Suddenly its Autumn, and I am wondering where spring, summer, and the rest of the year has gone? 2020 has certainly been an unexpected, challenging and it is got to be said a discombobulating year.
Disruption has been the name of the game and we are all still coming to terms with the continuing fallout of COVID. Uncertainty seems to be the only certainty we have at the moment, and when it comes to our brains, this can have a very big and often negative effect. In fact, it is one of the top things our brains really don’t like.
Why? Because uncertainty means there isn’t enough concrete information coming in to act upon. And with our brains continually scanning for potential threats, 15 times per second, not enough information isn’t good enough. So uncertainty is something our brain classifies as a threat, just in case, because when it comes survival it is always better to be safe, than sorry.
And because after 7 months, we are still uncertain about what will happen next in terms of our work, our families, our travel plans, in fact, all aspects of life, our automated primal alarm system is constantly being triggered, and this triggering puts us into fight, flight, or freeze mode, which has a massive effect on, well, everything really. (An earlier blog on here, called the Meerkats of your Mind, goes into much more depth about this process).
What I want to focus on here is one aspect of this primal survival mode, the chemical cascade that is part of our fight, flight, or freeze response and how it affecting our ability to continue to cope. Adrenaline and cortisol are the main chemicals shot through our system when we are 'limbic', my shorthand term for survival mode. And when we are 'limbic' it is worth noting, we are rarely aware of it and the ongoing effect it is having on us.
So let's start with adrenaline. It increases the potentiality of our muscles, maximizing their strength, speed, and reaction time. However, as our brains make little, if any difference between a physical threat, where we need to run like crazy, or a psychological threat, such as impending deadline doom, nowadays we rarely use up all the adrenaline being pumped into our system. Instead, it hangs around causing that jangly feeling we can get when we almost, but don’t have an accident. (Of course, lots of do people enjoy that edgy feeling, the adrenaline junkies who bungee jump, parachute, or do other extreme activities that ignite the release of high energy and excitement! However, it is very different when it is our choice).
Moving on to Cortisol, the other chemical released when we are limbic, it is also known as the stress hormone. It is part of our brain's survival mechanism, focusing us on the current threat as well as the next possibly one coming in. It plays its part in narrowing our field of vision, and turning off our executive functions because I don’t need to cogitate when I’m in danger, I need to move! It also turns off all unnecessary functions, like digestion. These things all ensure we put our own survival first. I personally think it has gained a bit of a bad rep really because stress in its original sense meant to take notice of, and that is what cortisol does, focuses us on the immediate danger.
The threats and dangers we are currently experiencing are both physical and psychological. We are all worried for our health and a lot of people are facing concerns about their jobs and financial security. And because of course, we can’t know how things are going to play out we are not sure of what is going to be happening next. This current climate means all of this ‘limbic’ chemistry is being activated a lot more often than usual. Both our cortisol and our adrenaline cups are running over, and that means that any new information coming in, is coming into a system already flooded with so much extra input.
Hence the question how is your bandwidth? Defined in computer terms as the maximum rate of data transfer across a given path.
I am using it as an analogy for how much new information we can take in when we are already close to capacity. Personally, mine goes up and down, depending on the day, and the circumstances. I've noticed that it lessens considerably when I am out in public. suddenly I want to know why someone isn’t wearing a mask. I seem also to have a massive amount of impatience when someone is standing too close. Can you resonate with that?
So what can we do to increase it?
Put self-care back to the top of the agenda
Take time to be quiet, our minds are always on, sometimes a flow activity that is occupying our ‘monkey brain allows the rest of our supercomputer to relax.
We all know more exercise helps our minds, it is just when we are 'limbic' we may forget so dance like no one watching, run like an enthusiastic child, or yoga, it is a verb!
Have real patience with ourselves and be kind to ourselves and others
It is a strange time and no matter how we may hanker for the old normal, things have changed and will continue to. So knowing we are all adapting, and that, as with any new skill it takes a while to master it, the kinder you are to yourself, the more positive your internal narrative, the easier and quicker you will become resilient.
And a last and important point. All of us cope in our own unique way, empathizing and understanding others is great for our brain, our sense of well- being, and our sense of connectedness. And although we may have to operate at a social distance, connecting is still essential.
So instead of getting impatient angry and frustrated when I go out, I am going to make the extra effort, because we are always stronger together, especially at times like now!
By Maria Chase, NeuroLeadership Coach, founder of Chase Coaching, and neuroscience lead for Amplenary.
Amplenary is a unique, 5-week online programme for ambitious professionals and entrepreneurs. Blending together the fields of neuroscience, executive coaching, and personal branding for the very first time, this is a turbo-charged self-development programme unlike any other. Autunm/Winter virtual programme starts 20th Oct 2020, sign up for one of our free webinars to learn more. Register your interest here or directly contact Maria, Reena, or Stephanie.