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The Crisis and Your Brain
Dr Nikolaos Dimitriadis CEO, Trizma Neuro and Country Manager for Serbia, The University of Sheffield International Faculty, City College
The Crisis and Your Brain
What are you made of?

A crisis, like this pandemic, pushes us to reveal our true colors. When the thin layer of normality is stripped away our inner drives, motivations, priorities and true relations come to surface.

A high number of our daily behaviors and habits are situational. This is because our brain typically develops coping strategies for achieving its goals in specific places with specific people through repeated trial-and-error. Based on experience, which indicates which strategies work well and which not, our brain focuses on the successful ones that eventually form the basis of our automated and unconscious behaviors. These behavioral strategies, or habits, are repeated when the specific situation that were born in occurs again. Such situations can be going to work in the morning, entering a meeting with specific colleagues, meeting our parents-in-law or taking out our dog for a walk. Each of these situations, and almost every other one in our lives, has its own unconscious behavioral strategy.

And this is good. Our brains cannot afford reconfiguring differently our behavior for every interaction and every situation, every day. This would be too energy demanding. It would drain the brain’s available energy on a daily basis resulting in constant burnout, mistakes, strained relations and mental health problems. This is why the brain likes to learn fast and develop habits: in order to efficiently manage energy and deal with life’s complexity successfully.

Such patterns though are drastically broken in crises. The brain does not have the usual stimuli that trigger the learned habits and has to result in other tactics. These tactics can be previous learned emotions and behaviors from older crises, newly formed responses based on the new information, or hidden urges that find less reasons and less defenses to remain hidden. Our inner selves, trying to cope with the new situation, will struggle with all these options to find the one, or a combination of all of them, that will help it survive and thrive.

To detect elements of this struggle in your inner mind you can try to answer the following questions. Do not answer them too easily or too fast. It would be better to have them in the back of your mind and to try to observe yourself and those closest to you in the next few weeks.

• What are your deepest fears these days?
• Which are your strongest desires?
• What pisses you off on a daily basis?
• What calms you down?
• How do you treat others: strangers, colleagues and your family?
• How do others treat you?
• Who are the people you can count on?
• What exhausts you mentally and physically?
• What gives you joy?
• What keeps you going when you wake up?
• What are your hopes for your future?

Your answers might change over time, based on how the situation unfolds, and this would be a sing of your brain adapting to its changing environment.

This pandemic will test who we are. Periods of high uncertainty usually do so. Not as humanity but as specific people in our specific families, organizations and communities. It is very unfortunate that we constantly try to extract a bigger picture and a bigger hope of an abstract “humanity” that, as a unified whole, will take steps to save us from our misfortunes. This does not exist. And putting our hopes in something that does not exist can do only harm. Instead of a “humanity” that includes or humans, what exists are close-knit social groups, tribes or communities, with specific interests, norms and members. Such groups cooperate and compete with other groups to make the most out of available resources and provide the best for their members. Being active members of such a group provides benefits but also responsibilities. In periods of high uncertainty, it is the way you deal with your responsibilities, not your benefits, that will determine your future position in the group.

So, great leaders, great friends and great people are going to shine in this crisis. They will help others, open themselves to harm to be useful, they will trust people, be active, creative and available. They will priorities their responsibilities and not their benefits. their Others will hide, accuse and even attack. They will ridicule other people and behave strictly egotistically. They will try to say big words but help no one. They will sabotage solutions or just avoid any effort for improvement. Some will not follow the rules of protection and will emotionally explode when they absolutely have to. These people will shamelessly try to protect their strictly personal benefits above everything else. Our evolved social morality is based on the fact that such people are recognized and socially punished for their freeloading behavior. This social punishment inner system of our brain might not work always perfectly but it is a very strong motivator and a crucial aspect of how social/collective memory is formed.

This is why how you behave now will remain in memory (in yours and in others) long after the crisis. So, make your words and actions count. Love and care to those closest to us, and overall open and supportive behaviors to others, will be noted and rewarded.

Let's make silence count too. Too much information, or disinformation, tires the brain making its reactions erratic. Information coming from social media and online news sources is endless and addictive. In our stressful efforts to understand what’s happening and what to do we are more prone to deception and manipulation. We are more ready to accept extreme ideas and extreme people if they provide us with comfort. Our moral antennas must be heightened and our critical thinking always on. It’s not bad to listen to information; it’s bad to accept it fully just because it makes us feel in a specific way. Connecting to the right people, using more than one sources of information, listening to opposite views from ours, and engaging in sensible, open and supportive discussions in an empathetic way are the best ways forward.

Some more advice:

1. Presence. Be present to those around you. Being present means being there for them physically, mentally and emotionally. Focus on them when they talk and listen actively. Feel their feelings and respond both with sincerity and compassion.

2. Routine. This applies to those who stay and work from home but also to those that still go to work but need new habits for the rest of their time. Assist your brain to develop new routines. Give yourself few days and then based on the specifics of your situation and surroundings start a program of activities. Setting new routines, even loose ones, is of paramount importance. Especially when these routines serve real inner needs and not artificial wants.

3. Fun. Humor and creativity are two very strong mental healers and social connectors. Finding ways to enjoy, to laugh and to play creatively with those close to you will do miracles for your brain and your resilience. Finding the light in dark times is something that humans are very good in. Those that will radiate light will be remembered forever. On a funny note, I have personally found the online memes about the crisis, toilet paper and staying at home both hilarious and highly therapeutic!

4. Tragedy. This might seem as opposite to the one above but it’s not. One of the fundamental qualities of human life is paradox: things that seem opposite but are true at the same time. Tragedy gives us meaning. It helps us focus and prioritize. It also connects us deeply with those arounds us and with the natural world. The eternal cycle of birth and death, its inevitability, and the hardships we endure in between are what make us loving, caring and believing in one another. Our brain works better in challenging times than in quiet and normal ones. Our modern, and increasingly digital, era with its advertising message of “live happily now” has made us forget, and even be afraid of, tragedy. It is in tragedy though that we see our true selves, we reach for deeper meaning, and we relate to others stronger. So, let’s embrace tragedy and its profound lessons fully.

Our brains have already all the tools to deal with this crisis in the best possible way: empathy, support, love, morality, decisive action, social punishment of freeloaders, leadership and resilience. But are we going to let our brains perform in this way? Or are we going to provoke it to respond with misery, aggression and division?

I hope our inner motivations will make the right choice!

So… what is your brain made of?
Dr Nikolaos Dimitriadis
CEO, Trizma Neuro and Country Manager for Serbia, The University of Sheffield International Faculty, City College