Crisis to Opportunity — Survival or Thrival with COVID-19

The primitive part of your brain can hamper your ability to think, analyze, evaluate, and plan during a crisis like COVID-19. Learn how to gain control and thrive instead of just survive.

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We humans like to think of ourselves as highly evolved beings at the top of evolutionary hierarchy and clearly different from the animals we came from. Unlike our animal ancestors, we have a part of our brain called the cerebral cortex that enables us to think, evaluate, organize, and plan our actions. But when faced with a crisis, are we really so different from those creatures lower down the evolutionary ladder?

“In the animal kingdom, the rule is, eat or be eaten. In the human kingdom, define or be defined.”

-Thomas Szasz, noted professor of psychiatry

The part of the brain that often reduces us to animal-like behavior when confronted by a crisis is the amygdalae, two small, almond-shaped chunks of gray matter, located at the base of our brain (the area commonly referred to as the primitive brain). 300,000 years ago, when early Homo sapiens were faced with a crisis, such as a saber-toothed tiger or a rival tribesperson with a really big club, the amygdala processed this life-threatening information instantly, bypassed our higher-order thinking ability (no time for that!), and immediately triggered emotional, psychological, and physical changes that mobilized action in the name of survival.

Now this reaction may still be useful in the 21st century when confronted by, say, a mugger on a dark street or a mountain lion while on a hike. But the activation of the amygdala produces changes in our brain and body that are less effective for managing many of the crises we are facing these days including the current COVID-19 crisis.

This rest of this article will focus on the specific ways in which our amygdala impacts our thoughts, emotions, and reactions to a crisis. It will also introduce you to the forks in the road that you can take to gain control over your amygdala. We will use what makes us a more evolved species to respond in ways that will work when faced with the COVID-19 crisis instead of what worked many millennia ago.

Instincts: Primitive or Evolved?

Instincts lie at the heart of a crisis mentality. They are the starting point for all of the reactions that we have toward a crisis. Instincts are a complex, genetically hard-wired action that serves a specific purpose in our lives related to survival. Examples include fear, suckling, and sex. For us to gain control of and, if necessary, override our instincts when confronted with a crisis, it is essential to understand the role that instincts play in how we respond to crises.

Is there any more important situation than a crisis, when we need to have all of our most highly evolved capabilities firing on all cylinders? As an immediate and disturbing example, the COVID-19 crisis that the world is now confronted with is highly complex and largely outside of our control (though there are steps we can take to help). As a result, the COVID-19 crisis is not solvable by way of immediate physical action, which is why our primitive instincts can prevent us from responding effectively to and overcoming the crisis that has almost paralyzed our daily lives. 

“The wise are instructed by reason; ordinary minds by experience; the stupid, by necessity; and brutes by instinct.”

-Marcus T. Cicero, Roman philosopher & statesman

Fork in the Road

Many of us fall victim to a crisis mentality because it’s our natural instinct. By working to instill what I call an “opportunity mindset,” you will increase your awareness of constructive forks in the road and the probability that you will take the good road as you face the COVID-19 crisis and other crises that will inevitably arise in the future.

Survival

Our emotions have evolved to be of great benefit to our survival. So-called “hot” emotions, such as fear  and disgust, are experienced instantaneously and powerfully. These emotions signal an imminent threat to our survival (e.g., an attacker or rotten food), which initiates urgent action that increases our chances of survival. In contrast, “cool” emotions, like joy and or pride, typically take longer to be felt and are usually less intense initially. Simply put, there isn’t a pressing need to experience “cool” emotions strongly or right away because they don’t signal a threat to our lives and don’t require an immediate response.

Unfortunately, in an odd sort of way, our primitive survival instinct — including these hot emotions — has become outdated for many aspects of our modern lives.

