If you’re finding yourself increasingly anxious about your family, work, business, or health in the past few weeks and finding it harder to pick yourself up and re-energise, you’re not alone.
I’m with you on this. But, even more so today, you have the power to face the challenges and determine your experience of them.
Because if knowledge is power, then self-knowledge is inner power.
So here are 3 COVID-19 science-based strategies to keep motivated and stay in control during uncertain times.
Here’s the Science Behind Why Your Motivational Levels Might Be Flagging
Before we go straight into the three strategies, it’s important to first understand the neuroscience of what’s happening inside your brain during an ongoing crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Triune Model of the brain described by American physician and neuroscientist, Paul D. McLean, identifies 3 areas of the human brain based on higher brain functionality. They are:
- The Neomammalian Forebrain: the most evolved part of your brain is your higher reasoning centre responsible for your thinking, planning, analyses, beliefs, creativity, values and principles.
- The Paleomammalian Midbrain: the ‘old’, but not oldest, part of your brain is your pleasure and pain emotional centre, where your limbic system is located and the little, acorn-sized amygdala. This part of your brain is responsible for your emotional reactions, as well as your dreams, desires, imaginations, and fears.
- The Reptilian Hindbrain: the oldest, least evolved part of your brain is the area responsible for your natural instincts, like the fight and flight response. Although it is responsible for many of the autonomic functions of the body, such as breathing, heart rate, reflexes, and so forth, its main concern is safety and survival.
Your 3 levels of your brain crave certainty. It’s just the way it’s wired.
Your neomammalian forebrain likes to plan and analyse things and keep things under control. It likes to predict the future and work out what’s likely to happen. Which is why it abhors uncertainty.
Your paleomammalian midbrain likes to seek pleasure and avoid pain. It reacts emotionally to what’s going on and often overreacts. When fear kicks in, it’s the amygdala that’s working in overdrive, and uncertainty triggers many fear-producing emotions and behaviours.
Your reptilian hindbrain is wired for only one thing: to keep you alive. Which is why safety and survival is paramount for your reptilian brain. Any uncertainty is seen as a threat that must be avoided.
If you’d like to read more information about how the brain is wired, I go into a lot more depth about the Triune Model of the Brain in my two books, It’s Up to You! Why Most People Fail to Live the Life they Want and How to Change It, and The Banana Trap: How to Escape a Life of Stress and Finally Break Free.
But, in summary, your brain is wired against uncertainty and all 3 levels will work to build as much certainty as it can.
Which is why the supermarket shelves are empty of toilet rolls. It’s a form of control in a time of uncertainty, an attempt to make things more certain.
It’s also why motivational levels sag. Faced with uncertainty, the forebrain becomes overwhelmed with thoughts of ‘what if?’, the midbrain emotions go into overdrive, and the hindbrain survival instinct starts to dominate our thoughts and behaviours.
Unfortunately, when panic sets in and emotions run high, the neomammalian forebrain is subjugated by the lower levels of the brain. Decisions are made not on rational logic but on emotion and instincts.
In these moments, mountains are made out of molehills. We act in ways that we normally wouldn’t, sometimes in ways we are later ashamed of. Our thought processes are hijacked and we are not our normal selves. The mob is in charge, not the leader.
What’s required in these situations is to regain control of your thoughts, emotions and instincts.
You need to allow your higher brain centres to override the lower brain centres. The leader needs to take charge and set the rules, not the mob.
Knowing how the brain works, we can formulate science-based strategies to keep motivated and stay in control during these uncertain times.
Strategy #1: Sensible Safety
The first thing you need to do is control your baser instincts.
Your reptilian brain sees the uncertainty of COVID-19 as a threat, which triggers the fight and flight response.
But what does your reptilian hindbrain want most of all? Safety.
So, to control your hindbrain’s instinctive reactions, you need to focus on taking simple precautions that reduce your risks of becoming infected with COVID-19:
- Practice social distancing
- Refrain from large crowds
- Minimise your travel
- Keep yourself healthy and exercise
- Keep surfaces around the home clean and shower regularly (*the coronavirus has been shown to live on external surfaces, clothes, and hair for more than a day)
- Keep hydrated
- and other precautionary measures.
This is simply being sensible and will help reduce reactive instincts and behaviour while at the same time elevating higher-centred responsible thoughts and actions.
Strategy #2: Change the Context
The next thing you need to do is control your midbrain emotions.
Your paleomammalian midbrain sees the uncertainty of COVID-19 as a stressor, which triggers anxiety, stress, and fear.
Your midbrain interprets uncertainty as a pain that it needs to avoid. Will I get infected? Will I live? Will I be able to feed my kids? Will I lose my job? Will I be able to pay the rent or mortgage?
