For this long pandemic, “stay safe” means spending less time in Alarm Mode and more time in Recharge Mode.
“Stay safe”. This has become the motto of the COVID-19 pandemic. By now we know what this means: wash your hands, social distancing, yada yada. When someone leaves you with the words ‘stay safe’, they are wishing you health and protection from this virus, but let’s be honest, at this stage in the game, how does it really make you feel:
a) better because you feel cared about
b) annoyed because of course you will do what you can, you want to be healthy
c) more anxious because you were just reminded of the constant threat to your health
d) all of the above
Staying safe is the brain’s ultimate primal job. It is constantly scanning for real or potential threats to your physical or emotional well-being. Deep in the base of your brain is a sleeping “guard dog”, your amygdalia, whose job it is to take charge of your brain and body when there is a real or potential threat.1
The constant alarm
I call this Alarm Mode, because it’s like when an alarm goes off on your smartphone. It is there to get your attention, telling you to take action right now. It’s a smart built-in that helps every living thing survive.
The Alarm is designed for immediate threats, like a car coming straight at you and a loved one while walking across the street. Your amygdala takes over your body and mind so you instantly move to get everyone out of the way. Once the threat is gone, your brain logs in that memory in case you need it in the future, the guard dog goes back to sleep, and your body, having done its job of fleeing the threat, can get back to the maintenance work that keeps you healthy.
Since the reality of the COVID-19 outbreak started affecting your life, your Alarm has been going off over and over again. Even if you are not worried about getting the virus, there are all these ‘spin-off’ alarms that happen with everything from taking care of older family members and children to doing your work to getting groceries.
The ‘guard dog’ is just doing its job, but your brain and body are likely getting tired of spending so much time ready to fight or flee dangers that are potential, invisible, or out of your immediate control. At this point in this long-term criss, you need a strategy for staying safe that allows you to calm the alarms.
What your brain sees as a threat
To make staying safe and well more sustainable, let’s go beyond the basics that we all know for controlling our environment to stay safe, by tapping into the wealth of information from brain and body sciences. You can help your brain and body work together to protect you from the multiple layers of threats your brain is sensing right now. There are two main triggers for Alarm Mode:
Contentment: your brain stays calm when it knows you
- have the essentials for survival such as food, water, shelter
- are comfortable in your body, free of pain, fatigue, illness, weakness, and other discomforts
- have enough strength and stamina to do what you need and want to do
When any one of these are missing or there is even a threat of one missing, your ‘guard dog’ lets you know by sounding the alarm.
Connection: being part of a tribe was what kept our ancestors safe and protected from danger. We are hardwired for connection to others. Your brain stays calm when:
- you are physically with people you love and trust
- you are sharing experiences with a community
- you are giving and receiving empathy, compassion, and kindness
When your brain senses you are isolated from others, especially those you love and care about most, the ‘not safe’ alarm is triggered2. Understanding what our brain views as a threat is the first step in our positive remedy for staying safe for the duration of this pandemic.
The double-whammy threat
The COVID-19 pandemic is threatening both our sense of being content and connected in many ways. Social isolation, limited food and supplies, constant awareness of the need to disinfect hands and surfaces, wearing a mask, and worrying about the well-being of our loved ones, all topped off with uncertainty about when it will all end. It’s a double-whammy for our threat-defense system.
Just as turning off an alarm restores a sense of calm, by knowing how to calm your inner alarm, you are restoring your inner resources for staying safe. We do all we can to ‘tune out’ the stressors right now by limiting media and creating funny memes, but these don’t turn off the alarm. Your mind and body need to know you are safe, contented, and connected for the alarm to take a break so you can spend more time in the state where you are actually keeping your body safe because it is able to protect you from illness.
Recharge Mode to the rescue
Just like plugging in your smartphone restores its energy, when you intentionally put your body and mind back into Recharge Mode, you enhance your power to stay safe. In this calm state, your body is restoring your immune system’s capacity and your brain can solve more effectively. Clearly, Recharge Mode is how you will stay safe during this long-term crisis.
The key is that Recharge Mode is not tuning out the alarm, it is actively turning it off. Because there is a superhighway between your mind and your body, you cannot focus just on calming the mind. Your body needs to be part of the recharge too.
The negativity bias remedy
The brain is constantly ‘on alert’ for real and potential dangers, so we are more likely to focus on what is wrong or could go wrong. This is called the negativity bias of our brain, and it’s there to keep us safe. In our modern world with its many constant reminders in the media of what does and can go wrong, the brain can be on an overload of threats, and the body pays the price.
Fortunately, neuroscientists have discovered that the brain is not as set in its ways as we once thought. It works like a muscle, constantly adapting to what you give it. Give it negative thoughts and it will be more likely to think negative thoughts. But positive psychology studies have shown that when you give the brain a steady stream of positive thoughts, it grows more likely to see what is going well.
Shifting your mindset to the positive is a great way to not only help turn off the alarm, but train your brain to not wake up the guard dog so easily. In his book, Hardwiring Happiness, Dr. Rick Hanson calls this “taking in the good”, allowing all the ways that you are content and connected to ‘sink in’ by spending a bit more time thinking about them3. It works to retrain the ‘guard dog’ in your brain to be less reactive so you have a better chance of your brain staying calm.
But what about your body?
The brain takes over your body when the alarm is sounded, preparing it to move, flooding the blood with cortisol, fats and sugars, tensing muscles, reducing maintenance jobs like digestion. When you use a brain-based stress-reduction strategy, your body lags behind. Without movement, your body takes longer to get back to Recharge Mode where you can truly be safe and well. Mind-body approaches to reducing stress are your most efficient way to get back to the state where you can stay safe and well4.
Take a Recharge Pause
I have been writing about Recharge Pauses, the powerful combination of mindfulness, mindset, and movement. Our Recharge Pause today builds on the work of Dr. Hanson’s practice of taking in the good, adding movement to the awareness of how you are contented and connected, so that two-way superhighway from your body to your brain gets the message that you are safe and it’s okay to go back to Recharge Mode.
Give the Recharge Pause Calm the Alarm a try:
Bottom Line: You can power up your ability to stay safe
With this long term crisis, we are at risk of ‘stay safe’ fatigue, by being in a sustained state of Alarm with all the threats to our contentment and connection. Fortunately, we live in a time we have a rich understanding of how the brain and body work separately and together. Letting your mind and body experience how you are content and connected calms the alarm and puts your whole person back in Recharge Mode, where your health has greater protection. Take a Recharge Pause several times a day and you will power up your confidence you are truly staying safe and well.
Enjoy exercising and be well
- Yaribeygi H, Panahi Y, Sahraei H, Johnston TP, Sahebkar A. The impact of stress on body function: A review. EXCLI J. 2017;16:1057–1072. Published 2017 Jul 21. doi:10.17179/excli2017-480
- Taylor HO, Taylor RJ, Nguyen AW, Chatters L. Social Isolation, Depression, and Psychological Distress Among Older Adults. J Aging Health. 2018;30(2):229–246. doi:10.1177/0898264316673511
- Hanson, Rick. Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence. Unabridged ed. [Melbourne, Vic.]: Bolinda audio, 2014.
- Barrett B, Hayney MS, Muller D, Rakel D, Brown R, Zgierska AE, et al. (2018) Meditation or exercise for preventing acute respiratory infection (MEPARI-2): A randomized controlled trial. PLoS ONE 13(6): e0197778.