Our brain in turbulent times

I’m writing this in the throes of the Coronavirus pandemic, as many people are worried and anxious as we face an unknown threat. Like many I have found myself over the last week in the grips of emotional reactions, where our primitive brain is taking over in reaction to this threat. As a Psychologist I’ve been exploring how to manage my own reaction, and those of people around me, and I thought it could help to put some ideas down to help you too.

Waking early this morning I was musing why my brain was so active and restless. David Rock’s SCARF model came to mind – this model is focused around threat and reward in social situations, but I think at times like this it can help us realise why we are feeling the way we do, to be gentle with ourselves as we realise the extent of the change our brains are trying to process, and what we can do.

The acronym stands for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. These are what I perceive is happening to many of us in these areas currently:

Status: our roles have been thrown into a state of flux, for most of us how we defined ourselves a month ago is very different to how we are now. For many our jobs are a key focus of our roles and they are now very different – working in different ways; trying to establish working patterns alongside children at home; work and income lessening or being lost entirely. We are struggling to see how we now define ourselves and until this ‘new normal’ settles your brain will struggle – and especially if we are focusing on what we have lost or how we would prefer things to be. We need to recognise this and all these new roles to shape and emerge – realise this is temporary but try to focus on how this new ‘version’ of you in terms of work and home balance can operate, how things can be redefined for this period rather than holding onto the anger and frustration.

Certainty: this is a major factor as we face uncertainty all around us – our health, our income, our plans we have made – facing something that has no fixed end point. There is so much out of our control, and lack of perceived control is a major factor in feelings of stress. The media around us can tend to fuel these feelings of uncertainty, so other than the essential news I would limit your exposure here. Try to focus on what is certain, what we can control, set your sights shorter term rather than longer is helpful in these situations rather than worry about an uncertain future.

Autonomy: much of our autonomy has been stripped away, as above we have lost the ability to control key areas of our life such as our movements within the world. We can feel powerless not only from governmental rules but also from this external threat to our health which is stopping us enjoying the freedoms we are used to. As above, focusing on what we can control and letting go of anger about plans spoilt is important – allow ourselves to be sad and grieve over things we have lost ,and then turn to gratitude instead for what we have. A daily gratitude practice is important at times like this.

Relatedness: we are social animals and we need contact with others. At times like this we can’t see others and can feel cut off. I am heartened that of all of these areas, this is the one that seems to be faring the best as people find inventive ways to connect – virtual meet ups, pub quizzes, sharing a glass of wine or a Mother’s Day lunch by video. In many ways we are being more sociable than before, I have reflected I’ve spoken more to far-flung friends in the last week than we usually do, and we plan to keep this up now. I’m hoping this is a positive outcome of these times and we all keep the momentum going as the times go on. We also need to support others around us to do this, help children connect with friends over video calls, help older relatives to connect where they may not have the same technology. Supporting each other and getting the support we need is crucial.

Fairness: this hits the core of our emotions at times like this, as what feels like our inner child stamps their feet and shouts “it’s not fair!”. It’s not fair that people are dying, it’s not fair that our core needs like income and security are being taken away, it’s not fair that we are all in different situations with different levels of support available. While the government is doing much to support this impact there are still many things that feel unfair – this virus feels unfair! The first thing is to recognise this emotion and explore it, can we do anything to tip the balance so things feel more fair (even in the home, are the new roles distributed fairly, do you need to make any changes so it feels more fair)? Do we need to accept a level of unfairness, and instead again try to focus on gratitude and what we can control? It’s perfectly acceptable to let our inner child stamp their feet and feel cross for a while, but realise that this emotion isn’t a good one to hold onto longer term and when we are ready we need to get back to the mature part of our brain instead, through being more conscious of our focus and how we view the situation.

This too shall pass…but in the mean time be kind to yourselves, and I hope this has helped you to realise what your brain is struggling with and how you can help it!

7 Comments on “Our brain in turbulent times

  1. This situation seems to me like imprisonment, and that is something few of us has experienced before. I agree that there is a serious lack of control over ones life. It’s a mental health issue. I am disabled and physical movement is restricted. This I am use to but for most people this will be a completely new experience.

    • Thanks David, yes that’s interesting that it feels like ‘prison’ and therefore we struggle with freedoms being taken away. Hopefully as we all adjust a little we can start to find freedom again in our new ways. Look after yourself 🙂

  2. Brilliant Claire and really helpful. I’m so up and down at the moment. Juggling everything. I’ve never felt so “not in control” before. I’m trying not to best myself up that the children are not working as they would in school and at the end of the first week I’m pleased that there have been more successes than failures and more good days than bad. I’m still trying to get into a routine of working at home but I’m sure that will come.

    I’ll be referring to what you wrote a lot over the coming weeks I’m sure.

    Thank you ?

    • Thanks Sam, it’s hard for us and also for them so hopefully it’s useful to know why things are all over the place for them too! Routine will help to adjust to the new ‘normal’ I’m sure. Look after yourself 🙂

  3. Thank you for helping us to understand the actual Psychological reasons for the emotions going around collectively and individually right now. This too shall pass! xx

    • Thanks Kelly – it’s definitely wise to see this as just temporary and to give ourselves a break from trying to control it all as our brains struggle to process so much change!

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