With the upheaval and challenge we are all experiencing, our brains will be doing things that will both help and hinder our mood and our well-being. If we take a minute to notice our emotions and our thoughts, there are some things we can do to help make our thinking more productive – things that are scientifically proved to not only make us feel better, but also give us a chance at recovering more quickly economically and physically.
However hard it is to imagine right now, everything does pass. We might not ever be quite the same people in quite the same landscape. However, there will be a future where we look back and reflect on “What I did when Coronavirus happened…” and today is history and not reality. It’s time to start thinking now, not just about what you will do practically, but what you can do to protect your mental health and your capacity to think straight. Taking time to think about your thinking will mean you are more able to come out of these weeks, ready to face the challenges ahead and embrace the new opportunities that will exist.
Stopping to reflect is also a chance for you to think about the behaviours you want to be remembered for. What did you do to be your best self when the chips were really down?
Here are six pieces of science/research that might help. I have also attached the take-away postcard that we use in Tea Break Training to help people to remember the concepts.
- People are generally well intentioned – even if their actions are unhelpful
We are all different and we all react to stress, panic and change in different ways. Before you jump down the throat of an older family member or friend who tells you about something they have done which seems absolutely unacceptable – “I’m still going for my haircut, regardless of my cold” or “I sneaked a Calpol into my handbag because I could only buy one” – ask yourself how they could have done that with a positive intention.
We can all act weirdly when we experience extreme threats. Asking open questions to genuinely understand their intentions, rather than vowing to avoid them forever for being selfish will be a challenge. However most of us will only admit to ourselves that something we did was a bit stupid if we really trust them. Feeling that we trust someone implicitly, means that we are better able to hear and respond to the challenges they put to us.
Make it safe for people to tell you the truth about how they are feeling – even if it led to some ugly (but well intentioned) actions.
Take a breath. Outright confrontation usually makes our human brains find more evidence that our random act of selfishness was totally justified. We need to educate and influence, not alienate one another. Asking open questions in a calm voice is more likely to mean that someone is honest and open about the root cause so that you can understand the intention and the action.
2. Accept that you might not be telling yourself the truth or seeing things as they actually are
Life has already monumentally changed for us all. Change is always difficult and our brains particularly don’t like changes that we didn’t plan for. Your brain is a pattern machine. Its job is to simplify life for you. To store and create patterns so that you don’t have to live everyday like it is your first day on earth. In doing so, your brain looks for information to back up patterns it already has.
Your brain, like you, is well intentioned, but in making life easier it also deliberately deletes new bits of information that don’t fit the pattern or adapts them to be more palatable to an existing belief. This is true even if the information is scientific and accurate. Your brain will still try to distort things if you don’t already believe them to be true. You might have heard an older or at-risk relative telling you they are going to carry on regardless and that the virus won’t affect them. Not true, but their brains will find convincing reasons based on their “evidence” for it to feel true.
In these last few weeks, we have all been asked to change our patterns. Even if we are physically able to, our brains will resist. If you have found yourself saying “I don’t need to change because…” look again at the scientific evidence before you listen to your own research of one. You might tell yourself “Well I don’t know anyone with the virus so I don’t need to do X Y or Z…” It’s not true – but your brain might try and really, strongly convince you that it is. Pause and reflect. Give people permission to challenge you if they hear you telling yourself “lies.”
3. Count your blessings
Even when we absolutely think life can’t get worse, bizarrely it can help us to remember that they could. We release powerful chemicals when we find things to be grateful for – even if we think we are really scraping the bottom of the barrel! I reminded myself of this piece of science when on top of 48 of the most difficult hours in my professional life and the personal challenges most of us are facing, I was in A&E with a daughter with concussion…
Plan B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant is a good place to go for more information. Think what you like about her or her company but no one can fail to feel sympathy that her husband died suddenly on holiday whilst in a gym. The story of how she coped and parented her children through this is helpful, because she did so with the help of Grant, a psychologist from Wharton who speaks scientific sense about loss and grief.
There are many studies that show that writing down grateful thoughts has scientific benefits. Thinking those thoughts has been shown to release Dopamine into our bodies (Class A drugs like cocaine also causes dopamine to be released so respect its power). Serotonin is then also released if we write them down. Serotonin release and uptake is the basis of many prescription anti-depressants. This powerful combination can help us to experience physical effects like better sleep or less pain and psychological effects like feeling happier and having more willpower and optimism.
You might not feel that anything will make you feel any better – but the science says otherwise. Even if the situation doesn’t change, you have the chance to send chemicals around your body that will make you feel better about everything being as it is. Feeling better is not something to be avoided. It is something you can do to stay well and think more clearly.
Take 5 minutes out to reflect and write down 3 things that you are grateful for a couple of times a week for the next 12 weeks. It has strong proven scientific benefits. Bizarrely, do it particularly if you don’t feel like doing it and are telling yourself things couldn’t get any worse and it will be a total waste of time.
