Written by Dr Lynette Mackey, Dietitian and Behavioural Change Consultant to the LifeShape Clinic.

Now more than ever, it is critical to understand the nature of our minds so that we can make our best choices, even amongst life’s most difficult times.

At the moment, many of us are experiencing great stress, and some great hardship, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Life is not progressing as normal and we don’t know if and when it will return to normal. What’s more, it’s human nature to try to avoid feeling stressed, and one way to ease the stress is to either make fast, reactive decisions or avoid making any decisions at all. Unfortunately, the problem with both styles of decision making is that it can lead to problems later.

We make less than optimal choices when we’re stressed because it’s harder to use the wisdom of our smart brains to guide us. Under stress, we produce hormones that have the capacity to switch off our smart brain. This is evolutionarily adaptive because it leaves our reactive brain in charge of our behaviour. Subsequently, when we encounter a threat, we can rapidly produce a habitual behaviour that may have “saved us”, in the past. However, if we’re not in a situation that requires us to run away from a sabre-toothed tiger; this can translate into our making automatic, reactive decisions that solve short-term problems at the expense of our longer-term goals and plans.

I would like to introduce a brain model that was created by Dan Siegel, the “Handy Brain Model”, as a useful metaphor to describe what happens to our ability to make smart decisions when we are under stress. Using this model, when we’re under stress, we have two choices. We can either “get a grip” or we can “flip our lids”.

To get the best image of this, I want you to do the following: close your dominant hand so that it grips your thumb. Now, imagine that your reactive brain consists of your thumb and the palm of your hand, and that your smart brain consists of your knuckles and the fingers that wrap over the top of your thumb, like a ‘lid’. Whilst keeping a hold of your thumb, imagine that your smart brain is connected to your reactive brain. When your smart brain is connected like this, it acts as a “wise overseer”, which helps you to make smart decision, and you “have a grip”.

When you “have a grip”, your smart brain is wrapped protectively around your reactive brain. When it is connected like this, it is capable of providing wise guidance. However, when you are stressed and your stress hormones rise too high, your hand flies open, you lose your grip, and you flip your lid! To see this in action, watch the following youtube clip as Dan Siegel explains one way that we can “flip our lids”:

As described by Dan, to make your best decisions during this most difficult time, it’s critical to cultivate a reasonable level of response flexibility (#4). In order to do this, you need to “get a grip” on your impulse to react. This is so important because your reactive brain is always ready to spring into action.

Consequently, if you don’t consciously slow it down, it has the capacity to ramp up your stress levels and hijack your smart brain before it has time to consider all your options. Therefore, to make your best choices during these stressful times, it’s important to learn how to slow your reactive brain down by pausing for your best cause, whatever it may be. By slowing your reactive brain down, you allow your smart brain to reconnect and play a role in your decision making.

Therefore, pausing for your cause will develop your capacity to choose your best response when things aren’t going as planned or as desired. Experiencing high levels of stress can be an overeating trigger for many. For those who struggle with emotional eating, you may already be aware that it has been harder not to give into temptation, or old habits during this time.

In order to develop a greater level of response flexibility it’s critical to know which part of your brain is influencing your decision-making, before you make your choice. So, the next time you need to make a choice, consciously stop and ask yourself the following: If I act in line with what my thoughts and feelings are telling me to do in this moment – am I going to move towards or away from the life that I want?

Take a few moments to reflect on this. Then notice what you discover. If you determine that acting in line with your thoughts and feelings will take you towards the life you want – then you are being guided by your smart brain.

According to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: your behaviour is ‘workable’ when you are about to move in a direction that is aligned with values that are meaningful and important to you. Acting in this manner is beneficial to you. If on the other hand, your taking action moves you away from the life that you want, and away from values that are important to you, then your actions and choices are considered ‘unworkable’. Acting in this manner is not beneficial.

Unworkable actions are typically orchestrated by your reactive brain. When your reactive brain has the upper hand, it is important to consciously stop and reconsider your actions, otherwise you risk reinforcing those behaviours you are trying so hard to change

This is an incredibly difficult time. If you are struggling with your eating behaviour choices, it could indicate that you may need some help to manage your current level of stress. If you found this information helpful and you believe that you would benefit from developing more response flexibility, please speak to your dietitian at the LifeShape clinic. They can teach you how to make your best choices during these difficult times.

However, for the interim, remember to pause and ask yourself this simple question: Is what I am about to do going to take me towards or away from the life I want?