It can create a worse-case-scenario of your life, which causes you to feel more vulnerable than you really are.
But what does your emotional midbrain want most of all? To seek pleasure and avoid pain.
So, to control your midbrain’s emotional reactions, you need to focus on the things that can reduce anxiety, stress and fear about COVID-19.
This means changing the context of what’s triggering anxiety by invoking your higher reasoning centres.
You can change the context by inserting a ‘but’ after any stress-evoking thought or emotion, such as:
- Will I get infected? As it stands, the transmission rates of COVID-19 are reasonably high. BUT if you instigate sensible precautions (like the ones listed above in Strategy #1), you will hopefully avoid getting infected, and if you do then hopefully this will happen sometime in the future when medications and immunisations have become available to treat the virus and the health system has not been inundated.
- Will I live? Although anyone is susceptible, COVID-19 appears to have a greater fatality rate in those aged over 75, are smokers, or have an underlying chronic illness. Overall mortality rates are between 3-5% of those who have been diagnosed with COVID-19. In Italy, the fatality rate is almost 8%, and this is thought to be higher because of an overall higher proportion of aged people (23% of the population), high smoking rates, and high-density living, even in small towns. BUT, frightening as COVID-19 is, the epidemiological statistics mean that you are still more likely to survive and get through than not.
- Will I be able to feed my kids? Panic buying in recent weeks has put a strain on the supply of food and basic household essentials, like toilet paper, rice and pasta. BUT, at least in Western countries, the chain of supply hasn’t been disrupted to any great extent. Countries are still able to produce what is needed. Food and basics will still be available.
- Will I lose my job? The entertainment, travel, and hospitality industries have been decimated by COVID-19 and many employees have suffered because of the downturn in business. My own workshops and seminars have had to be postponed to a later date this year, meaning I’ve lost significant income due to the restrictions on travel and gatherings. BUT this has opened a door of opportunity for me to present more online BreakThrough programs than I would have this year. Is there an opportunity that has opened for you because of COVID-19? Could this be turned into something positive for you?
- Will I be able to pay the rent or mortgage? When our jobs are threatened and our ability to maintain a steady income is reduced, keeping a roof over our heads is a major cause of concern and a trigger for stress and anxiety. BUT, in Australia at least, the big 4 banks have agreed to allow mortgage repayments to be put on hold for 6 months upon request, with a review of the circumstances after 3 months. Which means no-one should be evicted during this COVID-19 crisis. This guarantee should also flow over to landlords, allowing them to pass this certainty onto their renters.
Changing the context from a negative, stress-evoking one to a more positive, stress-reducing one will help you to control your midbrain emotions and allow your more rational, higher centres of the brain to take charge.
Strategy #3: Focused Certainty
The third thing you need to do is control your thought processing.
Your neomammalian forebrain is often swamped by the emotions and natural instincts of your lower brain centres and becomes inundated with negativity toward what’s happening, in this case the COVID-19 crisis.
But what does your neomammalian forebrain want most of all? Certainty.
So, to regain control of your thought processes, a good practice is to focus on what is certain in your life.
Focusing on what is certain allows your higher centred thoughts to override the emotions and instincts that have threatened to take control and run amok.
Although the COVID-19 crisis is causing mass uncertainty on a global scale, there are things in your life that you can be certain about in these challenging times.
Focusing on even the little things that are certain grounds you in this moment of now. Certainty stabilises your mindset and controls whirring emotions.
So, don’t focus on what’s uncertain, rather focus on something that is certain:
- You are alive. You have a life force in you, right now in this moment. This is fact. This is certain. Focus on this.
- You have beliefs. Whether you are religious, atheist, or agnostic you believe in something. This is fact. This is certain. Focus on this.
- The sun will rise tomorrow. No matter what happens, the planet will spin, and the sun will rise. This is fact. This is certain. Focus on this.
- Love exists. Whether you are loved, have been loved, love your family, love another person, love an animal, love God, there is love. This is fact. This is certain. Focus on this.
There are many things you can be certain of, and focusing on them will help you control your thought processes and prevent your mind from being overwhelmed in this COVID-19 crisis.
The COVID-19 pandemic will pass. It will end at some point, and although the world will struggle back to its feet, it is you and the rest of society who will be relied upon to keep motivated and stay in control during these uncertain times.
You can get through this.
Dr. Scott Zarcinas (aka DoctorZed) is a doctor, author, and transformologist. He helps pro-active people to be more decisive, confident, and effective by developing a growth mindset so that they can maximize their full potential and become the person they are capable of being. DoctorZed gives regular workshops, seminars, presentations, and courses to support those who want to make a positive difference through positive action and live the life they want, the way they want, how they want.