It’s all in your head: the brain’s response to crisis

Soraya Shaw was invited by the AC to write a piece on how applied neuroscience can explain why people react differently to uncertainty and the crucial role of our brains – with important lessons for coaching and our relationships with others responses to COVID.

At the beginning of COVID and the initial lockdown I, like many of us, experienced sweeping emotions. On the one-hand it was the unbelievability of what was happening globally and how powerless we felt, whilst on the other it was a fear for those we love and care about. Out of those emotions was the feeling of being vulnerable. The uncertainty of what might happen, and the inability to focus for very long or make decisions, coupled with the continuous thought loop in our heads of “What are we going to do?’” “How can I cope with this?”. “When will we be back to normal?”.

As a coach my experience flew out the window and I felt as though I had hit a brick wall. I couldn’t even think let alone remember what my brain was experiencing through this uncertainty and how I could get it back to thinking ‘normally’. I just felt numb as though I was operating on auto-pilot.

As we know during that period and subsequently, vulnerability and shock were inevitable as our brains were struggling to make sense and predict what was happening, what would happen next and navigating the feeling of helplessness and very real on-going concern for our futures.

For our brains experiencing this uncertainty impacted the thalamocortical

network resulting in arousal chemicals flooding our brains, activating the protective behaviours associated with fight or flight and physiological responses that influence the immune and cardiovascular systems as well as our individual emotional and cognitive responses.

These physiological and emotional stressors then engaged a network of cortical and limbic regions implicated in cognitive and emotional processes. This resulted in the Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC), which is particularly vulnerable to uncontrollable stress, shutting down so impairing top-down cognitive control (1). The importance of this is that our PFC carries out our higher order controls of behaviour, critical thinking, emotional regulation, planning, decision making, and problem solving.  Unhelpful on an individual level, but scarily so across an entire global population.

With the PFC off-line and the limbic system, informally referred to as the feeling brain, switching into more primeval survival control meant that our ability to be able to formulate abstract thought, focus, access our working memory, engage goal-directed behaviours and make strategic decisions, became difficult if nigh impossible.

Finally our brains don’t have vast revenues of daily energy and are limited to 20% of our metabolic energy, hence why the majority of people felt exhausted caused by the shock and our brains being negatively emotionally aroused, triggering our survival instincts so using up a lot of this precious energy.

This experience of personal helplessness was mirrored in business and professional lives and was compounded when initially business ground to a halt until people quickly grasped the situation, tackled their strategy and planning, set-up home workstations, agreed furloughs and on-line meetings became the main mode of communication.

For businesses it also meant navigating a cascade of operating challenges and an unclear future with little precedent to turn to. Their staff and they themselves, were being affected by uncertainty in their daily lives, distant relationships and leadership was required to make decisions on the spot questioning how they should move forward and if their business would survive with little information to base it on. All of these situations exacerbating the feeling of fear that most people talked about experiencing.

Essentially something out of our control put a hand-brake on our lives and it could so very easily have stymied solutions, new ideas, empathetic focused support and crushed spirits.  But it didn’t.

Your brain, my brain

It’s important to remember that being neuro diverse means that our brains are mapped differently supporting different personalities, mindsets, shaped by our DNA, cultures, environment, experiences and memories. Hence people’s differing reactions to the pandemic and what actions or not they took and continue to take. Some saw it as a challenge to embrace, others were paralysed by its clouded meaning.

Simply put we predict situations through the lens unique to our individual brains. And we can predict them as positive so largely tapping into the PFC, or negative, survivalist, and therefore remain within the limbic system blocking access to our higher thoughts.

What felt like over-night we saw amazing demonstrations of ideas and solutions. Mercedes AMG downed F1 tools and through collaboration with University College London and University College London Hospital created a new ventilator, secured the approval of health regulators and launched it within a week (2). Many wonderful people in different countries and from different disciplines have all created remarkable products and inventions to halt the virus’s destruction and protect those in the line of the pandemic. Personally I have lost count of the people who without hesitation produced masks and uniforms that were in short-hospital supply, spurred on by concern and a belief in how they could contribute through supporting others, embracing our human social identity and community.

