This is Part 2 of the article, Why You Aren’t Thinking Clearly: The Brain Science of Fear in Uncertain Times. We strongly encourage you to read Part 1 before diving in here, to understand how our brains are doing exactly what they were designed to do.
Calming Your Survival Brain
If you’ve tried reasoning with yourself, or laying blame, or otherwise using logic and knowledge to overcome whatever level of anxiety / stress / fear is laying below the surface, then you already know how unlikely it is that that approach will work. And it is especially unlikely to work if you are trying to help others remain calm by telling them to “stay calm!”
From reading here so far, you can now see why that isn’t working. Because our survival brains are leading the way, and because that part of the brain has limited capacity for rational thought, it is no use trying to fight emotion with logic.
That means that the approaches most likely to work are those that speak the language of that hair-trigger survival brain.
The following is a short list of approaches that might help you feel calmer in the face of ongoing stress triggers. We hope you will add to this list in the comments.
1) Listen to Notice, Understand, and Connect
Connection requires at least some degree of understanding. When we do not understand the people around us, we tend to other-ize them. “They’re so (fill in the blank – Dumb? Crazy? Messed up?)” is a way of separating ourselves from others. And right now, our brains need us to feel connection, even as we are practicing social distance.
The key here is to notice examples of fear-based thinking in yourself. Notice what is guiding your decisions. Ask yourself, “What am I feeling right now? Where am I noticing that feeling – in my head? In my tightening muscles? In my gut?”
Notice if you’re dropping things or feeling unusually clumsy. Notice if your gut feels tied in knots. Notice if you’re suddenly sending more and more apologies for inaccurate emails. Notice if you’re simply not feeling like yourself.
And as you notice that in yourself, realize that is what everyone around you is feeling.
One practice I find helpful is to put myself in the shoes of others, to intentionally feel their pain and fear. When I breathe in the pain of someone else, I can stop blaming them for making seemingly silly choices, and can begin to understand why they made that choice. When I listen in that way, doing my best to feel what that other person might be feeling, my judgment about them falls away as my compassion grows.
Importantly, when our judgments fall away, the survival brain has no reason to fire when we think of that person. During these times when everyone around us is afraid to some extent, connecting to their fears through the lens of compassion is a solid step in quieting our own survival reactions.
Meditation helps us to gain awareness, to notice what we’re feeling. How can we do something about feeling anxious or stressed if we don’t know we’re feeling anxious or stressed? Meditation, practiced over time, will help you gain control over your reflexive reactions, first and foremost by making you aware of them.
It is one thing to be afraid; it is another to allow fear to make your decisions. Meditation creates a powerful path for separating “how you feel” from the actions you take, simply by making you aware of what is really happening in your mind.
3) Connect, Connect, Connect
If our brain chemistry is wired for connecting with others, then we will find comfort when we go where our brains are leading us.
If you are sequestered with other people, hug. Hold their hands. Rub their backs. Hug again. Touch each other. Humans need touch to survive and thrive.
For those friends and loved ones who are too far away to touch (and these days, that might be just 6 feet away!), reach out to tell them you love them. Bonus points if you tell them the things you love about them (see the Gratitude section below). Even more bonus points if you can forgive them for whatever you may be holding against them.
Our survival brains need that feeling of connection and belonging. Even as you are staying away from others, the more you can connect meaningfully and emotionally, from a place of love and forgiveness, the more likely your survival brain will stay quiet, at least for a little while.
4) Start a Gratitude Practice
A scrap of paper pinned to the bulletin board above my desk has a hand-written reminder I wrote myself long ago. It says, “When I am feeling fear or scarcity, gratitude is the answer.”
Why is gratitude such a powerful elixir? Because gratitude is rooted in the mechanics of our brains.
First, gratitude can remind us that there is still good stuff in our lives, with much that is going well. Feeling stronger because of what is solid can help set our minds at ease.
In addition, gratitude reminds us that at least in that specific situation, our connection to others is strong, and that good things have happened because of that.
Here at Creating the Future, a big part of how we provide our mission is to speak at conferences and to create other types of in-person gatherings. Those programs are also a big part of our revenue stream. As we prepare to address the economic strain that is accompanying this pandemic, yesterday I sat down to assess our financial situation.
