Have you felt tired lately? Less productive? Less effective in your decision-making?
In a recent interview with Krista Tippett, Clinical Psychologist Christine Runyan discusses the physiological effects of a year of COVID-19 and social isolation. She highlights that threat is always detected by our bodies, even before our conscious awareness of it.
When a threat is recognized, our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is activated and a surge of hormones and neurotransmitters are released to prepare us to fight, flee, or freeze. Under circumstances of imminent danger, such as being face-to-face with a hungry wild animal, this response was evolutionarily adaptive. Under sustained circumstances of perceived threat, however, such as those of this pandemic, prolonged SNS activation may produce significant consequences on our brains and bodies, such as illness, fatigue, and poor decision-making.
Consider the “freeze” state: freezing is a protective stance. It evolved to help us in situations where we could neither defeat an opponent through fighting nor safely run away from it. Our nervous system is likely, unconsciously, categorizing COVID-19 as such an opponent. With that, we might consider asking ourselves: do I feel tired? Anxious? Less productive? Feeling exhausted, numb, and anxious at once might be how “freeze” is materializing.
Through brain imagery, we have also learned that a stressed mind is a rigid mind (Source 1, Source 2). When our SNS is activated (i.e., when we are consciously or unconsciously distressed), we cannot reach our full creative potential. In this state, our brains go into narrowly focused tunnel-vision mode. This too is evolutionarily adaptive, because if we really were face-to-face with a dangerous animal, we would need to devote all our attention to that animal alone to have the best chances of survival. In our modern context, however, prolonged stress leads to, at the very worst, disease, and at the very best, thoughts and behaviours that provide short-term feelings of protection or comfort, and thus, often, poor decision-making. Science has proven time and again that creativity, agility, collaboration, openness, compassion, and other elevating qualities require perceived physical and psychological safety.