What Happens When a New Lived Reality Forces You to Change Your Mind, According to a Neurologist and Psychologist

Around mid-March, when COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic, life as many previously knew it became different. For some it's meant working from home indefinitely, for others it's navigating unemployment after getting laid offs, and for others it's meant being busier than ever. But, to be clear, "different" can be good. In cases like the recent uprising of the Black Lives Matters movement, "different" holds the revolutionary promise of striking positive systemic change. But psychologically and neurologically speaking, the quick-turnover mental metamorphoses that come with changing your mind-set to get your head and heart on the same page can be a tough process.

The human brain is being overwhelmed with an influx of new experiences and information related to the coronavirus pandemic, renewed and urgent attention on the omnipresence of systemic racism, and those two realities combined. So while change is indeed great when it means something like understanding the immediate need to be anti-racist rather than just not-racist, making that screeeching hand-over-hand-over-hand U-turn can affect the brain in big ways that we shouldn't ignore.

To start, when human brains are exposed to anything new, novel stimuli can be activated. "In what is called neural plasticity, each time we learn something new, the brain’s neural pathways are changed to accommodate the novel information; new experiences stimulate the formation of new neural pathways," says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD.

Likewise, existing neural pathways can become weaker or stronger depending on whether the new information reinforces existing neural pathways or weakens them—and when the existing pathways are weakened, the result can be stress and physiological strain. "As we strive to understand and accommodate the 'new reality'—an experience that is quite unique for each person—the body, mind, and spirit can become exhausted," says Dr. Manly. "This is due to the sheer influx of new information that must be processed, understood, and, ideally, rationally utilized to create the most positive outcome."

It's also worth remembering that many humans aren't super into change in the first place. In fact, even those who love risk and novelty have probably not loved certain new normals, like, "If I don't wear a mask, I might be putting my parents' life in danger." "Our minds are largely habit-making machines. We often stick to the habitual ways of doing things that have worked for us previously, and current circumstances are making that very difficult," says cognitive neuroscientist Nan Wise, PhD, author of Why Good Sex Matters: Understanding the Neuroscience of Pleasure for a Smarter, Happier, and More Purpose-Filled Life, who adds that this difficulty can result in higher stress levels, because our habit-making-machine brains have trouble computing when the ask is changing your mind-set and overwriting what it previously knew to be true.

When faced with difficult, new circumstances, our wired-in core emotional instincts may activate in an effort to help us through challenges. "When things are different than we expect them to be…it can even feel so overwhelming that we become shut down and freeze," says Dr. Wise. "Even if we can mobilize ourselves into action, we’re not sure, necessarily, how to navigate."

"The step of taking time for self-reflection is often ignored. As a result, many people become reactive rather than slowing down to become deeply and consciously responsive." —Carla Marie Manly, PhD

Another psychological effect of changing your mind-set is that stress triggers the panic and grief system, which is activated when we feel a threat to our relationships. This comes in to play for many people right now, especially those white allies to the Black community who are are examining their privilege and working to explain the concept to their loved ones who don't understand. "We’re taking a deep and hard look at some of our friends and family members who continue to operate in ways that are either explicitly or implicitly bigoted," Dr. Wise says. "It’s very upsetting when we realize that if we were to grow and change, it may endanger the connections with our loved ones with different political viewpoints."

But it's also extremely necessary growth, and the solution for ensuring that neurologically and psychologically uncomfortable rapid-fire change moves into a steadfast mind-set is pretty simple: Slow down to a sustainable pace. "The essential step of taking time for quiet self-reflection—to process and truly evaluate a situation—is often ignored," says Dr. Manly. "As a result, many people become reactive, working from the primitive brain, rather than slowing down to become deeply and consciously responsive."

For example, when the Black Lives Matters protests began in the wake of George Floyd's murder, a white ally to the Black community may have rushed to virtue signal with a a social media post to convey their support. The problem here (as is the problem with all performative allyship) is that the action centers on the self. By taking a beat to learn about systemic racism, examine white privilege, and make a concrete commitment to anti-racist education and action, a more thoughtful response can come to fruition.

And this is key, because if there is any silver lining to the chaos of 2020 thus far and the stressful-but-productive changes in mind-set it has asked of humans, it's that positive growth can emerge. "What we need to remember is that this kind of crisis is a huge opportunity for change," says Dr. Wise.

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