A couple of years ago, I blogged about American psychologist Rick Hanson’s Red Brain, Green Brain model and how it can help us to reflect on our mental wellbeing. I regularly use this model when coaching my institutional clients on how they can improve their workplace cultures and facilitate their employees’ mental wellbeing. But these days, I’m finding Hanson’s model particularly useful in understanding life under the shadow of COVID-19. The pandemic has taken its toll on the mental health of people the world over, whether they or their loved ones have fallen ill with the virus, lost their jobs, seen their businesses suffer, faced the strains of being cooped up with family members or roommates, or suffered the grinding loneliness of isolation. Hanson’s model is not only helpful in diagnosing our mental states, it can also help us to take action to improve our mental wellbeing. It’s worth revisiting it and applying it to our current situation.

The Brain and its Operating Systems

Hanson suggests that humans have a layered brain structure that corresponds with vertebrate evolution: the brain stem (reptilian), the subcortex (mammalian), and the neocortex (primate). Each aspect of the brain’s hardware has a corresponding “operating system”. The brain stem corresponds to the “avoiding harms system”, the subcortex to the “approaching rewards system”, and the neocortex to the “attachment system”. These operating systems regulate our core needs for safety, satisfaction, and connection.

Hanson argues that each system basically has two settings, red or green. If the core needs of our operating systems are met—safety, satisfaction, connection—we are in the responsive “green zone”. If we don’t feel safe, satisfied, or connected, we’re in the reactive “red zone”.

Going Green 

When in the green zone, we tend to feel confident (safe), fulfilled (satisfied), and cared for (connected). We are better able to meet challenges without them becoming major stressors. Our bodies also function better when all systems are green: energy is conserved and the body is better able to repair itself and fight illnesses. Being in the green zone doesn’t mean we are like the Buddha—serenely calm and unaffected by the trials and tribulations of life. Rather, it means we have more capacity to cope with the world and its insults. We still get angry and irritated or stressed, but in the green zone we cope well. Stress and the many demands of life place strain on our coping capacities, but we don’t feel pushed to the breaking point.

Seeing Red

Things are very different in the red zone. If the core need of one (or more) of our operating systems isn’t met, the corresponding brain system goes red and we end up in a reactive mode characterized by fear, dissatisfaction, or disconnection. We are more prone to approach situations and people with fear, to grasp after the things we feel we need, and to cling in our relationships. Our ability to deal with life’s challenges is diminished. Each new demand we are faced with potentially becomes a major stressor that threatens to overwhelm us. Our bodies are also stressed when our brains are in the red zone. Bodily resources are mobilized for flight or flight and thus diverted away from repair and recuperation. Stress hormones go up and with them all kinds of havoc ensue: increased blood pressure, suppressed immunity, obesity, poor sleep, and so on.

In short, it doesn’t feel good to be in the red zone. Hanson suggests that we often engage in unhealthy craving behaviours to alleviate the various forms of distress associated with operating systems in the red. We seek safety in unhealthy ways. We grasp at things or activities we think will satisfy us. And we cling in our relationships in an effort to find connection. When we’re in the red, a long list of unhealthy coping strategies beacon to us: booze, drugs, overeating, marathon TV-watching sessions, shopping sprees, etc.

Trending red under COVID-19

Clearly, COVID-19 has the potential to push all our systems into the red. Most obviously, we don’t feel safe when our health and that of our loved ones is menaced by an unseen and poorly understood threat. We’ve witnessed many unhealthy coping strategies on this front: people lining up to buy guns in the US, racist attacks against Asians in Canada and elsewhere, politicians looking to prematurely reopen locked-down businesses. We can also see how COVID has pushed many people’s approaching rewards system into the red. Toilet paper hoarding anyone? This kind of grasping behaviour isn’t limited to bathroom products. I’m sure COVID’s threat to our need to feel satisfied and fulfilled has led to a great many people to engage in many of the unhealthy coping strategies listed above, as well as many others. And finally, the physical distancing measures we’ve undertaken have also clearly threatened our need to connect with others and encouraged some people to flout the recommendations.

Coping under COVID

In next week’s blog, I will summarize Rick Hanson’s advice on what we can do as individuals to keep our brains in the green zone. I will also offer my thoughts on what Hanson’s model suggests to us about how we should conceive our relationships with others and our communities in the time of COVID-19.

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