Why have we all been having weird dreams, feeling anxious and eating non-stop since the pandemic began? Here, Joan Kingsley, psychotherapist and leadership coach as well as author of The Fear Free Organization, explains what the hell is going on.
Your brain on lockdown
For the past year Caroline and I have met for our weekly psychotherapy sessions over Zoom. Caroline is 70 years old and an amazing, strong, vibrant woman. She’s had a successful career as a literary agent and continues to work remotely. Her husband died eight years ago and her only daughter lives half-way across the world.
Last March, due to certain health issues, Caroline received a letter advising her to shield.
Caroline questioned how she was going to cope living on her own
She would be isolated from her friends and family. But cope she did. Technically inept, Caroline worked out how to join WhatsApp groups, how to order online and how to Zoom with friends, family and clients.
The bad news is that the threat of Covid-19 has been relentless and left Caroline feeling stressed, anxious, and generally out of sorts. Some days she feels like she’s wading through treacle.
The good news is that everything Caroline is feeling is normal.
It’s all to do with the brain going about its work of ensuring survival
The pandemic has been playing havoc with our brains. Understanding that you’re not going crazy, and recognising what is ‘normal’, will go a long way to alleviating worries and concerns.
What are brains for?
The primary job of the brain is to keep us alive.
We are born with highly complex brain structures. Built from around 86 billion brain cells (neurons), the brain is a set of parallel systems, each with different functions. Though different parts of the brain have specific purposes there are an almost infinite number of possibilities for making pathways through the brain along which messages can travel. Messages are transmitted through electro-chemical signals across the gaps between the cells (synapses). The gaps are managed by particular chemicals called neurotransmitters.
In various states, such as stress, fatigue, depression, or being in love, the synaptic neurochemicals facilitate or impede message transmission. This is also especially the case during all strong emotional reactions.
We have eight basic emotions that are hard-wired into the brain
Two, love/trust & excitement/joy, are the attachment emotions. They are to do with survival and reproduction; they make life worth the struggle. Five – fear, anger sorrow, disgust, and shame – are the escape/avoidance emotions and are to do with survival in the face of danger. The eighth emotion is surprise and produces a startle response connected to either avoidance or attachment.
The balance of the emotions is strongly in favour of the escape/avoidance emotions; five avoidance emotions as against two attachment; and one falling on either side of the fence. In the wilds, fighting, fleeing or freezing is, to put it mildly, very useful. Through fright we survive. In the sophisticated human jungle those responses can both be very useful but also cause big problems.
Emotions create our psychological lives
Emotions are the primary colours from which the patterns of our lives are created and upon which our feelings, mind-set and attitudes develop. We are continuously emotional. The bedrock of everything we do and are is emotional.
Emotions underpin all our feelings, thoughts and actions
Emotions happen before we have time to think about them. An emotion is always accompanied by physiological reactions. A quickening of the heartbeat, a churning stomach, sweating palms, trembling muscles are familiar to us all. We may laugh or weep, run for cover or be frozen to the spot, pound our fists in fury, strike out in defense, or make love with great and thoughtful passion.
What we all call ‘feelings’ are the refined combinations in conscious awareness of the underlying and usually non-conscious emotions.
Why am I afraid?
Of all the emotions, fear is the most basic and profound. In the presence of danger, such as Covid-19, it is essential for survival that we experience fear.
We are all born to feel afraid – it is part of our hard wiring
There are some scary things we’re probably genetically prepared to be afraid of: big bangs; heights; snakes and spiders; lions, tigers and bears. Scientists call this ‘preparedness theory’ (LeDoux, 1996). Then there are the things we learn to be afraid of, such as dangerous viruses that have the potential to kill.
Joseph LeDoux is 70 years old and has been in lockdown for many months. He’s a neuroscientist and the world’s leading expert on fear and the brain. In a recent interview LeDoux said he was ‘scared shitless’ just like everyone else. His research on the fear circuits in the brain informs about how external threats are received and processed through the amygdala, an almond shaped structure deep in the brain. The amygdala is a system in the brain that detects and responds to danger.”
The feeling of fear is our awareness that we’re in danger
The amygdala allows us to detect danger and to stay alive.
With our sophisticated uniquely human thinking brain informed by, and working in parallel with, our ancient emotional brain, we humans can sniff out danger, respond to it, and come up with strategies to stay out of harm’s way.