The science behind our extreme vulnerability

There is a tsunami of information on the subject of human emotion circulating at this moment. Before I venture into the topic, I would like to bring your attention to a key distinction between other previously experienced global pandemics, and COVID-19 (“Covid”).

These pandemics have mostly resulted in isolation, to varying degrees, and all with the similar human emotions of anxiety and uncertainty. During other pandemics, there was apparently little, if any, open acknowledgement of the concept of Mental Wellness. It certainly has been a focal discussion point this time around – and what a necessary development, albeit a small celebration in a time of extreme confusion.

People are now able to express levels of anxiety and confusion without fear of judgement or marginalisation and can seek help should they need to. In these times of ‘not knowing’, our emotions are like yo-yos, and from moment to moment we may find ourselves moving from some semblance of centredness to high anxiety and vulnerability. To understand this challenge from a perspective of Neuroscience, I would like to apply Dr David Rock’s SCARF Model to explain the basics of how our brains function.

Our brain will tag every experience or piece of information (at both a conscious and unconscious level) in one third of a second, as either a Threat or a Reward. Any perceived Threat triggers an Away response and a perceived Reward, a Toward response. The Threat perception being far more prevalent than the Reward perception. Both responses will link to relevant neurotransmitters with subsequent effects on both neurology and physiology. Any perceived threat results in the production of cortisol with degrees of ‘shut down’ in the Pre-Frontal Cortex, which is responsible for, amongst other functions, our higher-level thinking, clear planning and emotional regulation. When a Toward response occurs, we produce greater levels of dopamine and experience an increased sense of purpose and meaning with feelings of reward i.e. the Pre- Frontal Cortex functions efficiently. We experience increased well-being, creativity and higher energy. A sense of being ‘on our game’.

The SCARF model identifies five critical domains of human experience that drive our behaviour.

Status:

A perception of where I am in the ‘pecking order’ – what is my relative credibility as a human being and how acknowledged am I in my world?

The threat of one’s status activates the same brain circuitry as the experience of physical pain. For example, being dismissed in a meeting will be experienced in the same area of the brain as physical pain of root canal treatment! Many of us are feeling that our own status may have shifted over the last few weeks. As professionals in our work environments, we are in a space of redefining and exploring ‘where we are’ and for some, ‘who we are’. The new normal of work-related roles could potentially be very different.

Within family structures too, during lockdown, roles have shifted. And perhaps under the confines of the present way of living, we are not receiving the usual personal affirmation and acknowledgement from people around us. All so integral to our perception of individual status and sense of self-worth.

What can we consider doing?

There is great value in affirming and acknowledging the people with whom we are engaging and expressing their value in our own lives. Look for opportunities to do this as often as possible. Not only will your own dopamine levels go up, but theirs will too. Be kind and compassionate towards yourself. Revisit your values. If you are unsure of them, start exploring what they might be.

One of the most effective ways to maintain self-worth is by trying to do what is of personal value, on a regular basis. This could be as simple as getting up and making your bed, exercising, journaling daily etc. If you ignore or don’t action these values where you can, you might experience a sense of personal disappointment and a decrease in levels of self-worth.

Certainty:

The brain operates as a prediction machine and will attach to all the patterns and previously experienced information in order to simplify the energy required to make sense of the future.

The only certainty right now is that nothing is certain. Any guesses as to what the main causes of stress are? Not knowing, feeling uncertain, and an attack on personal self-esteem. This virus has resulted in feelings of anxiety in not knowing how long, how severe, and even who will arrive alive, in a multitude of contexts. There is limited global certainty. It is no wonder we are experiencing unprecedented levels of stress, and as a result extreme fear and vulnerability.

What can we consider doing?

 Start by trying to create as much certainty as possible. Continue routine activities in daily life from work to exercise to housebound chores. The more certainty the brain has, the more the Pre- Frontal Cortex is freed up to think clearly and creatively rather than be reduced to levels of panic and confusion. Continue to do the little you can, to create a sense of purpose and routine, no matter how small. We produce higher levels of Dopamine when we create a sense of having meaning and purpose in our lives, whatever that may be.

