Like many of you, I have been giving thought to some people’s apparently ‘over the top’ response to the coronavirus – fights in supermarkets over toilet paper, rows of empty shelves, people queuing for hours to get food and travelling vast distances to ‘raid’ regional grocery stores.
Why are people doing this? It is a reasonable question to ask – we’ve had national crisis before, most recently the bushfire catastrophe, and people did not panic like this. In fact the opposite happened. People were compassionate, supportive and responsive.
What is different about this crisis? If we a look at it from a complex trauma lens it may help us understand better what is happening and what we need to do to calm the chaos.
What is complex trauma?
Complex trauma, sometimes referred to as cumulative harm, is not an event, but rather a series of events that are perceived by an individual or group to be traumatic in nature. The trauma causes their stress response to become overwhelmed. In the long term it can create changes to the brain if the person or group cannot return to a safe place or space.
What’s the brain got to do with this?
The brain is a wonderfully complex system. We still do not fully understand how it all works, but we know enough to understand how we respond or react to stress. At a very simplistic, but nonetheless helpful, level, we have ‘two brains’: our thinking mind and our reptilian brain.
Our thinking mind is unlike other animals’, it allows us to have very complex and abstract thoughts. It is the part of the brain that we access in our day–to–day lives and in the most part keeps us calm, regulated and able to make decisions based on the factual information around us.
Our thinking minds also help us to not be so reactive to heightened emotions such as anger, frustration, excitement and so forth. We develop this ability as we mature; adults’ thinking minds are much more developed than children’s.
The ‘reptilian brain’, sometimes referred to as the ‘survival brain’, has been around for millions of years. It helps us to recognise risk and act to keep ourselves safe. You might have heard of the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response – this is a simplified explanation of how our reptile brain works to keep us safe in stressful situations.
Two brains are better than one… most of the time
The fact we have ‘two brains’ is a good thing. Our reptilian brain is engaged in the background while our thinking mind is going about supporting and managing our day–to–day lives. The reptilian brain sends little signals out around the body to check all is OK, and the rest of the body sends back messages to say ‘steady as we go’.
The thinking mind is pretty much oblivious to this, unless a signal is sent to the thinking mind that says, ‘Mmm you better watch out here’. For example, you’re walking along the street and you notice a movement in the shadows. Your heart ‘skips a beat’. The signal is not so strong to trigger a fight, flight or freeze response, but it’ss strong enough for your thinking mind to check, ‘What’s going on, am I safe? Oh, it was nothing it was just a branch swaying in the wind.’
When both our brains work together it is great, each is doing the job they were assigned.
There are times when our reptilian brain receives such a strong signal that it does not give our thinking mind a chance to be involved in the decision about what to do. For example:
you step out onto the road without looking, (maybe you’re daydreaming or engrossed in your phone), a car coming along the road honks, you jump back automatically. This is your reptilian brain at work, overriding your thinking mind. Your hearing sends a signal to your reptilian brain to be alert and get you out of harm’s way. There’s no time for your thinking mind to pause to ask, ‘What’s the best action I should take to avoid this car?’, your reptilian brain has made the decision for you. It’s kept you safe.
There are also times that might be deemed stressful when you want your thinking mind to stay engaged and not be gazumped by your reptilian brain. For example, you have to give a speech to a room full of people, your worst nightmare! As you walk out onto the stage all your senses are firing and all you want to do is run away, but you don’t. Your thinking mind helps you through this, you say to yourself, ‘I know what I am going to say, I have prepared and I can do this’. You get started and your reptilian brain begins to ‘cool down’. You calm down and deliver your presentation with confidence.
Complex trauma and coronavirus
Let’s put all this together with the current corona virus crisis and how complex trauma works.
The world has been consumed with this crisis since January. Initially, we heard it only affected China, although there were some concerns things might get worse. The media began to provide more information and pictures of what was occurring in China. Particularly disturbing were images of people dropping in the streets and some coughing up blood.
At this point in Australia we were able to watch from afar be concerned but not panicked. Our thinking minds were still well engaged.