Survival in the 21st century has taken on new meanings that require a different understanding of survival and an evolved survival instinct that focuses on modern-day crises such as COVID-19. In this current crisis, the dangers include loss of a job, a significant decline in retirement portfolio, social isolation, and the inability to engage in enjoyable activities due to “Shelter in Place.” (e.g., failure). Even though illness is a possibility, the threat is not imminent or severe for most of us. This new conceptualization of the survival instinct demands a very different set of responses than those triggered by the “old school” fight-or-flight response.

Thrival

Our understanding of and means for ensuring this new form of survival in the 21st century has changed significantly compared to primitive times. A more appropriate definition of survival for modern times may be: “The state of continuing to live one’s normal life, typically in spite of an accident, ordeal, or difficult circumstances.” Rather fitting given COVID-19, wouldn’t you say? In other words, the ability to get by or maintain the status quo despite challenging conditions.

Another instinct that is more aligned with our times has risen to the forefront and is what I call our “thrival” instinct (yes, it is actually a word). Derived from the word “thrive,” thrival can be defined as “to prosper; to be fortunate or successful; to grow or develop vigorously; flourish.” In other words, to want to feel better, do better, and live better. The thrival instinct drives us to seek out our limits and to expand the world in which we live.

Conflict between Instincts

The problem with these two instincts — survival and thrival — is that they are fundamentally in conflict with each other. Our survival instinct demands that we seek out safety, security, certainty, familiarity, predictability, routine, comfort, and control. In contrast, our thrival instinct drives us to seek out risk, novelty, uncertainty, insecurity, discomfort, and stress.

This conflict is inherently connected to the difference between a crisis mentality and an opportunity mindset, with the former being grounded in our survival instinct and the latter woven into our thrival instinct. As I will be showing throughout this article series, rejecting our survival instinct and embracing our thrival instinct is essential to shifting from a crisis mentality to an opportunity mindset. With COVID-19 crisis, the qualities of the thrival instinct will better serve your efforts in responding to their challenges and enable you to adopt an opportunity mindset.

Steps for Moving from Survival to Thrival

1. Don’t resist your initial reaction

First, as I’m sure most of us have experienced with COVID-19, when a crisis strikes and you experience the first wave of a crisis mentality, don’t attempt to resist it. The fact is that you can’t, because it has millions of years of evolution driving the instinct through you. Instead, acknowledge and accept that it is your survival instinct responding naturally to the perceived threat. This acceptance will dull the intensity of your survival instinct’s actions by not adding unhelpful emotions (e.g., frustration, anger) or physiological reactions (e.g., more adrenaline) to the situation. It will also allow you to let the psychological, emotional, and physical wave to pass more readily and more quickly.

2. Invoke your thrival instinct

Second, the initial shock of your survival instinct and crisis mentality will either ebb to a more manageable level or mostly run its course. Then, you can invoke your thrival instinct by recognizing that its attributes are better suited for 21st century crises including COVID-19.

3. Understand this shift will be uncomfortable

Third, expect and acknowledge that this shift from survival to thrival and crisis psychology to opportunity mindset will be uncomfortable. In fact, millions of years of evolution will be screaming at you to not go there. But you must go there because the thrival instinct and an opportunity mindset give you the best chance of coming out of the COVID-19 crisis as intact as possible.

4. Commit to your new instincts

Finally, make a commitment to your thrival instinct and your opportunity mindset. Stay conscious and vigilant to your survival instinct and crisis mentality creeping into your mind and body and attempting to kidnap you back to your primitive self. Then, use that commitment as the foundation which you can then apply to the COVID-19 crisis that we are all now facing.

Want to learn more about how to respond to the COVID-19 crisis in healthy and constructive ways? Read Dr. Jim Taylor’s new book, How to Survive and Thrive When Bad Things Happen: 9 Steps to Cultivating an Opportunity Mindset in a Crisis, or listen to his podcast, Crisis to Opportunity (or find it on Stitcher, Spotify, iTunes, or Google).

Featured image: Shutterstock

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