This is part of a series of short posts on Covid 19. These are my thoughts, and I wrap them in an acknowledgement that the opportunity to think about and discuss these topics is evidence of an immense amount of privilege. I also know that if those of us with privilege are to use it on behalf of those who have less, we need to be caring for our own mental well-being. To that end, I share these musings.
When I work with anxious children, I teach them about the brain, the limbic system, and amygdala hijacks. I sometimes compare the limbic system, and the amygdala in particular, to a smoke detector. Smoke detectors are good and useful things. They warn us about threats, and give us an opportunity to take action and be safe. But sometimes, our smoke detector is a little touchy, and goes off every time we make toast – a “Toast Alarm”. And running around gathering up our family and pets every time we make toast is, to say the least, inefficient. To be clear: warnings from our limbic system are generally a good thing. But when the brain codes our experience as dangerous, even if it isn’t, it gets in the way of our daily functioning.
The pandemic we are living through further complicates this process. First, our general background anxiety level is elevated. Even if anxiety is not your primary concern the rest of the time, you may find yourself reaching Toast Alarm levels of anxiety, possibly for the first time. And if you are prone to anxiety anyway, or you have a history of trauma, you are probably wandering around with quite high levels being your new “normal” — an even touchier Toast Alarm.
With those baselines elevated, it takes far less to push us over into an actual hijack. And now we fact the second issue — sometimes the smoke detector is actually functioning. We may become alarmed about someone walking too closely to us on the street, which is a very valid concern, and will lead us to cross the street to keep us and them safe. So we don’t have a Toast Alarm exactly, we have a “Sometimes it’s a Toast Alarm and sometimes it’s not” Alarm.
So now our task is to take on yet another new decision: is this particular alert an actual emergency or can I stand down? Toast Alarm or Smoke Detector? (see my earlier post on how these decisions affect us). And by the way, since the amygdala is alerted, we are less likely to have access to the part of our brain which can evaluate a threat calmly, do problem-solving, and execute the solution we come up with. Whee!
With a situation like that walk in the neighborhood, coming up with a solution is pretty easy. But when the situation is more complicated, relating, perhaps, to parenting during these trying times, or having to look after older relatives when you can’t go into their home, the thought process becomes much harder. Lots of people who generally respond to challenges with good ideas, and a sense of capability, are finding themselves overwhelmed and incapacitated. I have been reminding those folks, and myself, that we have done hard things before, and we can do hard things now. It’s as though we’ve lost our sense of self-efficacy, our belief that we can encounter new situations and figure out what to do.
Here are some ideas to help you manage your own possible Toast Alarm moments:
Take a deep breath. Actually, take several. Yeah, I know, it’s an over-used phrase, and often is code for “your experience is not valid”. BUT – one of the most effective ways to counter an amygdala hijack is to get the parasympathetic nervous system online and balancing the arousal in our physiology. The key here is to let your exhales last about twice as long as your inhales.
Take a moment to think. Again, this seems obvious and not necessarily helpful. But allowing your brain a moment or two to decompress will increase the likelihood that you will access your problem-solving skills. This also translates into permission to say “Let me think about that and get back to you.”
Cultivate self-compassion. Remember that the amygdala hijack is automatic, and also intended to protect you and your loved ones. You don’t have direct control over that toast alarm, and it doesn’t mean anything negative about you or your competence that it goes off.
Remind yourself of your capabilities. During a toast alarm episode, you can find yourself feeling overwhelmed and unsure. By thinking back to other hard things you have done — getting through childbirth, surviving unemployment, raising an outside-the-box child — you can reset your thinking a bit.
Reach out. When it’s hard to see yourself as capable, it can be super-helpful to check with a trusted person. They can remind you of your strengths, and your capabilities. Those parts of you haven’t gone away, it’s just harder to remember they are there.
In this uncertain time, it’s really unlikely that you won’t struggle with extra anxiety and toast alarms. But you have solved so many difficult problems in your life — I have every faith that you will manage these new ones as well.
May you be well in mind and body,