4. Actively remind yourself to think optimistically
Either by yourself or with your friends’ help, deliberately look for positives every day and in every conversation you have with yourself or someone else.
Seligman is the man to google if you want more information or need convincing about the power of positive psychology. His research, subsequently emphasised beyond doubt by others, has found that people with optimistic thought patterns live longer and earn more money.
This period will pass. Science suggests that people who train themselves to have an optimistic mindset during this downturn will emerge healthier and more prepared to take advantages of the opportunities that will be there in the new world reality, than those who practise pessimistic thinking and don’t notice them.
When things happen, good and bad, we can either see them as affecting everything and as being long lasting (Seligman refers to these as Universal and Permanent) or being short term and relevant to just the point at hand or to this one thing at this one time (Seligman uses Temporary and Specific to describe these).
When good things happen, people with optimistic mindsets look for ways in which the changes could be made Permanent and Universal. When bad things happen, optimistic mindset people remind themselves that the incident is Temporary and Specific – this means their brains are less likely to start looking for “evidence” why the bad “luck” will continue.
People with pessimistic mindsets do the opposite. When good things happen they tell themselves it won’t last and is just a one off – they see good things as Temporary and Specific. When bad things happen, people with pessimistic mindset say things like “Things always go wrong for me. This is typical, just my luck.”
Check out “always” and “typical” – these type of words provide “evidence” to your brain, and to the brains of others, that the bad things are Universal and Permanent.
These mindsets have a huge difference not just on how we feel (optimism releases the chemicals mentioned in 3) above), but also on what actually happens next in terms of events.
Brains of optimistic thinkers are primed to look for opportunities and connections with other areas of their lives where they could be an upside. Remember point 2) above – your brain looks for evidence that things are true? You have more chance of finding opportunities to be “lucky” if you are looking out for them. This creates a positive cycle where, because you are looking, you can find other good things and opportunities.
If you are looking for evidence that things won’t get better you will find that evidence and your brain will start to miss or distort opportunities because they don’t fit the pattern that everything is going to be bad forever. There is no such thing as good luck or bad luck. It is all about perception.
Most of us are in the lucky 99% who can and will have a life after the virus has been eradicated. You do have a significant amount of power about what that life looks like – even if it doesn’t feel that way right now. What are you learning about yourself, your customers, your suppliers or your business in general that could be useful to you in the future?
5. Ask yourself whether you are spending precious brain energy on something you simply can’t control or influence
One of our most popular Tea Break Training bite-size sessions is called Sphere of Influence. Our brain energy is not infinite. We think we can power on and keep going but we can’t. To think well, we need a supply of glucose and when it is gone, the quality of our thinking diminishes until we get more glucose produced by our bodies (or get a quick hit by a sugary cup of tea in my case)
It’s not just about brain fuel. Once a moment is gone, it is gone forever. When I started to think about my thinking and to log and reflect where I was spending my energy, initially I was horrified. The amount of time I spent dwelling, raging or worrying about things that were outside my control was frightening. What if I spent that time doing something productive instead? What could I achieve?
Quite a lot as it turned out. I tried the tricks and I wrote 2 books. Whatever you think of them, they are a darn sight better for me than sending large amounts of cortisol round my body would have been!
I have attached one of the activities from Its Not Bloody Rocket Science – The Journal, to see if thinking about your thinking in this way could help you.
It is a really simple trick. At any point in the day, stop to notice whether your brain is occupied in doing or thinking about something that is in your direct control. That’s great. Keep doing it.
However, if you notice instead that it is spending time on thinking about something you can’t control but can only influence, just pause and check. Is the amount and intensity of your thinking time invested in “The Thing” commensurate with the amount of time you are spending on it and the worth of “The Thing” to you. If you have spent hours on something that you have only a little control over and it’s not really that big a deal, maybe focus on something else instead.
If you notice that you have just wasted an hour dwelling on something that is past and you can’t do anything about it now or something that is entirely outside your sphere of influence or control, then stop. Don’t waste another hour. It is not a productive use of your energy and it is unlikely to be doing you any good mental health wise. I recommend doing something instead that you are not good at so that you have no option but to concentrate on it. I love reading and films but because my mind can wander, they are not always a great distraction for me when I am at my worrying worst. Knowing about this science however has enabled me to learn to play the guitar and sing at the same time…(I won’t, I promise…)
Pick something you can’t do currently that you would like to learn to do. If you can’t find a guitar shop open, how about learning a language via an app, knitting, cooking something complicated from scratch. Every time in the next 12 weeks that you find yourself thinking unproductively, spend five minutes doing the thing you would like to learn to do instead. It creates a “break” from unproductive thinking which means you don’t dwell for as long. You might just be able to speak French when the country is open again for business...
- 6. Feeling a sense of panic or not being able to think straight are normal
Most people have heard of the “fight or flight” reaction that we experience when we feel threatened by something. This response is evolutionary. Put simply, the chances of us all being here as individuals in this crisis are tiny. Every person in your ancestral chain had to stay alive and met another specific person who also happened to be alive, or you would not exist at all.
There is a lot about odds in the news at the moment. However think about these odds. It’s mind blowing to think that the odds of me and you as individuals being here to experience these strange days at all is way more than a trillion to one.
Go and buy a Richard Dawkins book from an online independent bookshop to get your head around this. For now, in my simple and far less beautiful prose terms, we are here because our ancestors had the chemicals and brain wiring that kept them alive when they needed to fight off a bear, run from a fire or hide from the cold or the elements.
As a result of their survival, they have passed down particular evolutionary brain wiring to us. The fight or flight reaction is one of them. However, most of us are not running from bears every day and given you are reading this online we are both lucky enough to have a warm home and a computer (count your blessings from point 3 and just imagine what it is like to be homeless right now…)
This “old” wiring is alive and well and does the same things to our bodies (makes our heart beat faster, makes the blood run to our feet, give us a flush to the face), but the things that bring on these reactions aren’t bears or the need to find shelter from extreme cold. The things that trigger these “old” reactions in us can be modern – and less obvious.
At a basic physiological level, your fight or flight reactions are powered by blood and oxygen. Not just the obvious reactions like increased heartbeat but also the sweaty palms and butterflies in your tummy. Not many people are aware of the implications of your fight or flight reaction on your thinking power and simply knowing about this has helped some of my clients immensely. The blood and oxygen required to power your fight or flight reactions has to come from somewhere – we don’t carry round oxygen tanks and blood transfusion monitors in daily life and our body has finite amounts. There is a simple, physiological reason that you can’t think straight when you are threatened – the blood and oxygen required to power the physical reaction in your heart, feet or face is coming from the specific part of your brain that deals with conscious decision making and rational thought.
Thus it’s entirely normal not to think of a great riposte until after the argument or to not be able to find the right words in a situation where you feel deeply hurt or that something is really unfair – because the blood and oxygen required to come up with your best responses is no longer powering the part of your brain that does that – they are simply elsewhere.
David Rock knows his neuroscience and you can find him talking about a model I love that simplifies all of this called SCARF on the internet everywhere. SCARF is an acronym and it helps us understand the modern day threats that can trigger the SCARF or “fight or flight” reaction. These are threats to our S – Status, our C – Certainty, our A – Autonomy, our R – our Relatedness or Relationships with one another and our F – our sense of Fairness.
The viral outbreak is likely to have triggered not just one of these reactions in most of us but all 5. You might have previously been the breadwinner in your family or the captain of your football team. Suddenly you might not be either. That is your Status trigger switched.
Certainty? Wow, that went last week for all of us.
Autonomy? There is lots of debate about what the state should or shouldn’t do to restrict our freedoms but we can’t choose to fly or holiday and some of us can’t even leave the house.
Relatedness. Absolutely – we are all feeling increasingly isolated, even if we are surrounded by people. Bet you have some friends and family that we talked about in 1). Social media is full of people getting angry.
Fairness. You bet. The views on what is “fair” right now and sending us into our own paroxysms of righteous indignation are wide ranging and sometimes extreme. It gets us angry and we feel it unfair that some people will lose their lives, jobs or livelihoods.
Emma Barnett’s show is my go-to place to keep me sane, informed and entertained and there was a great section on the morning I wrote this (18th March to listen back). It was about whether people thought it unfair or reasonable that their friends were still out for dinner or socialising. My 12 year-old posed a question over dinner – “Mum it feels really unfair that literally the whole world is being punished because one person ate a bat.”
It doesn’t matter to your blood, oxygen and brain whether your sense of “unfairness” is triggered by something logical or rational. You could be totally misguided and still feel angry about something being unfair, meaning that you experience the inability not to think clearly (and then, as a result, say something you don’t really mean or something insensitive or unfair in return…)
This takes us neatly back to point 1) Be kind. Even if your most wise friend seems to have lost their sense of right and wrong. It may simply be they are experiencing the very opposite of a rush of blood to the head. Share this science with them. It will help you to remember it for yourself.
So, it’s time to think about your story. What will you tell your grandchildren that you did and didn’t do in the coming weeks? How will you stay mentally well and have as many powerful positive chemicals in your body as humanly possible? How will you train your brain to see things as they are and to prepare for the opportunities at the end of this to rebuild our world?
None of us will be perfect in the coming weeks. But let’s accept what we don’t do well as quickly as we can and make deliberate choices in how we think to be the best versions of ourselves. We need collective brain power at the end of this. Training your own brain is something you can do, when so much else of what is happening in the world is out of our control.
If you think that reading about the science in more detail would help or you would like some practical exercises to help you to think more positively and to think about your thinking in the coming weeks, check out my books here. I have a stash and will be posting them personally if other sellers can’t! https://www.toprightthinking.com/shop-2/
Click on the links to try these activities
Reduce the time spent on unproductive thoughts that don’t change anything, with this activity from It’s Not Bloody Rocket Science – The Journal.
Help yourself to feel better. Use this activity from It’s Not Bloody Rocket Science – The Journal, to think about the things you are grateful for.