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The problem with #staysafe

As of today, there have been over 19 million posts on Instagram alone with the stay safe hashtag. As the world begins to move past lockdown, the messages are changing. What’s the problem with change and changing messages? It takes our brains and bodies time to catch up.

How your brain is set up to protect you

Your brain is involved in processing your experiences. One of the ways it processes experiences, and stores them for future use and information, is by using neural networks to communicate.

Think about cross-country skiing – the person in front wears down grooves in the snow to make it easier to ski. Think of your brain as the skier who is breaking the trail. Your brain creates neural pathways to make it easier for parts of your brain to communicate. Throughout your life, you have unconsciously and consciously developed patterns and behaviors that your brain believes are protecting you from harm…or pain.

How your brain has changed over the last few weeks

More than 10 weeks of absorbing messages to stay home and stay safe created fear patterns that are rooted in the brain and body. On average, it takes 66 days for a habit to become automatic.

Most places in lockdown have already surpassed the 66-day period, meaning that the habit of staying home (with the accompanying message that staying home equals staying safe) is now deeply ingrained in our brain.

If you’ve had past experiences with change that felt unpleasant to you, you’ve likely set up beliefs, patterns and thoughts that lead you to feel anxious, overwhelmed or powerless when change happens.

The conscious and unconscious programming in your brain sees change as a threat. Combine this with the threat posed by coronavirus, and your brain, body and beliefs are now set up to see the outside world as a threat.

How we manage the risk of everyday activities

It’s important that we do whatever we can to protect our health and well-being, both for ourselves and others. All activities in life contain some degree of risk however we’re often not consciously concerned about the risk.

Let’s use the example of driving. According to Statistics Canada, 13,300 people died from unintentional injuries caused by collisions in 2018. You may not be familiar with this statistic or consider it every time you get in a car. Why is that?

1. Common baseline of accepted knowledge and skill. All drivers need to pass a test, so there’s a baseline of knowledge and information. Everyone who passes the test may not have the same level of ability, but they have access to the same information and have demonstrated the minimum aptitude to drive safely.

2. A regular activity that we are used to. Most people drive and we have likely experienced driving in a car for as long as we can remember. We saw our parents drive as kids and we learned how to drive as teenagers.

3. Everyone follows the same rules. When driving, there are stoplights telling you when you can move the vehicle, turn signals that should be used (these signals seem to be optional for Toronto drivers) and there are signs indicating what’s ahead.

4. Safety. In addition to following the rules of the roads, we wear seatbelts, our cars have airbags and we learn how to avoid collisions when we learn to drive. Each year, cars become equipped with new safety features to further protect us from harm.

The problem with life after lockdown

Since driving and coronavirus are both risky, why is it that we’re feeling more fearful of coronavirus?

1. Information is unclear and changing. As scientists learn more about the virus, how it is transmitted and how best we can protect ourselves, information and recommendations change.

2. It’s new. While it may have commonalities with other viruses that we’ve experienced in the past, such as SARS, the virus itself is new and the experience of collectively being in lockdown is also new.

3. Not everyone follows the same rules. People who can work from home are advised to stay home, but essential workers are not. Different stores, provinces and countries have different recommendations regarding mask-wearing, number of people permitted at social gatherings, and so on.

4. Safety. We don’t know everything about the virus, and we don’t have an approved treatment or a vaccine to combat it. We’re doing the best we can with the information we have now.

How to manage risk and move forward

Retaining old patterns, behaviors, or thoughts that no longer serve you can cause you to feel trapped, helpless, or frustrated. You have a hard time planning, thinking outside of the box or figuring out how to best adapt to the change, while still making sure your needs are met.

What’s the key? You need to feel secure in the face of changing and uncertain external circumstances.

The root feeling of security is peacefulness. This week, I invite you to create more peace in your life by doing the following:

1. Be kind and patient with yourself and others as you adjust

2. Focus on what you can control

3. Take appropriate precautions to feel safer, just like you wear your seatbelt in a car

4. Get out of survival mode by practicing self-care such as meditation, mindfulness or taking a walk outside

How are you adjusting to the transition as we emerge from lockdown? Let me know in the comments!

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