why mental-health referrals are soaring.
If you take nothing else from this, know that you are not alone. This is a stressful situation, and if you are feeling out of sorts as a result, that is entirely normal. It simply means you are a human being with a normally functioning brain.
• Gemma Harris, ClinPsyD, is Director of Corporate Wellness at Solstice, and writes on Instagram as @theexdoctor