It is March 23rd, 2020 and this morning I was reflecting on the last 10 days and the incredible range of emotions being felt since the Covid-19 virus really started taking hold here in North America. Here are a few of them so let me know if you can relate…

  • The calm resolve of first hearing that cases had arrived in our community and thinking “just go with the flow and keep calm”. 
  • The sadness as one of my son’s friend who owns a small business that will probably not make it due to a lack of sales combined with supplier debt and pain of having to lay off his employees.  This is all the while having a wife and a newborn at home and very little money in the bank. (more on him later…)
  • The fear setting into my psyche as I start running scenarios (all bad) in my head on the prospect of my business and how we can generate more revenue in these conditions. 

However, I finally experienced a deep sense of peace this morning by appreciating the many blessings I actually have and knowing “this too shall pass”.

The interesting aspect in all this is that I teach on the neuroscience of how the brain works when it is asked to change. As I attempt to observe these emotions happening to us, it’s somewhat of an “out-of-body” experience. 

Here’s what we know to be true:  All decisions we make are initiated and executed emotionally first, and only after that “meaning” is decided, that any rational thought comes into the mix.

In other words, how we feel about a situation will drive what we do.  Our limbic systems (feeling brain) will always be the core decision-maker, and the neocortex (thinking brain) will then justify or shame us in the observed behavior.  What’s interesting is that it has no capacity to stop it…until the feeling brain assigns new meaning to the situation. Dr. Antonio Damasio, a world leader in limbic system research explains it this way: “Yes, rational thought and logical reasoning do exist… but they cannot be recruited appropriately and usefully in the real world without emotion.”

 The meaning we assign to a situation will drive the emotion and subsequently, the behavior. So, how do we change behavior? You need to change the emotion by changing the meaning (thought) behind the emotion which will then lead to a new behavior. Simple…but not easy!

Now the rest of the story on my son’s friend…after he told us the story of his friend, my wife asked a simple question – How can you help? This question changed everything (as most good questions do). The short version, he decided to get his friend a grocery store gift card (for diapers) and managed to convince 2 others to match his gift…A little hope in dark times.

“How can you help?” completely changed the meaning of the situation for my son from being sad and mad (previous behavior) to involving others in helping his friend (new behavior) which leads to happiness and joy.  I strongly encourage all of us in these trying times to really change the meaning of the pandemic reality from a crisis to be feared (which it is, but it shouldn’t be the only feeling!) to an opportunity to do well by others in need…even when you yourself may also be in need.