The moment I looked at what is now a meaningless budget, my brain did what it is programmed to do: I panicked. I knew what was happening, knew why those chemicals were coursing through my veins. But that didn’t mean I could stop it.
So I went into the other room and asked my husband, “Would you help me find gratitude? I’ve been doing financial projections for the past hour, and I can’t even calm myself to list who I’m grateful for. Would you help me kick off that list?”
Within just 10 minutes, I felt calm enough to go for a walk, make dinner, watch some television. I was able to do all those things with a good degree of peace, all because I had fed my brain an antidote to scarcity… gratitude for what we DO have.
So ask yourself who you’re grateful for. For even more power, create a chain of gratitude, going back through cause-and-effect to thank everyone who contributed to that thing for which you are grateful.
We’ve all heard that exercise can release feel-good chemicals in our brains (endorphins). These days, we can use all the feel-good chemicals our bodies can produce!
Whether it is a walk outside, a full-blown workout at home, or dancing with your kids in the living room, exercise could be your brain’s best friend, releasing pent-up energy in your muscles, and releasing happy chemicals into your bloodstream.
6) Compassion and Kindness for Self
Hopefully, understanding what is happening in your brain is a first step towards being compassionate to yourself. Once you know why you suddenly cannot remember simple things, or why you keep bumping into things, you will be able to stop blaming yourself. “Damn, I’m suddenly so clumsy!” can be replaced with, “Oh, I see what’s happening!”
With that understanding, and especially with the understanding that your brain is seeking control and predictability, do the things that normally give you a sense of control. Create new routines, and stick to them as your “new normal.” Clear out the junk closet. Clean the bathroom. Sew or paint or garden or play the piano. Whatever keeps your hands busy (your muscles releasing pent-up energy by moving), if it doesn’t require a whole lot of rational thought – do that.
Having clean closets will do nothing to prevent disease. But it may just give you a bit of room to breathe, even just for a little while.
7) Drive with Compassion and Wisdom
Understanding what is going on in the brain of pretty much everyone these days, it is more important now than ever to be mindful when you get behind the wheel.
Mindful driving is first about ourselves. Obviously the mandate to PUT THE CELL PHONE AWAY has even more meaning when our brains are distracted to begin with. Slow down, breathe deep as you turn the key. Remind yourself to notice, to be on heightened alert. Use every red light to re-center yourself.
I find the New Years Eve mindset is helpful these days – imagining that every single person on the road is drunk. That heightened awareness has helped me avert several accidents this week.
I’m also seeking out parking spots that allow me to drive forward vs. having to back out of that space. Pedestrians leaving supermarkets are thinking far more about where they can find baby wipes than watching for cars. And I don’t want to back into them!
Secondly, be compassionate of all those other drivers. Instead of blaming them for being distracted, understand them. Use Exercise #1 to breathe in the fact that, like you, their world has been knocked off its axis, and they are trying to cope the best they can. Things are discomforting enough without adding road rage to the equation.
8) Help Others Understand What’s Happening in Their Own Brains
If this article has helped you breathe for a moment, by seeing that what you’re experiencing is exactly what we humans are built to experience, share that knowledge with others. The more we can all breathe a bit more deeply, the more we can take actions that will bring out the best in each other. And that will help to keep us all safe emotionally as well as physically.
At the end of the last leg of my 36 hours on planes last weekend, the woman next to me, who had been spilling things all over the place, finally found her packet of disinfectant wipes. “You’ve been so kind,” she told me. “Take this packet. I can’t figure out why I couldn’t find it before. And I’m so sorry we kept spilling stuff. What a mess we are! This isn’t normally us…”
And so I took a moment to share with her what I’ve just shared with you in this article. That that is how our brains are wired. That we are all dropping things and running into walls. None of us can find car keys or eyeglasses or our phones. I explained that what she was experiencing is just how our brains work.
And in front of my eyes, my seatmate’s shoulders relaxed. She took a deep breath, only to realize that she hadn’t breathed in what felt like days.
These are all gifts we can give to ourselves and those around us – the gifts of connection, compassion, gratitude, and understanding. These are the gifts our brains need right now. And hopefully those gifts will provide a bit more calm during these deviously uncertain times.
* Please note:
If you are quarantined with someone who is abusive and you are in fear for your life or your children’s lives, organizations in communities around the world are there to help. This article from the National Domestic Violence Hotline is a good start.