To say these are challenging and unprecedented times, would be an understatement. In times such as this, it is easy for our amygdala, the tiny almond-shaped group of nuclei deep within the temporal lobes, often called the “lizard brain”, to take over. The amygdala is responsible for emotional and social processing, and most importantly, for fear-conditioning. It activates our fight-flight-freeze response when we sense a threat. Through this activation, our “feeling brain” is cut off from our “thinking brain,” as the prefrontal cortex, responsible for complex processes such as memory, planning, reasoning, and problem-solving shuts down, and our amygdala takes over. This survival mechanism lets us react to events before the rational brain has time to mull things over. It reacts before we have a chance to think about our response. And this automatic fight-flight-freeze response is mobilized when we perceive any threat.
Right now, there is a major threat lurking out there. All of us have some level of fear about the situation in which we find ourselves. We worry about our loved ones, our friends, and our communities as we collectively try to navigate the uncertainty created by a new pandemic. As we move through uncharted territory, it is more important than ever for us to focus on our mental and emotional state, fuel our minds with positive thoughts, move through each day one step at a time, and do what we can to take care of ourselves and our loved ones. Here are some ways to calm your amygdala and take control of your response to the situation:
Schedule Zoom, Skype of FaceTime calls with friends, past clients, and colleagues. Just to check in and see how everyone is doing. For leaders, during times such as this, it is especially important to extend additional support to your teams by reaching out more regularly. No-one ever complained about too much communication, and during a time of isolation for many, simply maintaining contact and showing your teams that you care makes all the difference. Make every communication count.
We can all control how we respond, react, and engage with each other during challenging times. If there is anything good to come out of dealing with a pandemic, it is that we have an opportunity to recognize what is most important – neighbors helping each other, strangers reaching out to support those who are struggling to cope, and families learning to prioritize their time together. Perhaps we are learning to appreciate the only thing that really matters – the people we care about. I hope you will take advantage of the unique opportunity this situation presents to embrace a new way of collaborating, and a deeper way of connecting and supporting each other.
KEEP THINGS IN PERSPECTIVE
Each heartbeat pumps 20 percent of the blood in our bodies to our brains. The harder we think, the more oxygen the brain uses. Of the 50,000 thoughts that run through our minds each day, 70 percent are negative (particularly during times of stress and anxiety). Imagine what we could achieve if we could focus all that brainpower on the good stuff.
Studies have shown that people who practice gratitude are healthier, happier, more effective, and more resilient. They report better physical and psychological health. A 2012 University of Kentucky study showed that intentionally noticing the good things in life and being grateful for them builds neural pathways to optimism, enhances empathy, and reduces aggression. By writing down three good things every day for a week and then looking back on the list, we can shift our perspective to one of appreciating the small gifts, simple pleasures, and even people that we so often overlook, focusing on the blessings we have rather than the hardships we face.
Today, I encourage you to ask yourself:
What were three good things that happened to me today? (look for the extraordinary in the ordinary)
What am I grateful for today? (list three things)
Who do I appreciate having in my life? (write down why you appreciate them, then share this with them in person if you are sheltering in place together, or in a note, an email, a text or a phone call if not)
Physical activity is perhaps the single most important thing you can do to keep your brain healthy. Exercise can boost blood flow and other positive nutrients to the brain, increase your levels of dopamine and generate new brain cells that can help the brain self-regulate and calm down. Walking can help you clear your mind, decrease anxious feelings, improve your mood and burn some calories all at the same time.
With gyms, clubs and community centers closed, we all have to get creative to stay active and healthy. Fitness gurus are stepping up to offer free virtual workouts, and there are a multitude of easy home workouts out there. Many of us are working from home and may find ourselves more inclined than usual to sit in front of a screen for hours on end. Replacing two hours of sitting with two hours of standing every day lowers blood sugar and cholesterol (and burns calories!). Research shows that walking also enhances creative thinking, so walking while on the phone or when brainstorming with colleagues on conference calls can help us generate ideas. Working at a standing desk if you have one, or taking a two-minute walk every hour can help offset the negative health effects from prolonged sitting.
