Out of your Bubble? How Your Brain Weighs Risk

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Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay

The fall surge we knew was coming is here, and so are the recalculations of risk that everyone is making: Do I dare to relax my Covid hygiene, is it still safe to expand my pod, can I plan a ski trip or a winter flight to the sun? 

How we consider what risks to take is processed in our brains as well as our psychology and lived experience. We like to think we assess risks rationally, but our fears and desires play a bigger role in decision-making.  The amygdala, which is the brain’s emotional control center, triggers feelings of fear and signals the body to respond with one of its possible reactions; flight, fight or freeze. This activates a region in the prefrontal cortex where the brain’s override system determines whether it’s over-reacting in order to evaluate decisions more rationally. The connection between these two adjoining areas of the brain is important to weighing the costs and benefits of different courses of action and deciding which is better.

The brain has another region that processes feelings of disappointment, loss and disgust, which heighten the potential negative outcomes of taking a risk. The insula is key to what scientists call the behavioral immune system, the unconscious actions we take to avoid getting sick. The decisions we make about how we behave in the pandemic are a mixture of both emotional and rational evaluation. But life experience, genetic factors, and environmental influences also play a role, as do consideration of our age, situation and priorities.

For many people who despite quarantine fatigue continue to observe the basics of COVID safety – wear a mask, wash your hands, stay six feet away – but who also relaxed their vigilance during the summer, socialized outside or even expanded their pod to include select others, anxiety about the election temporarily replaced or at least supplanted our anxiety about the virus; what was in the background in our minds is now in the foreground, especially because the surge is deadlier and more widespread.

But the public space, on and off line, seems more preoccupied about getting to the end of this annus horribilis without a family celebration than it is with the surge itself, reflecting myth-making images Americans are suckers for (Norman Rockwell’s holiday table) and personal nostalgia that has burnished our memories of holidays past to a golden glow. How sad it will be to celebrate the holidays without each other, but how necessary to the national emergency: As T.S. Eliot wrote, “The last temptation is the greatest treason/ to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”  

Yes, the media proclaims, you can and should plan a virtual holiday, and in the pages of this very newspaper there are dozens of helpful tips. But while the technology’s willing, the feelings aren’t authentic. A Zoom Thanksgiving isn’t the same as really being together.

And that might be the silver lining in the COVID cloud – activating the emotional immune system, which happens when one considers the relative (no pun intended) benefits of not spending the holidays with one’s family; not mine, but maybe yours.

Think of what you’ll miss.  Everyone who asks you why you’re not married yet. Your in-laws who criticize everything you do. Your partner, who lets them and doesn’t stand up for you. Your mother, who monitors every bite you take. Your brother who still thinks he’s the expert on everything except what to do about your aging parents. Your father, who doesn’t know why you didn’t take his career advice and is still foisting it on you. Your cousin who bickers with everyone. Your grown kid who keeps checking your refrigerator and throwing out everything that’s close to or past its sell-by date (Okay, that’s mine). And of course, there’s crazy Uncle Don; not the one in the White House, but the true believer who sneaked into your family whose political, cultural, racial, even conspiratorial views are anathema to you.

The emotional immune system can’t entirely protect you from the Thanksgiving blues or  be as useful to you as tips on how to have a virtual Thanksgiving en famille, but while you’re curled up at home in your sweats eating takeout from whoever’s delivering while bingeing on The Queen’s Gambit,  it’s something to be grateful for.

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"Jane Adams PhD was a founding editor of the Seattle Weekly. Among her twelve books is Seattle Green, a novel . She is a contributing editor at Psychology Today, and coaches parents of adult children."

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