If ever there was a time when we need to understand the Brain, now would be that time. With so much uncertainty and fear, knowing how the brain responds and how to manage these responses can make a substantial difference in our actions and thoughts.
A LITTLE NEUROSCIENCE:
The brain is wired first and foremost to keep us safe. It is constantly scanning our environment for threats, perceived or real. Uncertainty is probably the biggest trigger for our brain in its unrelenting need for safety. If we think about early men and women, they faced daily threats to their very existence. There were no grocery stores, doctors, hospitals or any of the modern conveniences we have today. They had to hunt for food, gather water and keep their families safe. Simultaneously, animals in the wild needed to do the same thing. As a result, The Amygdala, our warning system of the brain became highly developed. The job of the Amygdala is to warn us of threats either perceived or real. While we no longer worry about being eaten by saber-toothed tigers, our brain behaves as if those kinds of threats still exist.
Today, we face an unseen threat, COVID-19. Talk about uncertainty! We don’t know when this crisis will end, if we will get sick, will there be enough medical supplies and hospital beds and on and on it goes. We can observe the power of uncertainty and the impact on the brain when we see people hoarding food, fighting for supplies, becoming suspicious of their neighbors and even resorting to violence. Uncertainty creates a cascade of chemical reactions in the brain that cause fear to drive our behavior. This strengthens The Amygdala responses and weakens our Pre-Frontal Cortex or logical, problem-solving brain (see image above).
HOW TO LEAD YOURSELF AND OTHERS:
Once we understand that our reactions and actions are being driven by uncertainty, there are a few things we can do to calm the fired up Amygdala and awaken The Pre Frontal Cortex (PFC) or problem-solving area of the brain.
- Awareness: We must first be aware that our old pre-programmed brain, (The Amygdala), is starting to run the show. Without awareness, this habituated thought process will run in the background and control how we think and behave. When the Amygdala is running the show you can bet that fear and uncertainty will dominate.
- Calming The Amygdala: Armed with awareness, we slow down. Recognizing what is happening gives us a moment to check-in and challenge our reality. Let’s say you are home and working virtually. Ask yourself “Am I in real danger at this moment?”, “Have I taken all precautions to limit the danger?”, “Am I practicing social distancing?”. This type of questioning allows your Pre Frontal Cortex to override the Amygdala and help calm your nervous system.
- Staying in the moment: the brain loves to catastrophize! The brain will go to the worst-case scenario without much prompting. Again, since safety is the brain’s main objective it will begin to predict worst-case scenarios in order to protect us. Unfortunately, this increases our stress responses, fear begins to rise, behaviors change (hoarding for example) and we are hijacked. Staying in the present moment keeps the PFC online.
- Use Your Breath: Slow, deep breaths send signals to the brain and calm the fired up Amygdala. Meditation is a great tool we can apply in those moments of fear and uncertainty but we don’t have to do a formal practice. Just take a few deep, slow breaths, focus on the sensations of your breathing and notice if you feel calmer. Keep going until you feel your body begin to relax. Now your PFC is running the show and creative problem solving is back online.
- Help Others: As shown in this 2016 study of the neurobiology of giving, we can see the power of helping others and the impact on the brain.
“The February 2016 study, “The Neurobiology of Giving Versus Receiving Support: The Role of Stress-Related and Social Reward-Related Neural Activity,” was published in Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine. The lead researchers of this study were Tristen Inagaki, Ph.D., from the University of Pittsburgh and Naomi Eisenberger, Ph.D., of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). For this study, participants were asked about various scenarios in which they either gave or received social support. For example, having “someone to lean on” or “looking for ways to cheer people up” when they were feeling down. As would be expected, both giving and receiving social support correlated to lower reported negative psychosocial outcomes. However, when the researchers conducted a series of fMRI neuroimaging tests to explore the neural mechanisms of how specific brain areas were affected by giving versus receiving social support, they found that giving ultimately had greater brain benefits than receiving.”
- Be aware of the impact media has on your brain. The media loves uncertainty since it targets the fear-based brain so succinctly. It is the perfect vehicle to increase ratings and viewers. While it is important to stay informed, it is also good to be aware of how your brain responds to this kind of information. If you are sensitive to the news and social media, limit your exposure.
As a leader, keeping yourself and your employees calm, helping them to dampen their Amygdala and awaken their Pre-Frontal Cortex will help strengthen their resilience. If you found this article beneficial, please share it with your employees, friends, family, and colleagues. If you need additional support, please don’t hesitate to reach out!
Stay safe, keep your PFC online and we will get through this together!