Calm in the Time of Corona
In a few short months, the Corona virus has altered centuries of culture, and we don’t yet know which differences are short-term and which will last. When will we head back to football games and honky-tonks? Probably soon, but is handshaking a thing of the past now? Our uncertainty is high, and we don’t like it. Uncertainty makes us nervous, threatens us, and our reflex is to react. If we sense a threat, we quickly reorient our behavior to stop it. Why are we so hellbent on stopping threats? They might hurt us. Here’s the more important question: Why do we do often things that are out of character, mean, and just stupid when we feel threatened? The answer is deeply biological.
We react to perceived (or imagined) danger, with a powerful survival mode we call ‘fight or flight.’ Many species share these reactions. In species with simpler brains, the reactions are straightforward, like fighting or running away.
There are four defensive reactions (FFFF), and you can think of them as reactions or even reflexes. Of the four F’s, the two we all know are Fight and Flight. Of the remaining two, the first is Freeze. We call it ‘deer in the headlights.’ Our brains make us stop while we figure out what’s going on. It’s the leading edge of shock, and it makes it hard to think or move at all. The last is reaction is Faint, where the body feigns death to avoid (or succumb to) death. We call it ‘playing possum.’ The possum tries to look uninteresting to predators. Finally, Faint has another function. In situations of inevitable death, like a gazelle going down in the lion’s jaws, fainting can be when the body gives up. Mercifully, I’m told, the gazelle feels no pain as its being eaten.
Because humans have massive, complicated brains, when we manifest the FFFF reactions, we’re a little different. When we perceive or even imagine a threat, our brains take over and mix the FFFF reactions with our personalities and histories (think hot mess). We call the beginning of it being triggered, like when you’re suddenly angry because somebody cuts you off in traffic. As the reaction progresses, we become flooded, which is when you focus on flipping them off instead of driving safely yourself.
When we’re flooded, we’re aggressive, panicky, and irrational in the worst ways. If you’ve ever had to apologize and said, “I wasn’t myself,” you were right. You became a less humane version of yourself and reacted in a way that protected you at some point in your childhood. It may have really helped in childhood but is likely being misapplied to now. The problem is this: if your inner child yells at your boss, you’re the one who’s going to get fired. Rightfully so, of course. It’s your responsibility to learn not to act like a scared child when you’re an adult. Understanding what’s going wrong in your brain is a step toward better self control. My goal in sharing this is that we’d be able to take responsibility for our bad behavior, not make excuses for it. We can be better versions of ourselves. It takes some practice.
Here’s what we usually do, before we learn to be responsible. We run away from problems that we know will only get better if we face them. We yell at and alienate people just when we want cooperation from them. We think only of ourselves, even though we need others to make our hopes and dreams come true. Pretty soon, we get so crazy that we’re hoarding Charmin during a flu pandemic, even though there’s no shortage and it makes no sense at all. As a society, all we have to do is behave normally, and there will be enough. Instead, because we feel threatened, we’re creating bigger problems. The shortage in toilet paper is real now, and it’s because of our FFFF reactions.
So, what do we do? Next time, I’ll write on connection.