Imagine that you are turning onto a street, a dead-end street, a long dead-end street, that has a number of houses on each side. Now, what I'd like you to imagine is that the vehicle you are in is your cerebellum. The cerebellum is the part of the brain that collects data from our inside experience and our outside world. It collects that data at the rate of about four billion bits of information per second. What it's looking for are patterns that it perceives as being life- threatening.
So, this vehicle, this car, is us, in our world, at this moment in time, with this new coronavirus experience. The cerebellum, once it has established that there is something to be concerned about, starts driving up the street looking for a home on that street that would help relieve the tension and anxiety that the cerebellum is experiencing; that it perceives as life-threatening. So, it's on a desperate search to find out where to put this information that it has been given. Which house does this belong in?
For some people the house that they put it in, the first house on the right, is “It is all a hoax and a plot and a deception, and none of it is real”. When they go to that place, they feel a sense of relief, because they now know a place to put it. So, the cerebellum is not nearly as anxious.
For others the house that says “This is just the flu” works for them.
For others, those two houses don't work, but they open the house with the door that says, “It's God's will”, and that works for them.
For others, it is the second house on the left – the “It's an exaggeration”, and that's what they do with all the tension and anxiety.
For others yet, “Let’s analyze it”, works and that would be the house that I go to. That is where I take all that energy.
For one it might be “Welcome to the real world. This is how the majority of human beings live every day”.
Another house is “Let’s make it into a house party – let’s turn it into a joke”.
For others it might be the house that says, “It is the holocaust all over again and I am dead”.
One house is “This will all work out in the end, so there is nothing to worry about”.
Another house would be “I need to go for a walk with it”. And for the people who are in my circle, that is what I am suggesting they do because I believe this whole thing represents our level of comfort with our own mortality.
At the end of the street there is a huge mansion, representing in this moment in time, our national leadership. If we can't find any of the houses that work, we go to the mansion’s front door. As with any of the other houses, if what you are hearing provides you comfort, that is what you do with your anxiety and that is where you will stay. If what you hear only makes you more anxious, all this energy goes right back down to the beginning of the street and adds even more anxiety to the situation. If we can't find a place to put this, the car goes up the street again. This time instead of knocking on the doors, it kicks on the doors to see which door might open. If we can’t find a house this time and we end up back at the mansion at the end of the street and there's nobody there, all the energy comes back, and we get even more and more frightened. The anxiety builds to a panic level. From my perspective, that's what has happened and that is what is happening.
One of the houses on that street is one of “analyzing it”. That's the house that works for me. That's what I do with my anxiety. What is this? What is this like? What is it about the human brain that makes all this normal? What can we do about it? How can we function with it? Just as for some people the “God’s will” or “religion speaking to us” works for them and gives them peace and a degree of anxious relief, the “understanding and analyzing it” is the house that works for me.
With each of these houses (assuming we find one that works), it works until it doesn't. One of the unique issues with this, is that we keep getting more and more information. So, for those of us who believed the whole thing was a “hoax and a plot by an opposing political party”, the information overwhelms that, and we have had to find another one. So, we might move to the next house, which would be “it's about our religion” and that will explain it and take the anxiety away. Every house works until it doesn't, and then we have to do something else and reorganize it. This is how I perceive what's going on with our lives at this particular point, in mid-March.
So, what to do? Well, I would suggest that if we have ever found comfort in anything that's helped us relieve our anxiety, whether it be our religion, or just not watching the news, isolating, yoga, meditation, those things that we have used in the past to help us relieve anxiety, to do that.
There are some other suggestions around brain science that I would recommend, too. One, is to go outside and be in nature. Historically and genetically, nature is our home. Studies have shown that we actually have a less stressful experience when we're outside. It actually relieves our anxiety and our stress.
The second thing is that we get pleasure in giving. So, if you're cooking up a pot of soup, cook another pot and take it to someone. Leave it at their front door and let them know that you've done that. Giving to others like that, releases an endorphin which makes us feel good and they end up feeling good also, so it's a win-win. Go through your contacts and send the people who pop up at you, a note, just checking in with them, either in a text or phone call. Reaching out like that gives you an endorphin hit. It also gives them an endorphin hit. And it also meets two of the needs that are creating a great deal of anxiety in our current circumstances.
After safety and security, two of the biggest needs in times like this are belonging and connection. The assurance that we belong - in other words, do we have a tribe? Do we have a group of people that we belong to? Do we have a special place in that tribe? When someone sends us a message, we're reminded that we do. Connection simply means special relationships, within that tribe.
Those last two things that I mentioned, like sharing something that you might cook, or sending a message of just checking in to see how they're doing, is a way that they're reminded that they do belong and that they have a special place. When they respond to you it reminds you that you have a special place in their life, too.
Let me know what else you're doing that would be in the realm of anxiety-reducing tools. Or in other words, if there are houses that I did not mention, that are a part of the buildings on your street.
When others are talking to me about their take on all of this I need to remember, all they are doing is talking to me from the front porch of the house that gives them most comfort. So rather than argue with them or try to get them to come to my house; I need to remember to respectfully listen to them, which is sometimes scary and difficult. This way I give them the grace of doing what they think they need to do to stay sane during these crazy times.
Remember, the cerebellum is designed to give us information. Its intent is to help us. It's trying to warn us of potential danger, imminent danger, and danger of death. It's just doing its job. Our job is to figure out where to put that energy, that anxiety, in a place that best serves us and our loved ones.