Why are we so triggered by the coronavirus crisis?
Why do we see people in the shops buying everything that they find, and in other circumstances, see people that carelessly go on with their own lives as if nothing is happening?
Why is this happening at the nervous level?
This coronavirus crisis deeply triggers our nervous system, as it reminds us of our mortality. The most important job of our nervous system is literally to keep us alive.
The body evolved first and the nervous system evolved after the body. The nervous system’s foremost reason to exist is to keep the body alive.
We evolved with a very developed new neocortex. This means, as human beings, we have the thoughts, awareness, and capacity to predict and understand. We have an awareness level that we are ultimately going to die. So how can your brain go on functioning properly knowing this?
What’s interesting is that the brain has evolved a very sophisticated way to protect us from the awareness of our mortality. If the brain is shown images that represent our mortality – like the ones we are reading and seeing during this crisis – some parts of the brain shut down; Some of its core functions, like being able to make predictions or being able to think at a very high level, are actually shut down.
One mechanism that the brain uses is to categorize mortality information as being about someone else. That’s why we sometimes tell ourselves the story that coronavirus is only about old people or isn’t that bad in our area.
This happens not because we don’t care about other people such as our grandparents or senior citizens. It’s just a biological necessity for our brains to categorize the information this way. Your brain is scanning all the information and only selecting the information that matches the story it wants to read, which is, this is not about me.
Now you can start to understand the different responses from people’s nervous systems. Some people will inevitably carelessly go on with their own lives as if nothing has happened. Because in their mind, the narrative that ‘this isn’t about me’, ‘it’s nothing that I should worry about’, and ‘it’s not going to happen to me’ is prevailing.
For other people, their nervous system has already shut down some parts of the brain; They are literally in a survival state. The fight or flight state is repeatedly activated at the moment. They are not able to think or plan, so when someone says they should stock up on toilet paper, that’s what they do.
We can start by having some compassion and understanding for the people around us. They’re doing what their nervous system is telling them to do.
What are some possible answers to this situation? If you are stuck in survival mode right now, one thing you could do is work on your anxiety. I encourage you to review the video that I posted a few days ago (available on Facebook) about five simple ways to work with your anxiety right now.
There’s something else I’d like to add today: There are very, very ancient human traditions that date back to Socrates in Greece 2500 years ago, that align solidly with the practices of Buddhism, that work to help our brains and our nervous system become less and less triggered by the idea of death.
Familiarize yourself with the idea of death. We have built a modern society in which death is completely removed from our life. We don’t want to see it and we don’t want to talk about it. We are afraid of it.
These practices are helping us familiarize ourselves with the idea and helping our brain cope better with the idea of death. It turns out that this practice is extremely powerful. So many Buddhist practices are based on this because it can literally transform your life.
I’d like to close by mentioning an amazing book by Steven Vien, called A Year to Live. This book actually walks you through the practice of familiarizing yourself with the idea of having just one year to live. What would your life be like? What would you change? What would you do? It’s a very transformative way of thinking about your life. And it can bring some amazing results, helping you live a more authentic, fulfilling life.
I’ve been through part of this practice, and those are the reasons why I changed so much of my life over the past couple of years. I’ve decided to focus on some things and leave behind others. So I really encourage you to try it and I hope it’s going to be as helpful for you as it’s been for me