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How I moved from anxious to resourceful during Covid


Understanding that our brain acts as if it were three brains in one really helped me overcome my anxieties when the pandemic first began in March 2020.

Like many other facilitators and trainers who depended on in-classroom work,  Covid-19 meant that whatever planned income I had for the year vanished as quickly as the virus began spreading. As an independent freelancer, this meant a lot of financial uncertainty.

At the height of my anxieties about income a friend tagged me on Facebook. He asked me to make a donation to groups which were distributing food and assistance to the most economically vulnerable. I wanted to, and yet I wasn’t able to respond with compassion and generosity.

Triune Brain to the rescue

I felt slightly ashamed. I live a comfortable middle-class life. No matter how unsettling the pandemic was, I still had financial security. I also had ample food, a comfortable apartment and good health. And yet, I felt frozen with fear, unable to do the right thing. 

Thankfully, I’m aware of the Triune Brain model developed by neurologist Paul McLean…

Triune Brain model, Paul McLean

Though not physiologically accurate, this model, which we use as a useful metaphor within Systemic Modelling, provides a way to understand human thinking, learning and behaviour.

According to the model our brain behaves like it is three different brains, with each brain doing a different job.

The reptilian brain, which we often refer to as 'red brain', is the oldest part of the brain. Its job is to keep us physically safe and alive. If we are in danger, this part of the brain takes over and will initiate fight, flight, freeze, faint or fawn. If you are frightened, in pain, hungry, thirsty or too cold or too hot, this part of your brain will be triggered to drive behaviour that doesn’t require any thoughtful consideration. Different people have different triggers for this part of the brain.

The next layer of the brain in our evolution is the mammalian - or 'green' - brain. This brain is responsible for emotional safety, social behaviour, beliefs, values, norms, and laying things down in long-term memory. We take care of this brain when we agree to shared rules and norms, choose the right people to be with, and find social conditions that suit us.

The third and most evolved part of our brain is the neocortex; we call it the blue brain or the learning brain. This brain is responsible for learning new things, detecting patterns, making connections, and thinking of creative solutions. When we take care of what our reptilian and mammalian brains need, the neocortex is able to function well.

And so when I felt mildly annoyed at the friend who had tagged me, and disappointed at myself for being frozen in the face of such human need, I asked myself what my brain was up to.

I spent a few days just noticing and accepting what my reptilian brain was anxious about in this pandemic: food supply, income, and how I would take care of myself and keep safe.

Next, I accessed mammalian brain to record and remember all the things I already had and would continue to have, that keep me safe and cared for. I also made sure to keep giving my mammalian brain what it needed during the lockdown. I cooked healthy meals for myself, I went for walks and said hello from afar to neighbours I wouldn't have met if not for the pandemic. I scheduled video calls with friends and family, and held business meetings with existing and new contacts.

What happened next?

Once my reptilian and mammalian brains were settled, I was able to activate my thinking and learning brain and say, "Right, what is the smallest thing I can do now to help others who have bigger needs than I do?" It didn’t feel at all hard, after that, to make a donation to assist the homeless, poor and vulnerable. In fact, even though my own situation around income had not changed in that moment, it felt congruent for me to donate to two groups who were supporting people on the ground.

I’m so glad I had that experience of being frozen and ashamed. It gave me an opportunity to use the Triune Brain to work out what was going on so that I could be the person I wanted to be during a crisis.

It made me so much calmer and more resourceful about the challenges brought on by the pandemic. I learned how to self-facilitate out of my own anxieties to better take care of myself and respond to the needs of others. And in learning how to do that, I was able to keep doing it throughout the pandemic, always asking, “What’s the smallest thing I can do now?” after both my reptilian and mammalian brains had been settled.

Photo by Arek Adeoye on Unsplash

About Jacqueline Ann Surin

Jacqueline Ann Surin's avatar

Jacqueline Ann Surin is a Level 1 Clean Facilitator, the first Master Level Systemic Modeller in Asia, and is qualified as a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) with the ICF. She is an associate of Clean Learning and Training Attention in the UK, and a specialist-partner of the Singapore-based BeInClarity. She was previously an award-winning journalist and has a published chapter in Clean Language Interviewing: Principles and applications for researchers and practitioners.

She can be found on LinkedIn.

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