“I’m With Stupid, And So Is The Person With Me!”

Scared (or angry) people aren’t really themselves.

Fear makes most people stupid. There’s a reason for that. When “fight or flight” is triggered, the brain/body system focuses on running away, or defense. Your brain can’t, in a very important way, tell the difference between an immediate physical threat (say, a hungry tiger in the room with you) and a threat to your ego (a perceived threat to your idea of who you are, the part of you that’s YOU, not just a body).

When you’re scared or angry, your brain perceives a threat. The heart pumps faster. If it’s bad, your palms may sweat. You might feel hyper-aware. It’s hard to think about anything else, because the brain is prioritizing the older, more basic parts of the system. If you’re running from a fire, say, this is brilliant. Who has time to stand in a burning building wondering how it started, or whether or not you can taste yellow? You have to get out, now!

But when it’s a more generalized threat, say, you’re worried about whether or not the pandemic is erasing your retirement savings, or how long you’ll have to shelter in place, or whether or not there will be another coronavirus surge, your brain still says “Threat? Okay, fight or flight!” This is why stress can be so damaging to the body. Hormones pumping, heart pounding, your body prepares to run from a situation that can’t be solved by running way.

Ironically, running (or walking or bicycling or some sort of exercise) can help avoid some of the effects of ongoing stress. So can mindfulness (guided breathing exercises, for example). Deep breathing is your body/brain regulator. Focusing on something that brings you pleasure, like cheerful music or videos of cute animals, can actually help reduce your stress. Lowering your stress allows your reasoning brain to get a word in, helping you devise strategies to deal with the situation.

This “fight or flight” response explains why, in the face of crisis, some people seem to get a sudden case of stupid, refusing to believe it’s real, or acting in irrational ways. If fear is driving the bus (or anger), the brain/body is only prepared to defend or run. All of its other tools are locked up at the moment.

Forgiving people for being stupid is a useful tool for your toolkit. You can’t reason with someone by attacking — that only drives him further into fight or flight. Remember, a threat to a person’s idea of himself is still a threat. Put someone on the defensive and you might as well yell into your toilet bowl. It accomplishes exactly as much.

And in case he or she simply can’t see reason, forgiving lowers your own stress, making it more likely you’ll be okay and make good choices, so there’s that.

When you have to make a decision, or you’re lost for what to do, take a few deep breaths. Give that thinking part of your brain a chance to weight in. Unless the building’s on fire, in which case, “fight or flight” system, you’re on!

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