Our Brain in Crisis and What To Do About It

Life had been moving along for most of us in a normal way. Then drastically, yet progressively, everything changed. COVID-19. Social Distancing. Hygiene precautions. Quarantine. Stay at home. Our brains were moving right along with us in a normal way. And then change, panic, error, alarm! Our brains do what they are designed to do: to keep us safe, to help us respond to emergencies. Typically, normal life resumes. But we are not living in a typical situation. The uncertainty of COVID-19 results in stress hormones dumping into our system, causing us to react irrationally rather than respond with reasonable problem solving and creativity. So, how can we reset our brains and thrive through this global pandemic?

Research shows that acknowledging, identifying, and naming the error code our brains have registered can significantly lower the panic we experience. State the facts: this is a crisis, this is a serious situation, this is hard. We now have admitted what is happening and our brains can begin to help us to figure out what to do to thrive.

According to Dr. Henry Cloud, clinical psychologist, researcher, and author, our brains are designed for certain things, including these four: connection, structure, control, and productivity. The current crisis has taken all four of those away from us. Loss of connection, loss of structure, loss of control, and loss of productivity. And the normal response to loss is grief. We are all basically living in a state of grief. Individual and collective grief. It is a mix of emotion: shock, frustration, worry, fear, helplessness, depression, confusion. And it feels awful. The stages of grief, though not necessarily linear, form a framework of universal constructs of emotion in loss: denial, anger, sadness, bargaining, and acceptance. Remember, naming what we’re feeling lowers the control it has over us. This is grief. We feel angry. And sad. And confused. As we allow ourselves to feel we move close to acceptance and developing a “new normal.”

What does “new normal” look like for connection? We can connect to others via Face Time, or Zoom, or What’s App, or many other digital services. Talk about the crisis, what you are feeling (name it), how you are coping. Have empathy for others. How are they feeling and coping? Processing the crisis helps panic to decrease and function to increase. Also have fun connecting. Play games together. Share
silly moments. Enjoy connecting.

Our human brains crave structure. It keeps us calm and allows us to know what is coming. The loss of structure can be debilitating. Begin to create a “new normal” for structure in your life. What can be the routines you follow now? And your family? When will you get up? Get dressed? Could you prepare meals together? Plan meaningful and fun things each day. And be sure to limit the news. Listening to the news all day long can slow the grief process and retraumatize you constantly.

Crisis disrupts our sense of control, minimizing choices, causing us to feel helpless. Try this exercise to regain a sense of control. Make a list of all the things that you cannot control at this time: spread of the virus, medical care, economic trends, and the list goes on and on. (It is what the news talks about all day, every day!) Allow yourself to worry about them for 5 minutes, then let them go, surrender them. Now make a list of everything you can control: personal hygiene, who we connect with, making a daily schedule, taking medication, what to eat, when to eat, to go outside and get some fresh air, for example. This new normal allows us to see that there are many things we can control.

Feeling productive, knowing that one can accomplish something, fuels the brain to feel satisfied. As you structure your “new normal” include activities that help you to feel productive. Making a ‘to do’ list can create a sense of accomplishment as you cross things off throughout the day. This may be a great time to do some things that you have been wanting to do but never had the time: yard work,
crafting, reading, study, art work, photography, music, exercise and much more.

Allow yourself to admit that we are in a crisis. Give yourself the space and time and words to grieve the losses. And develop a “new normal” with connection, structure, control, and productivity.


For more information on grieving losses caused by COVID-19, refer to the interview with David
Kessler, leading grief researcher, at https://hbr.org/2020/03/that-discomfort-youre-feeling-is-grief

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