Written by Anne Paterson
Anne and I saw a great BBC news meme this week which read ‘Breaking News – What the f*** now!. This seemed to sum up how our brain is reacting to the onslaught of information, uncertainty and fear around us at the moment.
This resilience bite focuses on how we can learn to use an often under-utilised part of our brain when we are in stress. The more we can learn to turn down the stress-activating part of our brain and focus on using the rational part of our brain, we can boost our resilience to think clearly, make good decisions, get things in perspective and calm down.
In stressful situations, our limbic brain (sometimes called our emotional brain) goes into overdrive trying to keep us safe. It is focused on looking for threat and danger and seeing it everywhere. When we feel threatened, our amygdala, which is part of the limbic system, fires up and our instinctive, survival and non-conscious fight, flight, flee reactions kick in. These hijack our ability to think rationally, calmly and clearly.
The newest part of our brain to have developed (the prefrontal cortex or PFC and sometimes called our higher brain) is logical and rational and acts as a brake on our emotional brain. It helps to slow our instinctive fear responses, enabling us to weigh up information and make reasoned judgements about what we are seeing and hearing. We call this this part of the brain the superhero as it is capable of ‘taking out’ the limbic system and can save the day!
When our emotional brain is in charge (think toilet roll hoarding which has no real logical basis), our thinking brain goes offline and it can’t function as our braking system and we can no longer reason and assess information in a calm, objective way.
Time to call in the PFC, our superhero brain!
So how do we unleash our superhero? Here are some simple yet highly effective steps
1. Ask ourselves rational questions, for example, “what are the facts? What am I worried about? What do we know/not know about the current situation?” If we can turn catastrophising into curiosity we are on to an instant winner.
2. Gain and Maintain perspective – Think about and take action on what is inside and outside of your control. Our brains need a sense of control to feel safe. Just having a perception of some control in an uncertain situation can dampen the limbic reaction and free up our PFC cortex to get perspective. Learn to let go of what you can’t control and take action on what you can.
3. Talk your concerns over with someone as talking it through will require you to think about it and talking it over with someone else will give you another perspective. Take advantage of face to face technology such as ‘facetime’ or ‘zoom’ – seeing as well as hearing a friendly face will boost our connection and resilience. It’s not weak to speak.
4. Watch out for overusing our PFC – like any superhero it can go to extremes, and a strength overdone can become a weakness. Sometimes our PFC can go into repeat mode and we start to fixate on problems and become anxious which tips us over into our emotional brain.
To dial this down, intervene consciously – if you’re still able to get out, get out in nature (most people are in lockdown!), listen to music, learn mindfulness and meditation (there are many online courses that can help), do yoga, read those books that have been gathering dust on the shelf, pat your pets, if you have any.
In summary, one of the critical skills of resilience lies between our ears, learning how to calm our instinctual emotional reactions and turn them into considered responses.
If we can help in any way, please get in touch.
Go well and stay safe
Anne and Clare