Where are their BRAINS?!?! I am hearing that question now all the time as we deal with the threat of Covid-19. I have friends who tell me that they watch reports of the protests to end stay-at-home orders and think how could those people do that? Where are their brains? Others ask the same questions about those putting the orders in place. “Don’t they know what a toll this isolation and economic stress is putting on people? Where are their brains?” The truth is that our brains are playing an important role in this discussion but perhaps not in the way we think.
Our brains are made up of various complex parts, but the part of our brain that makes us human is the pre-frontal cortex, which is just behind our foreheads. You see, this is the part of the brain that controls language, creativity, and conscious decision making. It is that part of our brain that sets us apart from animals, who are more instinctive. The Kuzari (3:11) tells us that we wear tefillin on our forehead because our Godly resemblance lies in our free will, which is controlled in this part of the brain. But when we are in danger, we sometimes must act instinctively to stay safe. In such a situation, thinking too much can be a danger. Therefore, Hashem created our brains with an instinctive mechanism called the amygdala. Most of the time, our pre-frontal cortex is integrated with the amygdala to keep a lid on our instinctive impulses. However, when our brains sense danger we become disintegrated or we flip our lid. This is a feature, not a bug, of the wonder that is our human brain. You see, in a dangerous situation, overthinking can be a critical mistake, so we need quicker access to our instincts.
When our brains face danger, the first instinct is to fight off the threat. If that doesn’t work, we move on to flight, and if that isn’t possible, then we freeze or just try to hide until the danger passes. When the fight instinct kicks in, we may feel more irritable, after all we are looking for a fight. The flight response kicking in leads to feelings of avoidance, we are looking for an escape. When the freeze response kicks in, we can end up with feelings of depression as we numb ourselves and draw inwards.
These brain functions are healthy responses, designed keep our minds safe from danger similar to the immune system which keeps our bodies safe from infection. When our body senses a virus or bacteria, the immune system kicks in to fight off the infection with antibodies. We might develop a fever or a cough, or we might feel fatigued. We associate those feelings with being sick when, in fact, they are signs that our bodies are responding in a healthy way to fight off the infection. That is similar to how feelings of depression, anxiety, and avoidance are signs that our brains are effectively protecting us from psychological threats. Sometimes a person experiences fever cough or fatigue more frequently than is typical and they need to be examined by a doctor to treat the condition. Similarly, when irritability, depression, and avoidance are frequent, they should be assessed by a mental health professional for treatment. If the fever gets too high or the cough is making it difficult to breathe or the fatigue becomes debilitating, the person should call Hatzalah or emergency services. So too, if the depression, anxiety, or avoidance is interfering with functioning or leading to thoughts of suicide or harm, the person should immediately contact a crisis line for support.
We have all become familiar with the steps we must take to keep others safe when we experience symptoms. When we have a cough, we cover it with our elbows to prevent others from being infected. Similarly, when we are feeling irritable, we should think about the steps we can take to shield others from being “infected” from our irritability. If we think we might have a virus, we stay away from others and wear a mask just in case. So too, when our feelings might be elevated, it is especially important to think twice before posting, saying something, or acting in a way that could be driven by our amygdala impulses. To boost our immune systems, we should all be making sure to rest, exercise, eat fruits and vegetables, and wash our hands. Likewise, to help keep our brains integrated, we should be scheduling self-care activities into our day so that we have the mental space to handle the stresses we may face.
All of us are facing increased stress. We are all dealing with loss, fear, and economic worry. Some people are feeling lonely and others are feeling crowded while some are feeling both crowded and lonely at the same time. Our routines have been disrupted, and we can’t do all the things that we are used to doing. So, when we see people yelling or being overly cautious, we should remember that they haven’t lost their minds, in fact, their mind is doing it’s very best to keep them safe and healthy. It is okay to be feeling depressed, irritable, or avoidant, our mind is keeping us safe. But if those feelings intensify, we should reach out for support, and we should always take steps to protect ourselves and others from harm.
One more thing to remember is that when people are disintegrated, they won’t respond to logic. Logic is a function of the front of the brain, and when the amygdala is in control, a person cannot process logical information rationally. So, when you engage with someone to try and change their mind and you notice that they might be feeling disintegrated, help them return to mind integration by deescalating and connecting with them. Once they feel safe, they will be far more receptive to processing information in a logical manner. You see you can help them understand your perspective, but it may not be in the way that you think; you might first have to be mindful of the way that they think.
Menachem Hojda, LMSW, is a clinical social worker in Michigan. For more information about how different parts of the brain react to anxiety, lookup Dr. Dan Siegel's online video called "The Hand Model of The Brain."
Ideas for self-care: