- Our survival brain is designed to detect and prepare us for threats.
- Just because we survive a threat doesn't mean the system turns off.
- Feeling anxious is a normal after-effect of dealing with a serious threat.
The COVID-19 pandemic is enacting a heavy toll on both physical and mental health around the world. There have been numerous reports of mental health decline during the COVID-19 pandemic, both during and after lockdowns (Pierce et al., 2020; Van Rheenen et al., 2020; Zajacova et al., 2020). As a health psychologist, I have been helping to manage the mental toll of the pandemic for both the public and frontline providers.
But as vaccinations increase, shouldn’t we all start feeling better?
Some of us will start feeling better. Being able to get back to doing things that were restricted before will help improve mood and functioning for many. But many people will continue feeling anxious and on edge.
To understand these emotional reactions, it can be helpful to understand how brains react to stress. The Paleomammalian/midbrain (or as we like to call it, our "caveperson brain" or "survival brain") is responsible for several important functions, including emotional reactions, automatic thoughts, memory, learning, and appetite regulation (Tirch et al., 2014). The system is built for survival and gives excellent advice for humans living in Paleolithic (caveperson) times when human life expectancy was 30 years. The "caveperson brain" functions automatically and unconsciously. For example, if you put your hand on a hot stove, you will pull your hand away before you consciously register pain. Furthermore, functions of the caveperson brain cannot be “turned on” or “turned off” because they are essential for survival.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, our caveperson brains are "on fire." The ongoing threat from the virus enduringly and automatically activates our unconscious survival brain. We don’t have to be consciously aware of the threat of the pandemic for it to activate our caveperson brain and the threat response. The system works very well when the threat is acute, like a bear attack; however, it does not work well for the chronic threat faced during a pandemic. Our survival brain also does not work on probabilities. It works on worst-case scenario.
And just because we survive a threat doesn’t mean the system stops working. If a caveperson does survive a threat like a bear attack, they should be reminded of that threat and stay vigilant for the threat. It’s quite likely the bear will still be a threat.
Thus, caveperson brains don’t stop warning us of danger just because we survived it. We are hard-wired to continue to be vigilant for a threat long after the danger has passed. This is why we may continue to feel anxious or on edge even as vaccination rates increase. Furthermore, it’s obvious that the pandemic itself is far from over globally and that we may continue to face new threats locally from variants.
We can cope with this by understanding that this is just our caveperson brain doing its thing and not fall down the rabbit hole of blaming ourselves (e.g., “What’s the matter with me?”). By understanding we may still feel anxious, we won’t add fuel to the caveperson brain by being anxious that we’re anxious. And we can work on choosing to still engage in activities that matter to us, even if our caveperson brain is warning us of danger.