What happened with our brains during the pandemicMay 05, 2023
I'd love to kind of think out loud with you a little bit today. I'm putting together a number of things from research that I've been doing, books that I've been reading, as well as speaking on different panels recently about childhood obesity.
There's a couple of big themes. First of all there is an inordinate amount of focus on weight. Every time I speak on one of these panels, the facilitators ask about the statistics around pediatric overweight and obesity. All of the statistics are from pre-COVID times because we haven't had the opportunity to collect all of the data from the last three years. That being said, there's definitely data coming out that show increases in the rates of overweight and obesity for both our children and ourselves. And then of course all of the bells and whistle's go off, "Warning! Warning! Danger: we can't continue to go in this direction! There's a fire over here." All of the doom and gloom stories and headlines with which we are well-acquainted.
And that's where we're gonna start: The doom and gloom and the activation and what's happening in our brains. And now we've talked before about why fear is a very poor advisor and why worrying doesn't work. I mean it makes sense that this is happening: we are activating a part of our brain that is responsible for threat detection. The amygdala is operating in the background. And we talk about threats to our health to our lives and specifically to our children, there's a ton of resources being directed to the amygdala and it takes over.
In Daniel Siegel & Tina Bryson's book, "The Whole Brain Child," they talk about the "upstairs brain" and the "downstairs brain." The downstairs brain is the amygdala and it's kind of like thinking about the downstairs in houses. All of your basic operations are happening downstairs: you've got the kitchen, the dining room, the living room: everything that we need on a regular basis is down there. The downstairs brain is sometimes called the primitive brain and it is our default. It is the first thing that we encounter kind of like the first floor of the house.
In contrast, the upstairs brain (also called the prefrontal cortex or the higher brain) is the thinking and decision center. It's a part of the brain that we get to practice and exercise to really bring it online. It's not always operating. In fact, it's not online when we are born or in the early months. But as we age, we don't always have it engaged. Think about our kids and how often they have tantrums. That's when the the lower brain is engaged with those very powerful emotions. But even think about ourselves how hard it is to try to think clearly when you have a rush of very strong emotions, especially rage or fear. That's when the amygdala, the downstairs brain, is just being very effective and running the show.
It takes a lot of practice to start taking the stairs from the lower brain to that higher brain. And I love this analogy because of thinking about the stairs and of course thinking of Allen Iverson saying, "You're talking about practice?!" Yes, it's practice and it's exercise in the sense that we have to build the muscles, as we say, to use that prefrontal cortex it takes a lot of practice. In fact I think that the opportunity is really for us to recognize as parents and adults how much practice we still need. How we can't just swoop in and tell her kids what to do. We can't just think our way through the threat detection process. There's an important reason why we have the amygdala in action, and we need safety to be able to look back and understand what happened. We need time, practice and reflection to understand what is going on and how to switch the active area, when appropriate.
It's actually not about staying in the prefrontal cortex all the time as a goal of being all Zen-like. We all know those folks that are thinking and rationalizing everything. No we need to be able to feel with our emotions, as well as actually react to threat. Think about getting out of a dangerous situation. You know how you flinch before you even recognize with the threat is that's coming at you, whether you are trying to cross traffic or you're at a baseball game and you flinch before this foul ball comes your way. That's amygdala in action. It's all about protection and it's necessary.
So what happened during the pandemic?
So as I put this together with thinking about the last three years of the pandemic. In particular, thinking about the changes that have happened in our physical, mental and emotional health, our amygdala has been on overdrive, for both adults and children. We have so many wounds that we are carrying with us from the experiences that we faced in 2020 and onward. We are still carrying those wounds and quite honestly we will carry those wounds for life. It was a traumatic event and that trauma is something that we carry with us. But think about what happened: our amygdalas went on high alert there was so much fear. It was being stuck in a never-ending stress exposure.
If you think about the stress cycle (check out Episode #80 for more info) we are exposed to a stressor like sabertooth tiger, we have physiologic changes that happen. Our heart starts pumping and muscles tense and that's all in preparation to get us out of there, to escape the threat and then come back to the community where we find that we have safety and connection.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, we had complete disconnection and it continues. Heck, it was there even before the pandemic. We live in little silos and are disconnected from ourselves and our community.
And that's the key point: connection is a big way to be able to address that flood of response a.k.a. protective emotions that happens when the amygdala is activated. It's about connection.
For those who know me on a one-on-one basis either in the community or in Family in Focus, you know that connection is my ultimate goal. So of course I see the opportunity with connection here.
When our kids are melting down, notice how we want to rationally get them to stop. But they can't think their way through it. We can't (effectively, I mean you can try...) tell them what to do or how to do it differently. They are in that lower brain and it is on overdrive. But we can give them a hug. We can give them the time and the safety to let the emotions run their course in a safe environment. We can extend a hug which also offers a flood of oxytocin (the connecting hormone!).
We can also connect to other aspects of our physiology. And I think this is connecting to ourselves. Think about that flood of emotions, that flight of energy in the physiology and what happens to us: My heart starts beating like crazy and muscles tense because I was threatened by the sabertooth tiger. I want to use that physiology to get away.
In today's sabre-tooth-tiger-free environment, how can you use that physiology for your good? I think of the times that I was really pissed and I've stomped off, using my arms and legs like I was marching (or like a defiant 4 year old). I was using that physiology to help me connect to what it is that I needed: I needed to just feel the emotion and process it. Heck, I think about when I wanna just go out in the gym and lift heavy weights and throw them and cuss. That's a connection with myself, my physiology, my body.
Well let's go back to early 2020 . We were disconnected from the community, facing constant threat, and looking for anything to feel better. How does it make sense that we turned to food and electronics to help us feel better? How does it make sense that we didn't find the connection in community because it had changed so much from what we had no just a few weeks prior? And how does it also makes sense the connection that we're making with food with the electronics it just doesn't replace the real connection that we need with our bodies with ourselves and with humans?
It's not about trying to fix. It's about trying to understand what we've been experiencing for years. We have been experiencing a progressive disconnection from ourselves and our community. And that got all blown out over the past few years. On top of the pandemic there were injustices, murder, racism and political upheaval.
Connection mitigates trauma. Connection heals trauma. Connection to our emotions, giving ourselves permission to feel them, and the full experience that we have with those emotions is what makes us uniquely human.
I think the real opportunity here is to understand truly invest in the social emotional learning for ourselves as adults because we can't truly help our children if we see them in distress and we just try to distract them with something else, if we think that their emotions are bad. We get to practice yes practice for ourselves.
I love you, my friend. You're doing the most valuable work for you and your family.
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