The spread of the virus then hit Iran and Italy heavily, and the first cases were recorded in Australia. There were maps of its spread and graphs showing what it meant for us in Australia, including predictions of how many deaths we might encounter. At this point people’s individual levels of stress began to increase.
Psychologically we start to see the build-up of a complex trauma response.
As more and more countries report contamination, deaths and the possibility of an economic downturn, the level of people’s anxieties increases. It moves from observing what is happening to others to, ‘what is happening?’ or ‘what could happen to me?’
It is at this point we reach a critical fulcrum between our two brains, the reptilian brain that reacts with ‘go buy toilet paper, rice and bread, you might have to isolate yourself for months!’ and the thinking mind that responds with, ‘OK this is not great, I might need to stay in my house for a number of days, what will I need?’
Some of us are better equipped than others to use our thinking minds to weigh up a situation and determine a measured course of action. Those who do not have a strong thinking minds are likely to become reactive, which in this case, is to go out and buy months-worth of toilet paper.
This seems completely illogical to those who are responding with our thinking minds, until you put a complex trauma lens on it.
How is this different from the recent bushfires?
You may be thinking, ‘OK, but we have had crises before, and we didn’t all lose our minds did we?’
This is true, however the difference between the bushfires and the coronavirus crisis is that while there were large numbers of people affected by the fires, there was still a critical mass of people who were not affected. They could stay in their thinking minds and offer support, compassion and consideration.
It was close though, when smoke began to penetrate into non-bushfire zones for days on end the mood began to shift. Luckily the rain came, albeit in some places too much, the fires and smoke went, and people returned to their daily activities.
With the coronavirus the number of people who are not impacted by this situation is almost, if not, zero. This means there are very few people around to help people to regulate their ever increasing ‘big feelings’ of fear and anxiety. If everybody is on a boat and it’s sinking very quickly most of us will panic.
Unfortunately, this situation is akin to a snowball rolling down a hill forever getting bigger. People watch the news, see people buying up and think there will be nothing left for me. It becomes a strong vortex that people can get sucked into. All these messages, news stories and images become triggers that reinforce certain actions.
What can we do to help people stay in their thinking minds?
I wish it were simple but the longer this crisis goes on for the more difficult it will be to find a critical mass of adults who can help to keep others calm and in their thinking minds. Those of us who are still responding with our thinking minds need to model calm behaviour and make sure we don’t get sucked into the vortex ourselves.
Here are 10 things that you can do.
- Be seen buying just what you need – jam–packed trollies will act as triggers – be a role model.
- If you are feeling anxious or fearful, minimise the time spent reading or watching stories about the virus.
- If big feelings rise up inside of you – pay attention to them in a curious way and ask, ‘What are you doing here right now?’ This will keep you in your thinking mind rather than send messages to your reptilian brain to react.
- Control what you can control – follow the advice of washing your hands regularly and staying at least 1.5 metres away from people. If you keep focusing on those things you can’t control you are at risk of losing control.
- Reassure your children that it will be OK, because it will be. We have been through much worse.
- Where possible stick to your routines. Where this is not possible consciously create new routines and celebrate these. Let people know about your new routines in a positive and proactive way.
- Allow yourself to talk about your feelings with people – it’s better out than in – but be aware of the risk of ‘group think’ or enabling behaviour, such as ‘the world is going to end and we are all going to die!’
- Use your own awareness to watch your mind and how it may be acting. Be the boss of your feelings and your mind rather than your feelings or your reptilian brain being the boss of you.
- If you are feeling stressed remember this is simply your body and mind asking you to pay attention – you have a choice about how you respond – you can buy more toilet paper or you can go for a walk, talk to a friend, ring a helpline etc.
- Actively seek to be the ‘water’ and not the ‘fuel’ on the fire of this this international crisis we face.
Children are especially vulnerable to feeling scared at times like this if they see adults panicking. So it’s up to all of us to do what we can to help everyone feel safe in these difficult times.
Founder / Consultant Psychologist
Australian Childhood Trauma Group
Photo cred: Photo by Hello I’m Nik ? on Unsplash