Your Brain on Social Media (especially during the coronavirus situation)

School of fish in the Melbourne Aquarium As the coronavirus takes up more of social media and in our lives, a lot of people are finding themselves on their phones and in their apps a lot more than before. And a lot of the data and posts are of doom and gloom. This is a perfect storm and invitation for your mind to get stirred up and then addicted to the drama and danger being presented by the media, the stock market, by your friends.

This post is intended to help you remember that your brain is literally designed to focus on danger signals, that your brain makes up stories in the absence of an alternative narrative, and that you don’t have to believe your thoughts. I hope this post also helps you recognize when you’re in the middle of a thought storm and how to detach from it and to give you ideas about how to calm down and get centered despite what’s going on around you.

Remember that our brains are designed to focus on danger signals. That is how it saves our lives. But danger is supposed to be a short-lived experience, not a slow, long-winded, building tsunami of a disaster that lasts week or months. But with social media and the internet, we now can see the information coming from China long before the coronavirus officially arrived on our shores. The brain fixates and makes up stories about the danger. [Note, I’m not saying that there isn’t danger or that what is happening isn’t true- just that your brain is making up future stories for you to fear]. The stories your brain is making up, about how someone in family will get sick, you’ll lose your job, the economy will tank, and on and on. That MAY be true in the future. But it’s likely not true now. And worrying about a future that may or may not arrive keeps you out of calm, presence, and coming from a place of fear and lack rather than calm and clear.

You don’t have to believe your thoughts. The first step is detaching from your thoughts. Notice what is happening in your brain. What thoughts are compulsively coursing through your mental screen? There is a circumstance: the coronavirus is novel and is likely in your country and your locality. How you think about that is entirely up to you. On the one hand, you can think fearful thoughts and feel and act fearful. Or you can think calm thoughts and feel calm and peaceful.

As examples: fearful thoughts: the coronavirus is going to rampage through my country. Millions will die. The economy will tank. There’s no good options here. Resulting fearful emotions: ahhh, this is horrible and I have to do something so I’m going to spend all my time looking at the data for virus, buy more than I need to, and drink and eat too much to help me feel better about my scary thoughts and emotions.

Calm thoughts: the coronavirus is going spread through my country, like all countries. I will learn what I need to in this momentand know that sooner or later this will pass. And there is little about this I can control so I will accept what is, in this moment, in this moment, and in this moment. Resulting calm emotions: presence, loving acceptance of what is right now.

You can also use this time to learn about how your brain starts to engage your flight or fight system and how to detach from this state. The easiest way to understand how your brain and body are reacting is to notice your breath. Is your breath shallow and fast? Are you having a harder time than usual catching your breath?

If so, then take the time to deepen and length your breath. Breathe in deeply, perhaps to a count of 6 and then focus on lengthening the out breath, to perhaps a count of 8. Do this and feel the calm return. Keep doing it as often as is necessary.

For a few days, I’ve been buffering against my thoughts by being on social media a lot more than usual and binge watching Madame Secretary (which I’d never seen before). I caught the feeling of my brain swirling around faster and faster, like a rabid squirrel trying to get up all the trees at the same time. And the top of my skull feels hotter too, figuratively. Now that I’ve noticed this, I’ve put screen time controls on my phone and consciously spent time with my phone plugged in far from me. I can feel time slowing down, that I’m able to be much more present, and my attention span is almost a long as it has been in the past.I’ve also stopped drinking and eating to feel better. Crucially, I gave myself permission that a few days of getting used to our new normal is going to take a few days. With love and understanding, I allowed myself a few days to wallow and get a bit lost in the drama of the moment.

But I know it’s not profitable to wallow too long. Getting lost in the drama doesn’t help me be a better parent to my kids, a better partner, or make better choices about what to do with our free time. Walking in the woods, jigsaw puzzles, and finally learning to play the piano come to mind as better ways to spend the passing time.

No matter what situation you find yourself in, remember to be in that situation. Not one created by your mind about a near future that hasn’t yet come to pass. You’ll know that you’re creating a story about some imagined future because you’ll be stressed. True emergencies don’t evoke stories. In true emergencies, all you have is the moment . Believe in your power to effect change in the moment you have, which is to accept this moment, this moment, and this moment. Plan ahead as needed and then let it go.

Above all, be kind to yourself as you process changes. Blaming yourself or being cruel won’t help anyone. Keep detaching from your thoughts and breathing deeply, as necessary.

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