By Berenice Boxler
No, this article has nothing to do with Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film of the same name from the 1970s. But the headline describes quite well what can be observed right now across the world. Fear is ruling. And an anxious brain is not a well-functioning brain. Out of the threat system, decisions are made that are often instinctive and inconsiderate. And yes, it is hard not to judge. Who knows what is right and what is wrong today?
At the time of writing, the number of people infected with the Corona virus is counting over 100 000 across the world, having reached Central Europe in the past few weeks. On the internet one can find photos of emptied supermarket shelves, stories of sold out disinfection gels and a series of cancellations of large and also smaller events. Every country has its own magic upper limit of allowed people gathering. On social media, people stir each other up, warnings are issued, experts are quoted and forecasts are made. On the other hand, there is a birthday party with kisses, a choir concert and playdates. What is right, what is wrong? When does caution turn into excessive worry or even panic?
The three emotion regulation systems
Paul Gilbert has created the system of the three emotion regulation systems of the brain: the threat system, the drive system and the soothing system. The drive system is active when we want something and feel an inner restlessness and sense of being driven. Thanks to this drive for “wanting more”, “doing now” and “craving”, we apply for an exciting job, we reach for chocolate, we usually have the mobile phone within reach at all times or wait impatiently for the new sofa to be delivered. When we get what we wanted, our body releases the happiness hormone dopamine. This is also the reason why people often can’t be without their smartphones: every ping, every mail and every message received generates a dopamine release. And that ‘s addictive. A constant cycle of desire/striving – receiving – feeling happy, which we can only interrupt when we notice the urge (and thus the habit) and consciously do not follow it.
The soothing system is at work when we feel empathy, trust and affection, when we feel connected to other people, animals or nature, and when a deep inner peace and a feeling of satisfaction and care for ourselves and others is thriving within us. This system is the most healing and the one in which we can get close to other people and open ourselves up to their joys and their sufferings.
Threat system activated
At present, the threat system is the most active. It is characterized by a kind of tunnel vision, acting in fight, flight or freeze mode, full of stress and adrenaline, quick accusations and a diligent search for a solution. This system can nowadays easily be observed in action. There are sentences like “X and Y have been there on the weekend. Well, we know who we got it from if we get infected!” and “We don’t do panic shopping, but if there’s nothing left in the supermarket, then you have to buy, you never know...” And yes, it’s not clear how much is too much. However, research and experience clearly show that a threat system is not a good advisor when it comes to making sensible and far-sighted decisions or a sustainable solution, rather than a quick fix to calm the nerves. Instinctive fight or flight reactions have their justification, e.g. when the person driving in front of you suddenly hits the brakes and you instinctively take evasive action. Or when flames are blazing and you reach for the fire extinguisher or quickly run to save yourself.
What we focus on grows stronger
The human brain is constructed in such a way that we are constantly on guard: the basic attitude is set to “survive”. It is therefore all too human that the threat system is currently being constantly reactivated and reinforced. The daily reports and global networking through social media reliably ensure that there is always new worrying news. Our built-in negativity bias is constantly being fed and takes up all the space, so that there is often little room for anything else. And the more often the threat system is operating, the stronger it becomes. “What we focus on grows stronger.” With a tunnel vision, only the problem or threat – currently the virus – is seen, and the brain is busily searching for a solution. And here is the difficulty: since it is something new and there is no direct or clear solution at hand, the brain gets entangled in doing. Hoarding, exchanging ideas, action-taking (e.g. no more shaking hands and other, certainly practical precautions), cancelling appointments, ruminating thoughts. All this gives the alarmed brain the belief of being in control, which is not possible. Life cannot be controlled, and certainly not something invisible like a virus. But since we humans are so focused on doing and solving and functioning, determined doing is often the only option we have. This then very quickly creates a domino effect that reinforces itself, because with every new report it becomes clear again that we actually have no control. And then we start to act again, so we do not have to feel this unpleasant feeling of groundlessness and uncertainty.
Fear eats the soul
An irrational reaction out of the threat system is human, but not helpful. The danger of a domino effect can become very problematic in the short and long term for everyday life, for the economy and especially for humanity itself. Because when the threat system is active, the soothing system is switched off. When it comes to survival, prudence and empathy often give way to “me first”, and instead of solidarity, it’s all about assigning blame. There are now many stories of people who are excluded or defamed, either because they caught the virus (and have potentially infected others) or because they are perceived by people in the threat system as possible carriers because of their origins and are kicked out of a football stadium, for example. Where fear rules, there is no place for the soul. Everybody is prioritizing him/herself, and blaming others feels like having control and power.
Maybe this is the right time to pause and look within: what system is active within me? How does it feel like? What is present when you think about the virus and the reactions to it?
Remembering to be human
The threat system is a left-over from ancient times, when the ancestors of humans had to flee from sabre-toothed tigers and meet every possible danger with fight or flight. The part of the brain responsible for this is also called the reptilian brain. This system has ensured the survival of the human species. But we are not reptiles, we are humans. The human brain is so much larger and more developed and has created so many wonderful things. We are more than fight, flight or freezing panic. The truth is, no one is to blame. Life just happens. New diseases appear, hurricanes rage, wars break out and drive people to flee. Life is full of difficulties, whether invisible (like a virus) or visible (like a terrible car accident). The most important thing in human life is to be a human being – especially when experiencing difficulty. It’s about vigilant care, about making one’s own contribution, such as washing the hands thoroughly or, when suspecting an infection, first making a phone call instead of going to the doctor. But at the core, it is also about compassion, friendliness, humanity, and being together in this difficulty. It is as well about the rational part of the human brain being in charge – recognizing when the threat system is activated again and is about to throw everything out of balance.
The task is to remember again and again that you are a human being. Kodo Sawaki, a Japanese Zen master, says, “To live a spiritual life is to maintain an upright posture even when no one is watching.” This could be reframed as “Being a human being means maintaining one’s own humanity and connectedness with other human beings, even when life and the present circumstances repeatedly evoke the primitive survival instincts within.” Everything is allowed to be here, the uncertainty, the fear, the endless thoughts, the tense body, the pulling and pushing actions of other people, the own impulses for action. Whether we let these experiences take over and take the driver’s seat or recognize again and again that we have the choice of how we live life right now – that is what matters. There is no right or wrong. And there is also no planning or provisioning. There is only a recognition of what is driving me right now – and a conscious decision on what ground I want to build my actions, what my inner compass should be.
What could it look like in these insecure times to bring more kindness and compassion into everyday life? There are so many ways to show humanity, be it hygienic precautions, compassion in thoughts and words or active support, for example for people that are stuck in their fear. How does humanity look like in your life?