Anxiety and stress have soared post-Covid (and arguably we’re still not ‘post’ Covid), leaving many feeling unsettled, stressed and anxious. Here, psychologist Nelisha Wickremasinghe shares why “threat brain” has become prevalent in these testing times and what you can do to help alleviate it…

By Nelisha Wickremasinghe

Last year the Office for National Statistics revealed that depression rates have doubled since the Covid-19 pandemic began. And this is playing into what we psychologists call “threat brain”, which is the oldest part of the emotion system, enabling you to recognise and respond to danger.

In the early days of the pandemic, your threat brain was operating as intended. In other words, it was alert to and highly responsive to real danger. Motivated by actual threat, people acted quickly in a way that felt appropriate, with the information they were given.

The problem is that over time, uncertainties and mixed messages about Covid made people confused about what was dangerous and what was not. In place of hard and consistent evidence, people started to imagine what it would be like to get ill, whether they would be forever in lockdown, or be without jobs, food and other basic securities.

People started to reappraise their lives: should they move to the country? Buy a dog? End their marriage? Start playing the stock market? Learn the piano? Train as a nurse? Have therapy? In short, people started to ruminate. This form of overthinking keeps your threat brain ticking over 24/7.

The three systems: threat brain, drive brain and safe brain

You also have other emotion systems: your “drive brain” emotion system motivates you to seek out pleasurable and rewarding experiences. On the other hand, your “safe brain” emotion system motivates you to rest, recover and form loving relationships with others. You need all three systems working together to balance and regulate each other.

Unfortunately, many get caught in unhelpful or destructive patterns of feeling, thinking and behaving because their emotion systems are out of balance. This is most often caused by an overactive threat brain. And over the past two years, everyone has experienced unusually high levels of “threat” due to the ongoing pandemic and the implications of lockdown, isolation, vaccination and major changes in the way everyone lives.

Whether you are aware of your responses or not, your body will have detected and acted on these threats due to heightened threat brain responses. This has affected your relationships, both physically, because of the virus, and psychologically and socially, because of distancing and isolating.

For many, lockdown has disrupted intimate relationships, made some fearful of returning to old routines, created conflict around the differing opinions of what people should do (vaccines, masks, homeworking and schooling, staying in, going out, political allegiances, etc) and instilled a deep feeling of uncertainty and mistrust. Just being – and also not being – with others has activated people’s threat brain responses.

Mindfulness: the key to managing threat brain?

Threat brain starts in the body as a neurological reaction to something that is happening either in the external environment or within you (memories, for example, can trigger threat brain).

An overactive threat brain can make you physically ill – the links between stress and ill-health are proven – and disrupt your relationships by triggering and sustaining anger, aggression, conflict, avoidance and over-compliance. It can also lead to distressing problems. This can include addiction, chronic anxiety, shame, loneliness, depression and even suicide.

Threat brain emotions are a physical response – measurable in heart rate, blood pressure, neurochemicals and gut – and this means that the most effective action you can take are
also physical.

Recognising your own ‘threat brain’

First, you can learn to notice your threat brain at an early stage of activation by paying attention to your body and how it feels. Get familiar with the sensations in your stomach, as emotions are often first felt in the gut – for example, churning, fluttering and bubbling – and learn to distinguish between what feels “normal” and what feels unusual.

Threat brain can also affect your digestion. It is probably a significant factor in the rising cases of irritable bowel syndrome. You can also feel your threat brain causing trouble when your breathing becomes more irregular and your heart races. Although, this can also be a sign of healthy drive emotions, so be curious about the potential differences.

Threat brain can also affect your sleep patterns leading to insomnia or a form of deep sleep that is highly dream-active, but which does not relieve tiredness. Once you have a better sense of when your threat brain is overactive, you can start to practise stimulating your safe brain to help regulate these emotions.

Stimulating your ‘safe brain’

Your safe brain emotions release feel-good hormones and chemicals that make you feel calm and relaxed. The best known is oxytocin, sometimes called the love or “bonding” hormone.

When your safe brain is active, you sleep better, think about people and situations with more clarity, are less likely to fall into addictive behaviours and less prone to exhaustion and illness. Safe brain supports your immune system and enhances your concentration by regulating stress in your body.

hormones mood

Remember: threat brain is a natural response

It’s also important to remember that you cannot get rid of your threat brain emotion system and neither would you want to. Threat emotions keep you alive and motivate you to notice and respond to actual danger. However, living with threat brain can be debilitating if you struggle to regulate your emotions and, as a consequence, often feel depressed, anxious, fearful and angry.

One way to approach current problems is to acknowledge that what is happening is a shared human experience, and to accept that often the way you and others feel is an accurate and understandable response to life challenges.

For most, these dark emotions will pass if they allow them to. This means allowing yourself time to rest, reflect and wait (for sometimes people rush to change and fix before truly understanding the problem). You wouldn’t criticise a child or friend for feeling sad and afraid so why do it to yourself?

By trusting your inner intelligence and by learning to listen to and meet your needs, which in itself soothes threat brain, it is likely that when threat brain emotions do pass, you will be better equipped to understand their true message.

5 ways to calm ‘threat brain’

1. Pay more attention to your body and how it reacts

Notice when people and situations trigger threat in you. If you notice these reactions – for example, when your breathing changes or when you feel angry or panicky – you can regulate them before they erupt as threat brain behaviours such as shouting, criticising, controlling and blaming.

2. Use your breath to control the physical symptoms of threat brain

If you pay attention to your breathing when you are anxious, you will probably notice that it is shallow (high up in the chest) and that you often hold your breath. This short, sharp breathing is appropriate when you are in danger as it helps you stay hyper-alert. However, rhythmic breathing helps you reduce stress by ensuring regular and continuous airflow at a steady pace.

Start by taking a few regular breaths in your normal way. Then alter the rhythm so you breathe in for the same number of counts as you breathe out (count them slowly in your head). For many people, five breaths in and five breaths out works really well.

anxiety threat brain

3. Practise self-compassion

Brain scans show that the more self-critical you are, the more you trigger your threat brain mode. In contrast, people who are self-compassionate experience safe brain states more often. Practise talking to yourself kindly and find at least one thing every day that you appreciate about yourself.

If this is difficult, imagine you’re talking to a friend who is having a difficult time. Can you be as kind to yourself as you would be to your friend? Practise self-compassion by reminding yourself that making mistakes, failing and feeling inadequate are shared and inevitable human experiences.

When you understand this, you stop taking your faults and problems so seriously or personally. After all, you see your friends and family being thoughtless, sulking, getting into arguments and other relationship difficulties often enough – why should you be perfect?

4. Develop a mindful approach to life

What I mean by this is to not get caught up in the extremes of your emotions and experiences – be they joyful or painful. Do this by simply saying to yourself: “I notice I am anxious/ excited/angry. What do I need to do right now to soothe myself?” It may be that just stepping outside for some fresh air or paying attention to your breathing or talking to yourself kindly can interrupt a familiar threat brain pattern.

Remember that you can’t control many aspects of your life (such as the progression of Covid). However, you can control your response to it.

5. Pause before acting

Often enough, the biggest change you can make is simply to catch the moment when your threat brain is triggered and pause before falling into a habitual negative pattern of anger or anxiety. In doing this, you can come to better know yourself and your habits.

Nelisha Wickremasinghe is a psychologist, associate fellow at Oxford University, and author of Being with Others: Curses, spells and scintillation (£15), which explores why so many people are often in threat, and how they can overcome these feelings to find freedom, authenticity and forgiveness in their relationships.

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