You may have noticed some of the following since the pandemic:

• People getting more upset than “normal” over something relatively trivial.
• People having a very emotional reaction to something they are asked to do, for example, returning to the office.
• An increase in conflict in situations where previously this would have been less likely to happen and employees being less resilient.

There is a brain science explanation for all of this. We have at brain chemistry level, been living within an environment of constant and invisible threat for 18 months. During a situation of stress such as this, the limbic system goes into overdrive and more complex parts of our brain such as the prefrontal cortex are used less.

This all makes sense in an emergency: we need our brains to focus to enable us to deal with the threat. For example, I had somebody drive into the back to me recently at speed while I was stationary in the car. The limbic brain function enables you to calmly deal with the situation but in that state it becomes much harder for us to think rationally, deal with complicated decisions and we become error prone.

This might also explain why, if you are feeling that you are just trying to do something relatively straight forward that you have always done but for some reason it feels more challenging than previously. We overloaded the system. I always remember a junior doctor talking about how they coped with their very long shift working and all that their job brought with it but would burst into tears when they found that the toothpaste had run out. It’s a perfect illustration of the pressure on our system, suppressing the prefrontal cortex and yet reacting emotionally, losing our tempers more and being unable to talk ourselves down in the way we would normally.

Normally the prefrontal cortex is able to talk to the limbic system essentially telling it to calm down and behave more rationally but if we are stressed, tired or sick then that becomes more difficult. We know how exhausted everyone is saying they are, particularly those who have worked in the front line or who have had to step up in other ways to see their organisation through the last 18 months, we can see why normality is being impaired.

This is why everybody feels a bit on edge but can’t really articulate why – it is normal when you’ve survived some kind of disaster.

The brain is immensely adaptable and will figure its way through this phase. It can even be a good thing where people will grow as a result of the experience, with the majority returning to functioning as they did before and a small proportion effectively experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. Researchers are even beginning to talk about the common outcome being long term resilience but for the meantime, what can we do?

We have to accept that a cohort of the workforce are feeling immense fatigue and have short levels of concentration or simply struggling to concentrate at all. We have to recognise when this is happening that it’s not necessarily a permanent state of affairs and that we need to provide support rather than go straight to performance managing out. It may even help to talk about this to get people to understand what is going on so that they accept their emotional state, rather than trying to fight against it. This reduces them being stressed about being stressed in the first place. It stops people dwelling and feeling increasingly negative. Dealing with what’s going on in a non-judgemental way can drag that prefrontal cortex back into the picture and give it a chance to quieten down the limbic system. If people are in a state of anxiety it can be quite easy to end up in a negative spiral where that becomes the dominant emotion.

When we are in a particular mental state we tend to dwell on the particular emotion that we are feeling and remember all of the other times that we have felt this way rather than all the other times when we haven’t felt this way. It may help people to understand that this is what happens and that dwelling on something more positive can help the brain chemistry.

Refreshing Law Ltd
5 November 2021