this is your brain on pandemic

Should I reorganize that closet or start a new career? Screw it, I’m going to eat these oatmeal creme pies.

Like me, I’m sure you’e seen a lot of suggestions about how to best handle the maelstrom of emotions that come from living through a pandemic. Grief, fear, anger, depression, boredom, guilt– these are all legitimate ways to feel, and certainly there are no wrong emotions. We’re all up against something most of us have never experienced, especially on this kind of scale.

I’ve got friends who are baking compulsively, others who are binge-watching the tiger show, some who are rage-posting, others who are praying, meditating, doing yoga, training their bodies like they’re competing for the Ms. Quarantine World Title– and, of course, plenty of people in my line of work are racing to get their businesses online. Some people are reaching out to everyone they know, and others are hibernating, marinating in their own emotions. Some of us are judging wildly and others are sewing face masks like it’s a full-time job. I don’t think there’s any right way to be handling this– how can there be, when we are all so different, and have no training for this sort of thing (except for trauma survivors, who may be feeling relatively calm)?

If you only read this far or remember one thing, let it be this: right now, many of us don’t have a lot of rational control over what we are doing, saying and feeling, which means that we don’t need to get caught up in other people’s reactions. We can also cut ourselves some slack and give ourselves a little space to have whatever reactions we need to.

Understanding the physiology of stress is really helpful so that you can 1) recognize that it’s a healthy and normal biological reaction and 2) learn how to use this reaction to your benefit so that you can function a little more normally again, even when we’re not sure what normal is. This series of articles is going to give you some basic information about our brain, body, and nervous system, and how it responds to stress. Then, we’ll look at why “trying to calm down” isn’t going to cut it, and what you can do to work with your body to move back into a more regulated state.

What’s Going on in Your Brain? (Hint: You’re Not Crazy, it’s Totally Normal)

So, let’s take a look at the three layers of our brain (the “triune brain model,” if you like fancy names). I promise, this is relevant.

Reptilian Brain: Brain Stem/Cerebellum: The reptilian or “lower” brain is the part of our brain that evolved first. It is concerned primarily with survival; it works in an instinctive and reflexive way, and control the fight-flight-freeze response. This part of our brain also controls involuntary processes like sleep, digestion, circulation, breathing, heartbeat, and sexuality. 

Mammalian Brain: Subcortical Region, Limbic Brain/Midbrain: The mammalian brain is responsible for the primary center of emotions. It includes the thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdala and hippocampus. This is where we find arousal, attachment, motivation, behavior, memory, sense of smell, and our feelings about the world. 

The Human Brain (Neocortex): This part of the brain is the most recent one to evolve. It constitutes 5/6 of the brain and is our rational mind, responsible for higher cognitive functions like language, communication, logical thought, and voluntary movement. This is the last part of our brain to mature as we develop. 

Dr. Dan Siegel’s Hand Model of the Brain and “Flipping Our Lid”

So, we can think of the brain as having an upstairs and a downstairs. Downstairs is the reptilian, primitive part of the brain, which reacts instinctually. The Upstairs Brain controls higher-level thinking— imagining, planning, decision-making. When the Upstairs Brain is working properly, we can regulate our emotions, think before we react, have empathy and morality. 


Dr. Siegel explains the science of “flipping your lid”

If we use our hand as a model, folding the thumb inside a fist, the hidden thumb represents the Downstairs Brain and the fingers wrapping over it are the Upstairs Brain. When we are calm and regulated, we can be upset, but still have rational thoughts about our feelings, as long as the Upstairs Brain is still in contact with the Downstairs Brain. If we get very upset– or if we are presented with more than we can handle, or what you might think of as operating outside of our window of tolerance— we “flip our lid:” the fingers come off the thumb and the Downstairs Brain is on its own and we react emotionally or in a more primal way. 

At this point, our higher-functioning brain is not able to do anything helpful– we are operating outside of our window of tolerance.

Your Window of Tolerance

The “window of tolerance” is your magic zone where you are able to cope with life’s challenges. When we are inside the window of tolerance, we still feel stress and pressure, but we’re able to think critically and creatively about ways to manage those challenges. Some of us have a naturally bigger window of tolerance, and we can handle most things pretty well. For others, it doesn’t take much to throw us off-balance. For most people, I would speculate that the fears that come with a pandemic are large enough to at least push us toward the edge of our window.

So, let’s put some things together: when we are not inside our window of tolerance, we don’t have access to our human brain. What does the human brain do for us? It regulates emotions, it handles complex reasoning tasks, it connects us to other human beings with feelings of empathy.

This is why it doesn’t work AT ALL when someone tells us to “calm down.” First, we don’t have access to the part of our brain that regulates emotion or is able to think rationally. Second, we’re not able to feel that connection to the other human being who is trying to help us. We’re in our downstairs brain, our lid is flipped, and we’re outside our window of tolerance.

While we can’t override this primal reaction, we can learn to recognize that it’s happening and learn to work with it. In the next article, we’ll take a quick spin through polyvagal theory (I promise it’s way more fun than it sounds), and then we’re ready to start learning just how we can work with our stress response, befriending our primal instincts to get back into our window of tolerance. That’s right– instead of watching the show about the tigers, you can learn to ride your own inner tiger to greater mental health. And isn’t that way cooler, anyway?

This is part one of our series on the physiology of stress and how to work with it. Click here to read part 2.

4 thoughts on “this is your brain on pandemic

  1. Thank you for this, it so is helpful! I look forward to the poly Vagal post. I recently took a workshop on it and it’s fascinating

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