Written by Karen Pontious
Dealing with uncertainty during a pandemic is something new and challenging for everyone, especially for people who have substance abuse patterns, are in early recovery, have a history of addiction or have mental health challenges.
We're living in times where our routines have been uprooted and these new circumstances are creating unideal repercussions. We’re unable to live our lives normally, people's incomes have been impacted, and many people are stuck at home with their whole family, all of which can create a stressful environment. Now is an essential time for us to have healthy coping tools to better deal with the world around us.
Registered Clinical Counsellor Carrie DeJong recently held a webinar explaining neuroscience and the wiring of our brain to reveal why we respond the way we do during stressful times, and what we can do to cope. We have put together a recap of this webinar, or you can watch the full video below.
How our brains are wired: the inside scoop to why we do what we do
The brainstem is the oldest part of our brain referred to as the “reptile brain”, that controls our instincts. The brainstem is the conductor of all things we don’t control like breathing, our circulatory system and digestion. This part of our brain is in control of our fight or flight response and gives us bodily sensations that make us want to react in happy, sad and/or angry situations. Because the brain stem is the oldest part of our brain we are programmed to respond to threat early on in life.
The limbic system is referred to as the “mammalian brain”, which is in charge of processing our emotions. This is where we feel pleasure and that can motivate us to act and also where we feel fear or discomfort that can prevent us from doing something. The limbic system like the brainstem is formed early on in life and is fully functional at birth.
The cortex is what we consider the “human brain”. This part of our brain is home to rational thoughts, creativity, good judgment and spirituality. Unlike the brainstem and the limbic system, the cortex isn’t fully developed until our mid to late twenties but because it’s the part of our brain that makes us more “human” we tend to focus on our cortex as being the centre of the brain.
However our senior partners of our brain are the brainstem and limbic system, not the cortex, which means logical thought can often take a backseat to our emotions. This is why we could make poor decisions when we’re stressed because our brain is being controlled by the parts that are wired for survival.
"The limbic system, which rules emotions, can hijack the higher mental functions when it needs to"- Dr. Paul Maclean
Polyvagal Theory: our internal tug of war with relaxation and anxiety
The Vagus nerve, which is Latin for wanderer, is the longest and most complex nerve system in our body, responsible for states of relaxation and fear management. The vagus nerve is crucial for us to be able to understand how to cope during stressful times. The polyvagal theory discusses how our nervous system is wired into three circuits, which are governed by the Vagus nerve.
Social engagement system (the green zone)
This is when we’re feeling connected, resourced, healthy and supported. We often are more calm and life feels manageable. This circuit can feel unreachable for many, especially during times of uncertainty.
Mobilization (the orange zone)
This state is activated when we are dealing with new and stressful scenarios like the ones we are going through now. When we’re are in this state we could take things in a more aggressive or threatening way. If we stay in this mobile state for too long with a lot of cortisol and adrenaline pumping we can end up in an immobile state.
Immobilization (the red zone)
This is when we become disconnected with ourselves, break down and feel hopeless. This state can make people feel a lack of motivation and resort to unhealthy coping behaviours.
It’s important to remember that it's normal for us to go into each one of these circuits and we don’t have to feel ashamed for getting to the immobile state but rather we should be aware of which states we remain in and how we can take care of ourselves to help us stay in the green zone more often. We can do that through harvesting safe relationships and committing to healthy habits. We are wired for connection so it’s crucial for us to have safe relationships so we can be better at dealing with stress and experience emotions.
Connection and coping tools: learn to be more present during uncertainty
Tools for taking care of your body
- Get 7 to 8 hours of sleep
- Eat a healthy balanced diet
- Drink lots of water
- Get exercise, do yoga or pilates
- Go for walks
- Breathing exercises
- Keep up with your hygiene
- Be more present in your body by noticing your breath.
- Feel a sense of connection with the Earth
- Butterfly hug: place your hands on your chest and gently tap or gently squeezing arms to feel more connected with yourself
- Orienting to sights and sounds around you. Take some time to pause and be more aware of the simple things in your surroundings.
- The 5-4-3-2-1 exercise helps become more attuned to our senses by finding the following things:
- 5 things you see
- 4 things you feel
- 3 things you hear
- 2 things you smell
- 1 thing you taste
Ways to activate our vagus nerve
- Eat something crunchy like carrot sticks
- Make a cup of herbal tea
- Sit in the sun
- Identify 3 things you’re grateful for
- Pay “tug of war” with your child or dog
- Take a warm bath
- Tend to your plants or garden
- Do a small, easy chore
Social engagement tools
- Connect with supportive people
- Create something
- Video calls with family and friends
- Check in with your doctor
- Seek online support
- Practice self-compassion
- Set healthy boundaries
- Write a self-care list of things that work for you
- Practice the 1 per cent rule: do one small thing rather doing what we “should”
Karen Pontious is a professional communicator working on her dream to be a freelance writer and editor.
Her passion is intercultural relations and communication. She writes about relationships, immigration stories, gender norms, and mental health.