Nature is a powerful tool for re-balancing the body and mind. It enables us to tap into our natural sense of wonder and has even been proven to lower heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress-hormone production, boost immune system, and improve overall feelings of well-being. Nippon Medical School in Tokyo measured the activity of human natural killer cells in the immune systems of people before and after a visit to the woods. They saw significant increases in the cell activity immediately, and for up to a month following a weekend in the woods. Scientists have discovered that various essential oils, generally called phytoncide, are emitted by trees to protect themselves from germs and insects. Forest air doesn’t just feel fresher and better – inhaling phytoncide seems to actually improve immune system function. If you are able, take a walk outside, feel the earth beneath your feet, and breathe in some fresh air (not in or around groups of people of course).
TRY SOME BELLY BREATHING
Not all breaths are created equal. Most of us breathe shallowly the majority of the time. And it’s worse when we’re stressed or anxious. The vagus nerve, which originates in the brain stem and extends all the way down to the tongue, vocal chords, heart, lungs, and other internal organs, is an important element of the parasympathetic nervous system (the system that controls our rest, relaxation, and digestion response and calms us down). When stimulated, the vagus nerve will counteract the sympathetic nervous system (the system responsible for activating our fight-flight-freeze response and causing us stress). When the vagal response kicks in, it reduces our heart rate and blood pressure, releasing an array of anti-stress enzymes and hormones such as prolactin, vasopressin, acetylcholine, and oxytocin. It tames inflammation, allergic responses, and tension headaches, relieving anxiety and depression.
To calm your nervous system and stimulate the vagus nerve, try some deep belly breathing. This can counteract the high levels of cortisol that we experience in stressful times. Deep breathing is not only good for your body, but it also calms your mind. Diaphragmatic breathing is characterized by an expansion of the abdomen instead of the chest. Take a deep inhalation through your nose while counting to five, hold your breath for a count of six, and then slowly exhale while counting to seven. Studies show that about ten minutes of deep breathing is sufficient to calm us down. The key is to have the breaths come from your belly, and slow down the exhale as much as possible.
CHOOSE WONDER OVER WORRY
Harnessing the power of wonder can short-circuit negative emotions and reduce fear. The negative emotions that drive our fight-flight-freeze response cause inflammation throughout the body as they increase cortisol and adrenaline production. Studies have shown that individuals who recall more experiences of awe in a month-long period have lower levels of cytokines (the proteins that cause all that inflammation) than those who did not harness awe.
Awe is in the smile of a loved one as you spend precious time together, the kindness of people reaching out to help each other in difficult times, the laughter shared with a colleague comparing funny working from home stories, the feel of a gentle breeze on your skin, the rise of the moon on a clear and starry night, or music that makes your heart soar. If we can seek out and harness wonder, we can start to see the world around us through a lens of positivity that builds optimism and reduces fear. Moments of wonder are all around us, every day. We only have to take the time to notice them.
SLEEP LIKE A CAVEMAN
Sleep is more than beauty rest. It’s also brain rest, and is one of the most important aspects of well-being. A good night’s sleep keeps our heart healthy, reduces stress, makes us more alert, reduces chronic inflammation, improves our memory, can help us lose weight, and may even prevent cancer. Research indicates that people who get six or fewer hours of sleep a night have higher blood levels of inflammatory proteins (cytokines) and lower levels of our defensive T-cells than those who get six hours or more. Sufficient and restful sleep also enables us to better fight infection by priming our fever reaction, enabling our immune system to more effectively wage war on infections and viruses. Keep your immune system in tip-top shape by getting a good night’s sleep.
It’s easy for unpleasant emotions to dominate our awareness, particularly during times of uncertainty and fear. Our brains are wired to constantly scan for and identify threats. But we can train our brains to be more positive in spite of the current situation. We can’t necessarily change our environment, but we all have the power to shift our response to that environment by building resilience. Together, we will get through these times.
As Victor Frankl said: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms— to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Learn more about building resilience in Taming the Sabertooth: Resilient Leadership in a Stressful World