Part 1: This is Your Brain on Stress
Between apocalyptic dreams, random tearful outbursts, and a rather mortifying search history, I am a bit of a mess.
And I’m not alone.
We are not our best selves at this moment. The global pandemic we are living in and through, the mass uncertainty it is bringing, the grief we are sloppily navigating, the strong faces we are putting on for others, it is taking a toll. Many tolls. We are bearing witness to suffering all day, every day, whether or not we are actively seeking out this information. We are trying to keep working, or studying, or care giving, in a world we no longer recognize. You might be finding, increasingly, each and every day you are doing little more than surviving.
This is trauma. It is scary, it is unpredictable, and it has overwhelmed our natural abilities to cope. We feel powerless; we have no control and we so very desperately want some control.
The responses you’re having, the impacts you’re feeling? They are valid, they are normal and they are not your fault. Collectively, we all get to blame our biology (part 1 of this series), and then we will look to it for solutions (parts 2–4).
How we think, what we feel, and what we do — the way we function — is determined by what is happening in our brains. A quick and dirty (and totally, completely oversimplified) Brain Science 101: our brains develop from the bottom-up, and each part is associated with a set of functions. They are hierarchical, with the lower parts of the brain being responsible for more basic functions (like breathing, blood pumping, etc.) and the higher parts being responsible for more sophisticated ones (like problem solving, planning, thinking).
Still with me? Good. Take a breath, just a regular old inhale and exhale.
When we are in a calm (or for the purposes of this series, ‘regulated’) state, all parts of the brain work together. We are able to breathe and acknowledge our feelings and ponder the meaning of life, while taking in stimuli (sensory stuff, for example) and unconsciously deciding what part(s) of the brain to send it to; what part(s) of the brain to turn on or off.
But. If any of that stimuli is deemed threatening — physically or psychologically — everything changes. The threat rings our stress response alarm. All of our energy goes to those lower parts of the brain, and we lose access to the thinking parts. This is a very good thing, actually. It keeps us alive. Stories you’ve heard, or experiences you’ve lived, where a person is able to sprint away from a potential perpetrator so fast or lift something so heavy in order to ensure their own safety or someone else’s? They are indicative of this survival function — blood gets pumping, muscles are tensed, heartbeat increases and swift action is taken. If any energy was taken away from those functions, and instead, sent to the thinking brain to do the math of just how fast you’d have to run in order to get away… you’d be harmed before you could even move.
Take another breath. Maybe drop your chin to your chest, notice any sensation; or give your neck a roll side to side.
So we get all fired up, physiologically, and then the stress is relieved, the alarm shuts off, and things go back to baseline. But what happens if the stress alarm doesn’t shut off? If the threat is ongoing and/or unpredictable?
Welcome to COVID-19, friends. A threat like this one can trigger what Dr. Bruce Perry, creator of the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics (which is the inspiration behind the vast majority of this series), refers to as a prolonged stress response: the alarm continues to ring, and the more threatened we feel. The more active the lower parts of the brain and the less access we have to our logic, our reason, and our intellect. The more activated we are, the less rational we become.
Consider what this looks like behaviorally. For me, it has looked like turning to my phone in the middle of the night or upon first waking, almost physically unable to stop myself from scrolling, reading, and sharing information and updates about how bad this is or how bad it could get — some of which is credible and some of which is simply alarmist. More and more of this stimuli creates more and more anxiety, all the while I am unable to even process or retain much of what I am reading because… I don’t have access to the thinking part of my brain. Maybe you’re not scrolling, but you are panic purchasing things like toilet paper, despite having enough at home, or bottled water, despite there being no threat to our water supply.
The reality is that all of the physical and emotional energy working to keep us in this heightened, hypervigilant, highly reactive state leaves us exhausted. Like tired to the bone, despite our pace slowing a bit, or our schedules looking different now. In this video where Dr. Perry so eloquently and technically describes and expands upon much of what was written about here, he encourages us all to anticipate our own fatigue, our own irritability, and our own difficulty getting things done. Owning this reality can mean offering ourselves grace and patience, rather than admonishing or shaming ourselves for being unable to produce.
Take one more breath here, check in with your jaw, your shoulders. Can you soften anything in there?
We have arrived at the conclusion that the collective trauma we are currently surviving has caused our brains to hijack themselves, and left us tired, mean, and unproductive. The good news is now that we know what’s wrong, we can do what’s right. In the remaining parts of this series, we will explore solutions based in this same brain science in the same small, digestible doses (with the same breaks for tiny bits of regulation) as we did here.
The problems may be biological, but the solutions are, too.
Part 2: Get Regulated (available here)
Part 3: Stay Connected (available here)
Part 4: Stop Scrolling (available here)
And keep breathing.
About the Author
Dr. Jennifer A. King is the Assistant Director of the Center on Trauma and Adversity and an Assistant Professor at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University.