Dad’s Army is a BBC sitcom about the Home Guard during the Second World War.
The Home Guard consisted of local volunteers otherwise ineligible for military service, either because of age (hence the title Dad’s Army) or by being in professions exempt from conscription.
In the 1970s, it regularly pulled in 18 million viewers and it was our family’s Saturday night entertainment long before Ant and Dec were even born!
When I am visiting my 86 year old dad we often watch the repeats on TV and laugh out loud together at this comedy gold.
Lance Corporal Jones was the oldest guardsman and had served in the Boar War.
He would famously panic about the slightest event and his catchphrase “don’t panic, Mr Mainwaring!” became legendary.
All the recent episodes of panic buying have got me thinking about panic. Why do some panic and others not?
For those who do panic and are finding it not very helpful what can you do about it?
Equally, if you are totally frustrated by those who are panicking, what do you need to know about those people who are different to you?
So, whether you are a panicker or astounded by the whole reaction I am going to attempt to help you get inside your mind for a few moments to help you understand what is going on.
For any neuroscientists or brain surgeons reading this post please forgive the simplicity.
Our brains are amazing machines. The problem for most of us is that we don’t really know how they work.
Whenever we are in immediate danger our brains react. It is what we call the fight, flight or freeze response.
If we were taking a walk in the park one day and an angry-looking dog came running towards us displaying a full set of gnashers we wouldn’t stop to think about what to do!
In a nanosecond, we would run (flight) or stand still in terror (freeze). Some of us (not me!) may even stay and take it on (fight).
At that moment the brain is flooded with chemicals that allow it to focus only on the problem and prepare the body to take action to get it away from the danger.
That part of the brain is in the limbic system. In Professor Steve Peters’ Chimp Paradox model, he refers to that area as “the chimp”. The chimp has one main function and that is to keep us safe and survive.
In our hunter-gatherer days it was terrifically helpful however in today’s 21st century it often interprets stressful situations as life-threatening. It catastrophises and reacts with behaviours that aren’t very helpful.
Take this modern-day example.
So you drive into Aldi’s car park and there is a hoard of people waiting to get in. The security guard on the door is only letting two people in at a time.
Before you know it the chimp is off and giving you all sorts of unhelpful thoughts.
- “There won’t be any pasta on the shelves!”
- “You should have come earlier!”
- “What happens if there is a lockdown, I won’t have enough food to feed my family!”
- “We are all going to die!”
You get the drift.
This is what that part of the brain is designed to do – it’s helping you survive. It has perceived a life-threatening situation and because it thinks five times faster than the other parts of your brain it has already reacted and caused you great stress.
Thankfully we have another more helpful and rational part of our brain which assesses the reality of the situation and applies logic – it knows your life isn’t in danger.
It thinks a bit slower than your chimp so often by the time that part of your brain has got into action you are already stressed. When it does fire up, it pauses to assess the reality.
You are in your car in Aldi car park and there are a lot of people waiting to get in.
You may not be able to purchase what you wanted however it is very unlikely that you and your family are going to starve.
If we want to be less reactive, the first step in managing your chimp brain is simply starting to notice…
- When does it react?
- What are you doing?
- Who are you with?
- What is the story it is making up?
- Is it actually true?
- Is it a life-threatening situation if you have no pasta?
- Is this thought helpful right now?
So next time you drive into the supermarket car park and you notice you are starting to panic remember it is your fight/flight/freeze thinking it is in danger.
Notice it, take a pause and then the choice is yours – do you want to react or respond. Which would be more helpful?