Dr. Pablo Moya, a researcher at the CINV, in a report from Las Últimas Noticias, gave some advice that can help to sort out the neural chaos caused by the uncertainty generated in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Read the complete interview on Las Últimas Noticias
Published july 24, 2020
Translated by Maia Zabel
Without stress, survival is practically impossible. Escaping an angry dog or fleeing danger, says neuroscientist Pablo Mayo, are things we can do thanks to a primitive brain circuit that keeps the instinct for survival active in all animals.
He explains that what´s normal is that the stress circuit is active against environmental stressors and turns off once the episode ends. But the pandemic and confinement have caused the trigger mechanism to remains on.
“The uncertainties about illness and death keep the stress mechanism chronically activated because we cannot return to a normal state. However, ritual behaviors may increase in some people. It has been proven that these behaviors are able to alleviate anxiety and stress,” says the researcher at the Centro Interdisciplinario de Neurociencia at the Universidad de Valparaíso.
– What is ritual behavior like, Dr. Moya?
– A clear example is what basketball player Lebron James does just before scoring a point. When he gets a free throw, he stands on the line, but doesn´t shoot immediately. What he does is give the ball six bounces and then throw it. There is nothing that says that giving the ball five, six or seven bounces it’s going to affect the scoring.
– The ritual relieves his stress.
– Exactly. He does this to focus and improve concentration, he is coping with stress with a ritual behavior. These repetitive behaviors, which are healthy have evolved as a way of managing stress when dealing with things that we cannot control or predict.
– What ritual behaviors can appear during lockdown?
– Let’s imagine that I like to cook and that I am super precise with the grams of flour and yeast. Now, with the pandemic, I am making cookies every day and measuring all the ingredients rigorously. Deep down, one does this as a ritual strategy to cope with the anxiety that confinement produces. The same goes for hand washing and cleaning.
– What happens in the body when faced with stress?
– There is a big release of catecholamines, which are a type of neurotransmitter. They are involved in the activation of the “fight or flight” mechanisms, increase heart rate, and regulate muscle tone, glucose metabolism and pupil dilation. All these things happen when one is in an alarm situation.
– And the stress hormone?
– The famous cortisol. It also increases. It travels through the brain and upon arrival, shuts down the stress response. The problem is that when there is too much you have this system over activated all the time.
– Why do rituals help to deal with all that, doctor?
– When we are facing an unpredictable, complex and uncontrollable situation, the cognitive system is in a very disordered state. So, this is interpreted by the brain as an inability to predict what could happen. In an attempt to minimize this, the person engages in behaviors that can alleviate the disorder. That way the stressful effect of the uncertainty in the brain lightens. It is a theory, studies are needed to prove it.
– How to differentiate a daily ritual from a compulsive obsession?
– The problem occurs when you invest a lot of time or cannot make your normal life due to the ritual. That is the difference: when the thought or activity generates so much anxiety that we get hooked on that behavior and we cannot stop doing it.
– Do you have a ritual?
– I like to straighten picture frames. If they are crooked, I fix them. But I am not going back to the house from the parking lot to move a painting. Nor am I going to stop entering a house because it has a badly hung one. But organized paintings do relax me.