So what are the neuro triggers that can switch from almost a sense of blindness of thought, to pushing through cognitive and emotional constraints to ideas and solutions? Research shows that positive emotional mindsets, or is the glass half full or half empty, are central to these changes in behaviours.  Adapting a positive mindset toward stressors can broaden and build cognitive and behavioural repertoires to support flourishing and learning, resulting in mental and physical wellness.

The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is a central component of emotional response. Evidence suggests that when the parasympathetic nervous system is activated a host of beneficial neurotransmitters are released, transforming our stress response to enhancing, therefore benefiting the general function and homeostasis of our bodies. Conversely when we remain in a negative mindset our brain and body believes we are in danger so activating the sympathetic nervous system and increasing the release of overactive neurotransmitters e.g. cortisol, which like a dripping tap can badly impact our physical and brain health.

However there are differing bio-markers for stress exposure which include cognitive, behavioural, physiological and physiological, these in turn are impacted by the contextual and individual level factors, hence the ways in which it affects us as individuals, it is not one size fits all. Your clients like you will all perceive stressors differently and therefore react differently both on a conscious and unconscious level.

From research we know that practicing emotional regulation acts as a buffer for deactivation of the amygdala . This coupled with the recent work into neuroplasticity, the brains ability to adapt, implies that through new learnings or experiences an individual’s perceptions of a situation can adapt, viewing a situation as a challenge or a threat, which is especially important in times like these.


What does it mean for us in our work as coaches?

So how can we most support our clients? My research and recent coaching focus has been on modifying stress mindsets to viewing stress as enhancing and therefore building positive resilience to support long-term health, wellbeing and enhance performance. From my research I would suggest:

  1. Sharing with our clients the role that emotions play in our day to day lives not forgetting that for some people and within some industries emotions are not encouraged. Practicing emotional regulation helps to alleviate negative impact, quietening amygdala activity and reactivating the PFC. Meaning that our clients can begin to cognitively re-engage, become more solutions focused and lose the mind-fog they may be experiencing.
  2. Working with our clients to understand and balance the meaning of their individual emotions – sadness, fear, anger, shame, guilt, hopelessness etc. Attending to their feelings and solutions will result in more positive outcomes and a better sense of control. In other words the importance of on-going emotional self-care can’t be underestimated. Checking in with ones’ self to rebalance the stress response and maintain optimal brain health and resilience.
  3. Because the brain is second guessing help it by exploring with your clients future scenarios – what is positive, what their purpose is, how they can embrace the challenge and transition etc., so getting them to switch out of fear and into excitement or possibilities, shifting perspectives to something their brain can focus on and plan for.
  4. Remembering that many people have not had the chance to replenish cognitive and emotional resources exacerbated by the current challenges of the pandemic. This can result in emotional exhaustion, ill-health and distress. Encouraging our clients to take care of their wellbeing – exercise, diet, mindfulness, internal and external cognitive conversations and to rest. Self-care has also been shown to have a positive cross-over affect to other people helping them to mitigate distress and support a recovery process, so a win-win.
  5. As people return to their places of work, or if they remain at home creating a culture and environment that rewards ideas and solutions and where psychological and physical safety exists will help to promote agility, flexibility and proactivity.

In closing with the on-going uncertainty we are all still feeling tired and it really isn’t surprising. Our brains can’t predict how we should be responding as there isn’t past experience to draw on for what is happening. It really is unprecedented for us. We are all chugging through energy at a rate of knots, hence why most people are feeling so exhausted as they have never had to juggle such uncertainty, lack of security, home and work responsibilities and trying to find meaning through all this chaos.

As things ease our energy will return, plus the different ways we are having to behave will create new habits and thinking patterns making them eventually feel more ‘normal’. We are experiencing change and for me the key thought here is that yes it is disruptive and we don’t know what the future holds, but it also delivers opportunities, new challenges, new learnings and through the power of technology staying connected and meeting new people.


  1. Datta, D. & Arnsten, A. (2019) Loss of Prefrontal Cortical Higher Cognition with Uncontrollable Stress: Molecular Mechanisms, Changes with Age, and Relevance to Treatment.
  2. What the response to Covid-19 can teach us about creativity


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