Understanding Our Lizard Brains and Allostatic Overload

Jackie Bedard
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Attorney, Author, and Founder of Carolina Family Estate Planning

I’ve found the constant chatter about “uncertain times” ironic. In our line of work, we know all too well that tomorrow is not guaranteed.

Early on in the pandemic, I had a conversation with Michael Dunaway. Michael is a financial advisor who was previously a Licensed Professional Counselor. The stock market had just taken a nosedive, and we were discussing Cognitive Behavioral Theory. Michael shared with me, “In times of mass uncertainty, people seek out things they can control—even if that control is not necessarily in their best interests. So, for example, when the stock market is going haywire, the uncertainty makes us feel bad and we want to stop what is making us feel bad. So some people, feeling that the pain is coming from their stock portfolios, will cash in their investments, even though from a logical perspective, it may not be a good financial decision. It’s gives them some sense of control and relief.” (paraphrased)

I thought about how sometimes prospective clients freeze up when they meet with us, and they end up doing nothing. For example, we regularly work with individuals who have received a terminal diagnosis. You might think these individuals would immediately do whatever it takes to make things easier for their loved ones, and many do. But over the years, I’ve observed that some individuals with a terminal diagnosis totally freeze up and do nothing.  They become so overwhelmed by having their mortality placed front and center that they go into “freeze” mode and put it off completely, or “flight” mode and deny the consequences of reality.

This conversation about cognitive behavior stuck in my head as I began noticing some interesting behaviors emerging from our own clients and prospective clients during this pandemic. Logically, you would think a global pandemic would motivate more people to finally get around to putting an estate plan in place. And this was true for many. But we also saw a lot of people put everything on hold.

Frankly, I found it kind of perplexing. Completing your estate plan is one of the few proactive measures you can take right now to make sure you and your family are protected. No, it won’t prevent you from getting the virus, but it will make sure your family members know your health care wishes, and are able to act on your behalf if you do get sick. And, God forbid, if you should pass away, you can make sure your loved ones are provided for without leaving them a financial mess to clean up.

Many of these same people also have more free time or schedule flexibility as they are spending more time from home.  And yet, we would speak with these people and they’d said something along the lines of, “I want to put everything on hold until this COVID is over” or “I want to postpone this for a few weeks until this blows over.”

Sadly, we are starting to realize this isn’t going to be over in a few weeks. Stay-at-home orders and flattening the curve were never about making sure people never get sick, but rather, slowing down the rate of infection so our hospitals could handle the influx of patients needing more serious medical intervention. Most sources are saying it could take 12-18 months or longer before a vaccine may be available, if one can be created at all.

Scientists like to refer to the three parts of our brain. There’s what many refer to as the “Lizard Brain” which is the brainstem and cerebellum and is responsible for vital autopilot functions like breathing, sleeping, heart rate, and so forth.

The “Mammal Brain” is our limbic system and is responsible for our emotions, memories, habits, and attachments.

Finally, there’s the “Human Brain” or neo-cortex which is responsible for language, abstract thought, imagination, consciousness, reasoning, and rationalization.

Threat detection remains the job of our Lizard Brain, which is famous for triggering the famous fight, flight, or freeze response to a perceived threat. The problem is that our brains originally evolved for imminent, visible threats. Our brains aren’t really well designed for gradual, distant, or non-specific threats. “We’re better equipped for one-off attacks than abstract menaces. Give us muggers, hurricanes, sabre-toothed tigers, hazards that compel us to battle or run for our lives—not protracted uncertainty of a contagion that has killed tens of thousands and counting.” (Source)

As a result, many have found themselves in a “brain fog” due to what’s called an “allostatic load” which is essentially the damage to our bodies from repeated exposure to stress. So, while your physical body may not feel like it’s being pushed to its limits, your brain may be in overload dealing with the anxiety and strain of this pandemic. This has led to an increase in people reporting sleep disturbances, anxiety, agitation, and depression. (Source)

‘“Uncertainty is one of the biggest elements that contributes to our experience of stress,” said Lynn Bufka, the senior director of Practice, Research and Policy at the American Psychological Association. “Part of what we’re trying to do to function in our society is to have some structure, some predictability. When we have those kinds of things, life feels more manageable, because you don’t have to put the energy into figuring those things out.”’ (Source)

And when we’re under stress or in a brain fog, it impacts our ability to make decisions. As humans have evolved, our brains have developed shortcuts for making decisions and navigating a complex and dangerous world. Throughout our days, our brains experience a near constant onslaught of information and decisions that must be made. We are creatures of habit. Our brains automatically seek out patterns and routines that tell us we’re “okay” and things are “normal.” These patterns and routines help reduce the cognitive load so we don’t end up overwhelmed.

But, the good news is that you can learn how to work through this stress more effectively. Here are some suggestions if you find yourself paralyzed or overwhelmed:

  • Know that you’re not alone. Many are reporting a significant increase in mental distress.
  • Take a break from the news. In today’s 24/7 news cycle, it’s easy to cross from being informative to upsetting and anxiety producing.
  • Develop healthy routines. Try to get enough sleep. Eat healthy. Get some exercise. Limit alcohol consumption.
  • Focus on what you can reasonably control. For example, yes, take reasonable precautions to reduce your likelihood of getting sick, but at a certain point recognize that you may not be able to stay in lock-down forever. Perhaps it’s time to shift to having a plan for what you will do if you do get sick. What will happen? What will you do? Who will you contact?.
  • Write down all your fears and worries in a journal. Getting these thoughts out of your head and onto paper can be cathartic and can help reduce anxiety dramatically.
  • Focus on your priorities and what you really want for yourself and your family in the future. For many, this pandemic has been a bit of a re-set in priorities. I’ve heard many stories of people enjoying more and higher quality family time. In our family, we’ve been having weekly virtual game nights and it’s been a lot of fun.
  • Practice gratitude.
  • Remember: doing nothing, changes nothing. If something is weighing on you, what can you do to change the situation? Create a plan of action.
  • Connect with others by phone or virtually. Check in on a friend or neighbor.
  • Seek out help if you need it. Hoping that anxiety or depression will go away may only lead to worsening symptoms. Many doctors and mental health professionals are now offering tele-health services where you can meet by phone or video.

 

If not having up-to-date health care directives or an estate plan is one of the things keeping you awake at night, CFEP is here to help you create a plan to protect you and your family’s future. We can complete 95% of the work virtually with only a brief “curbside” signing from the comfort of your car (read here for other options available). To schedule a fee-waived Vision Meeting to discuss your vision of your family’s future, give us a call at 919-443-3035 or contact [email protected]

 

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