As I walked through the local Walmart this afternoon and bore witness to the empty shelves that are typically stocked with essential items such as bread, meat, soap and toilet paper, I thought about all of the social posts and memes I’ve read over the past week. A few were kind. Most were not. In fact, what had started with mostly humorous comments has quickly turned to venomous verbal lashings of those who dare full their carts beyond what seems reasonable. A comment on a post I had read on the way to Walmart asked “What the hell is wrong with people? Why are people acting so CRAZY?!?!?” It was a great question I thought, except the assumption was all wrong… People aren’t acting crazy…they are acting Afraid.
In my practice as a psychotherapist, I teach people to see their world as their brains might see it. I teach them to notice how their behaviours change when the focus of our brain changes. So as I walked down the aisles irritated that I obviously wasn’t going to get everything I came for, I started to think about the brain states of the people who had beaten me here and in that moment, my frustration gave way to compassion.
As COVID-19 went from being a news story happening in a place few of us knew existed, to closing down the schools and daycares our children attend, our brains changed. We went from going about the routine of our daily lives and our usual stressors, to a daily state of hyper vigilance and societal panic. We went from feeling relatively secure to having no idea whether or not we or our loved ones would fall ill, be able to work, be able to get home, or even be able to leave our homes. Though the mortality rate of COVID-19 is low, for our brains, survival is at the top of mind.
When we experience the kind of uncertainty that leaves us feeling unsafe, our brains take over. Our limbic system – the part of our brain that drives the fight or flight response—activates and we go on auto-pilot. The focus becomes survival and what we need to take care of ourselves and our families. It is not stupidity or a lack of morality, it is biology. Unless we are aware of what is happening inside us and work to calm this internal activation, our brain will override whatever it has to (including social etiquette) get what it thinks we will need to survive.
“But Bonnie,” you say, “That doesn’t explain why people are buying up all the dang toilet paper!!!”
But actually, it does… here’s how:
Humans are social creatures…biologically. We are wired to respond to the cues we get from our social groups. If the group around us is calm, we are calm. If the group panics, our first instinct will be to panic. Imagine you are in a crowd and everyone starts yelling and frantically running in one direction. You suddenly, will also find yourself running too, regardless of the fact you saw no reason to run and have no idea what all the fuss is about. That is because in fractions of a second your brain has read the cues of the crowd, concluded it probably wasn’t best to stick around and sent the signals required to get your body moving.
Apply this principal to the case of the disappearing TP and you get similar behaviour. You don’t know why everyone is buying toilet paper but your brain, hearing it on the news and seeing it on social media on top of already being on high alert says, “We need to stock up. NOW!” Suddenly, you are in aisle 9 looking at the empty shelves and wondering what store you can go to next. It is more than a logical decision. It’s a neurologically driven compulsion rooted in our oldest and most basic of instincts – follow the crowd.
So, if everyone is running around in panic mode, what do we do?!?!
As hard as it might be to hear, we will need to find a way to be compassionate with one another. With a 24-hour newsfeed bombarding us with updated statistics mixed in with buzzwords words designed to keep us anxious and watching, our brains are going to remain in a heightened state causing us to be more reactive, irritable, and irrational. To think clearly and be less susceptible to the emotional roller coaster, we will need to learn to detect and calm our own physiology.
Here are a few steps you can take to keep your brain from being hijacked by the COVID-19 Mayhem…
- Breathe – As you move through your day, take time to yourself and take 5 deep breaths. In an activated state, muscle tension can get in the way of breathing efficiently and this can make it easier for our brains to slip into fight or flight. Taking time to breath throughout the day provides the opportunity to reset and release the buildup of tension.
- Turn off the News – Obviously we need to stay informed with the changes regarding the virus control measures but try to limit your exposure to the constant barrage that the news can often be. Try limiting your check-ins to twice per day. Turn off any push notifications that come to your mobile devices and refrain from having the news running in the background as you work or commute. Try to focus on how to apply new information that affects you and avoid getting caught up in statistics, speculation, and dramatic stories designed to keep your attention.
- Get Practical – The changes we are all being asked to face are real and do require some consideration. To keep things in balance, take time to calmly consider how you are being affected and the support or resources you will need. For example, in the event you had to quarantine for up to 30 days, what would you reasonably need? What changes can you make to reduce your risk of exposure? Work with your family to make a response plan that you all will follow.
- Lend a Hand – We will not all have the same capacity to respond to the changes COVID-19 measures will require. One of the best ways to counteract group panic is to calm our brains and the brains of others through positive connection. Help a neighbor. Check in with a loved one. Reassure a stranger. Remember, we respond to what we see from others so be the source of something good. Just like we can set each other off, we can also calm each other down with simple supportive interactions. In the world of neurobiology this is called co-regulation… in everyday life, it’s called being a part of the human family.
It is looking like the only constant we will have for a while is that we are all in this together. It will be easy in a heightened and frightened state to disconnect and pull away from each other far beyond what the pandemic requires. While we practice social distancing, let us remember that finding ways to remain connected will be what ultimately helps us overcome the mayhem of COVID-19 and anything else we will face.
We really are all in this together.
Bonnie J. Skinner
Owner – B. Skinner Coaching & Psychotherapy