I hear the word unprecedented so often and it’s true, these times we are navigating have brought such wide ranging and polarised experiences to our doors. Some us have moved through Covid -19 relatively unscathed, aware in the background of a general sense of unease, some have lost loved ones, seen businesses go to the wall and mental health conditions exacerbated.
Our human brain is a complex thing, whilst some of its structures are relatively modern, others such as our limbic system are fairly old (250 million years old approx). One system or area in particular can play havoc with our mental health – the limbic system. Within the limbic system are two almond shaped structures called the amygdala, these little guys pack a powerful, protective punch, scanning our prehistoric environment for threats and activating a system within us that prepares us to react. You might have heard of the phrase “fight or flight (and more recently freeze)” which refers to how this system pulls us to act.
This threat survival mechanism is in its element when it’s protecting us from woolly mammoths, helping us defend our lands from rival tribes, hunting, gathering -that kind of general vibe. It’s geared up to respond quickly to an immediate threat and then, when the threat is neutralised, to return us back to calm and restore equilibrium in the body. This system isn’t so great when we are faced with long term threat, in fact it creates some issues.
When we are faced with a threat – let’s take Covid -19 as an example, we are unable to secure a quick outcome, a quick return to normal – instead, we are left with chronic and longterm threat activation. Hormones are sent into battle, cortisol and adrenaline prepare the body for the monumental fight it is likely to face and energy within the body is diverted to provide all the fuel we might need. As our chronic stress continues we inhibit protein production which in turn suppresses the immune system, sustained levels of higher metabolism damage cells, impacting our memory, changing our sleep patterns.
With the heady soup of cortisol (a hormone involved in stress ) and adrenaline flowing around inside our bodies, we begin to run a slightly higher level of stress. This stress is often outside of our awareness – if I was to ask you, you might not register that you feel any different, we gradually become acclimatised to increasing levels of stress within us. What you might say to me as a therapist, is that you notice you are having sleeping issues, you cant remember things well, you cry at odd things,you feel more withdrawn, you have no energy, you’ve eaten more packets of wagon wheels than you thought was possible in a day, your sex drive has gone, you cant think clearly -I could go on and on but I think you get the point, lurking just beneath us is a psychological and biological process that is creating significant change to our usual balance.
If you haven’t learnt a second language, run an OFSTED worthy homeschool, mastered raku pottery or used this time to do something that feels monumental – that’s really ok, your body and mind are busy fighting other battles. In fact if you got out of pyjamas today, I salute you!