What Happens in the Brain When You Don’t Feel Safe
I’m not alone in feeling frightened these days. After months of lockdown, America’s opening up again, and the thought of kids returning to school, a vaccine being rushed to market, full airplane rides, and packed happy hours all fill me with a rinse of cold fear. The wave of protests signals both a hard turn from our quarantine mentality and a call for the upheaval of our justice system, and wild hiccups and terrifying backlash feel inevitable. I, a white woman, feel grateful for this national reckoning but nervous about how things might get worse before they get better. And of course, for many people of color, fear is — and always has been — a daily baseline.
For decades, scientists have talked about the stress response as sort of the brain’s panic button: A perceived threat activates the alarm system, ratcheting up cortisol, speeding your heart rate, and shunting blood from your internal organs to your limbs so you can fight or flee. But newer theories question that common thinking: As a brain pattern, the stress response isn’t activated, but rather always on. Your prefrontal cortex — the brain region associated with higher-level functions like problem-solving and decision-making — works like brakes, keeping the stress response quiet but ready to be unleashed at lightning speed. (Which gushes harder: a hose you turn on from the spigot, or one you turned on a few minutes ago and then unkinked?)
But the real upshot is what makes your brain unkink that hose and let the stress response surge: not an actual threat, but rather the “uncertainty of safety,” even when nothing is wrong. That sounds straightforward but is actually kind of mindblowing: We think of stressors causing stress, but in truth, your brain will freak out anytime it can’t spot the hallmarks that, in its learned experience, spell safety. “Our default state is one in which we err on the side of caution,” says Bart Verkuil, PhD, a psychologist at Leiden University in The Netherlands and one of the pioneers of the theory. “That means we only inhibit our stress response when we clearly perceive safety.”
So, yeah, it’s not your fault you can’t calm down these days. “The brain’s goal is to keep you alive, not happy,” says Melanie Greenberg, PhD, a clinical psychologist in the Bay Area and author of The Stress-Proof Brain. “It’s always trying to predict what happens next so it can take action to help you survive. And if it just doesn’t know, that’s tough for the brain.”
Here are some of the main things the prefrontal cortex needs to see for it to consider an environment safe: a supportive social network, trust in society at large, physical health, a feeling of being in control, and access to nature. In a nutshell, the polar opposite of 2020. “The world has become less predictable, and the resources that can provide us with a sense of safety are less available,” Verkuil says — for example, many of us can’t hug our loved ones, see our doctors, or hang out at the beach. “As a consequence, we will be more vigilant, stressed, and worried.” For BIPOC individuals, this tsunami of a year has only exacerbated unsafe conditions they’ve dealt with since birth: racial profiling, poorer health outcomes, and fear of being incarcerated or killed at the hands of the police, to name a few.
“The brain’s goal is to keep you alive, not happy.”
You might not even realize this lack of safety has loosed the stress response all over your body. It’s easy to know when, for example, a big work presentation is making you anxious, but nowadays, thanks to even-scarier-than-usual headlines, the stress response could take other forms: You might simply feel drained or moody or short-tempered. The bad news is, you can’t snap your fingers and make Covid-19 or racism or your least-favorite politician disappear. The good news is, “You might be experiencing more stress without consciously knowing exactly why,” Verkuil says, “but there are a lot of conscious things you can do to replenish your resources of safety.”
The following safety-boosting suggestions sound a lot like traditional “stress-relievers.” That’s because your goal is to convince your prefrontal cortex to rein in the stress response… which is what stress-relief interventions have always done. “It’s a new way of looking at the data, but the data itself doesn’t change,” Verkuil says. “These higher-level-thinking functions can be used to worry, but you can also learn to use them in a more adaptive way.”
1. Spread some love.
Seeing folks we once trusted (our neighbors; other shoppers at the grocery store; for some of us, the police) as threats is a recipe for discomfort. For our ancestors, “there was safety in the tribe — after all, alone, you could become lion food,” Greenberg notes. “Now, if the other people within your tribe — or city — are dangerous, there’s this existential angst that puts the brain into a state of unease.”
Some of this Fear of Other comes compliments of the pandemic: Over the last few months, we’ve trained our brains to see everyone we encounter as a possible source of infection — and to feel anxious anytime someone comes within our six-foot bubble. Some of it, like fear of the police, is deep-seated. Black Americans have lived with this fear forever, and now many white Americans are upending their opinions of the people they once thought of as synonymous with safety.
To restore a feeling of safety within your tribe, staying connected to loved ones (over Zoom) is a good start. If you feel comfortable with the risk, attending a peaceful, socially distanced demonstration is also a powerful way to feel connected with your community and to show support for what you believe in. Greenberg also suggests trying loving-kindness meditation, repeating, “May you be safe, may you be happy, may you be healthy, may you live with ease” while thinking about, say, your neighborhood, activists and organizers, your region, or the Earth at large. The practice retrains your brain to see others as your fellow man, not your enemy — which makes the world feel safer.
2. Practice mindfulness.
There’s a reason meditation-app usage has soared in recent months: Sinking into the present moment ameliorates symptoms of stress, research shows. If you’re at home, eyes closed, listening to your breath, even your overactive imagination can’t pretend you’re unsafe at this moment. “At the cognitive level, mindfulness will help you realize that you are currently not in need of a stress response,” Verkuil says. “You are currently in a predictable state, you are in control — two important ingredients of safety.” Headspace, for one, is offering a handful of free guided meditations right now.
Here are some of the main things the prefrontal cortex needs to see for it to consider an environment safe: a supportive social network, trust in society at large, physical health, a feeling of being in control, and access to nature.
3. Control what you can.
Research on how employees feel after an act of workplace terrorism (a situation that, obviously, breeds feelings of unsafety) provides another clue to what makes humans feel secure again. One such finding: Office workers felt better after they’d learned evacuation procedures like the back of their hand, according to research in the European Journal of Psychotraumatology. It’s another intuitive but important upshot: Lower your personal risk, and you’ll convince your brain the world isn’t quite as unsafe as it fears… and in turn, it’ll pump the brakes on that stress response.
If your city’s post-pandemic reopening makes you nervous, for example, you might take every recommended precaution (wear a mask, wash your hands regularly) and discuss with your household what you’ll do if someone gets sick. “You can use cognitive reframing to see the situation as safer,” Greenberg says. “Think about the precautions you’re taking and reframe those actions as having some effect — and find evidence for that.” (Hint: A review of 87 studies on the transmission of respiratory viruses found that washing hands at least 11 times a day and wearing a face mask effectively reduce the risk of spreading illness.)
4. Take steps to change the future.
One of the ingredients of perceived unsafety that Verkuil’s team identified is “distorted information,” that is, a physical environment that hampers your senses — think darkness, dense fog, or loud noise. But Verkuil agrees our current climate of political spin, whiplash-inducing guidelines, and disinformation can make us feel unsafe as well. “If you don’t trust the person who’s running the show, you’ll feel no one’s looking out for you,” Greenberg points out.
So maybe you set your sights on building a safer future: Phone bank for a candidate, support a Black-owned business, organize a social-justice-themed virtual book club, get involved in a nonprofit remotely, send postcards to deregistered voters of color, or use Issue Voter to weigh in on relevant bills. “Taking action can increase our sense that the future might be different and that your sense of safety will eventually increase,” Verkuil says. Believing that makes the world a little less terrifying.