Perhaps take assurance from a small certainty in Rumi’s phrase, ‘This too shall pass’.

Autonomy:

The brain responds positively to a perception of having choice – a sense of control over one’s own destiny.

COVID-19 has taken this away from us. We no longer have a sense of control over how we might choose to live, where we can go, and the freedom of options previously experienced. In fact, we have minimal individual autonomy.

What can we consider doing?

Perhaps the question to ask ourselves is ‘what might I have autonomy over?’ It may be who you are choosing to speak to on social media platforms, where you are choosing to focus your attention in your work, what you are choosing to flag as important and relevant and what not. All these small choices will create a heightened sense of more autonomous control for your brain. Look for any opportunity to do this.

Relatedness:

We are constantly seeking social connection. We need to find our tribe and be reassured that we belong. How safe are we with others – are they friend or foe?

COVID-19 has placed us in isolation – perhaps from both loved ones and colleagues. From cradle to grave, we look for a place of belonging and social connection. Isolation can trigger feelings of anxiety, despair, depression and a sense of being overwhelmed.

What can we consider doing?

Try as best as you can to stay connected – even when you would rather not. When we feel connected with others, we produce the neurotransmitter Oxytocin, creating greater feelings of trust. High levels of trust lead to higher levels of empathy and an awareness of how others might be experiencing this time of change. We have the benefit of connection though social media platforms, which were previously unavailable. Choose what works best for you and make a regular practice of keeping connected.

Consider relationships which have been neglected and need revisiting. Now is a great opportunity to re-connect. Tell people what they mean to you and express gratitude for the role they play in your life.

When connecting with colleagues and employees make this connection sincere and meaningful. Remember that everyone is needing reassurance and no matter how small the gesture, it will have a profound impact on the person receiving it.

Fairness:

A perception of fair exchange.

The brain is highly tuned to interpreting information as either fair or unfair. A sense of unfairness can produce high levels of cortisol and stress. Any parent will know how quickly children pick up on perceived unfairness. Any workplace manager will know the importance of reducing any perception of unfair leadership. Research has shown that we would rather go without, than accept what we perceive to be an unfair offer.

What can we consider doing?

As best you can, focus on gratitude for what you have. The unfairness is global – we are all in this ‘unfairness’ together. When you start the process of itemising how much you can be grateful for, feelings of unfairness will be reduced.

Try to be less judgmental and more curious. This encourages us to ask questions; “why are the decision makers doing what they are doing?”, rather than “This is not going to work for me. I think it is a stupid decision”. Curiosity opens up possibility.

In summary – the more mindful we are in noticing “what and how” we are experiencing during this period in our lives, the better able we are to cope. Consider the above 5 brain domains and perhaps introduce the following simple actions into your day:

  • Speak to people who acknowledge you and affirm you own personal sense of self worth – your status
  • Label what you are feeling. Be it uncertainty, despair, optimism or hope, identify it, and the brain will settle, merely as a result of the certainty of a label.
  • Actively find your daily autonomy.  Where do you have the independence to make decisions for yourself?
  • Remain close to your tribe, whoever they may be. Relate to them every day in one way or another.
  • Acknowledging that unfairness is part of the experience of life.

Much of life is indeed fair, but right now a bigger consideration is perhaps the issue of rampant unfairness, and rampant inequality throughout the world, which now has the potential to be put firmly under the spotlight. And the potential too, to create a connection as one global tribe of Humanity by being kind to ourselves and to each other.

Written by Lindsay Braithwaite and edited by Nicola Brown

Lindsay Braithwaite is a Lead with Humanity Associate.  She is a specialist in people development, having worked for 30 years as a facilitator, and more recently in the past 12 years, as a Life and Business coach. Her focus is on emotional intelligence (EQ) and Coaching, using the latest advancements in Applied Neuroscience. She uses the practice of Mindfulness in all areas of her work.

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