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Overcoming Fear and the Battle in our Brains

Woman sitting at desk looking out window while writing in journal
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The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the entire world off balance. Those who live in developing nations may have experience living amidst war, famine or unrest and have learned about tremendous loss and grief. But most Americans expect a good life with a smooth trajectory and get very little experience in managing catastrophes. Our lack of experience can make the management of loss and expressions of grief even more difficult.

Managing the ever-changing disruptions caused by COVID-19 as a practicing dentist is mind boggling. Just when we think we are adjusted to one reality, another one careens into our lives like a wrecking ball and we are thrown off balance again.

In order to cope, it is important to know that there is a battle going on in our brains between fear and contentment. But, with a lot of hard work and commitment, contentment can win.

Emotional pain begins with an attack by our amygdala. The amygdala is a collection of cells about the size of two almonds hidden away deep near the base of our brain. It detects fear, anxiety, aggression and anger and activates the fight-or-flight system. Activation of the amygdala triggers our sympathetic nervous system to flood our bodies with hormones that increase our heart rate, constrict or dilate our blood vessels, shut down our stomachs and get us ready to physically address the threat. This system was very effective historically, when humans faced the prospect of being eaten alive by a wild beast, and is still effective when we face imminent physical danger. In the case of emotional issues, where maintaining a calm demeanor is typically best, our amygdala can complicate things. The confusion may cause us to react in a way that is emotionally painful or inappropriate

The good news is that we also have a rational, logical part of our brain, our prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex area controls the executive functions of the brain including judgment, impulse control, emotional regulation, planning, reasoning and social skills. We can actually focus on our prefrontal cortex and train our brains through determination, patience and persistence to ease or stop the amygdala’s attack on our bodies. Understanding that our bodies’ automatic response is not necessarily appropriate, and consciously engaging our prefrontal lobes, can help us find a calm, thoughtful resolution to the problems we face. Overcoming a significant loss like the disruption of our dental practices can take months of struggle as our amygdala continuously throws us down into that pit of fear and despair and our prefrontal cortex tries to pull us back up.

 Here are a few steps you can take to make sure your rational brain wins this battle:

  1. Pay attention to what is going on in your brain. When negative thoughts take over, replace them with positive ones. This has to be done intentionally because negative thoughts have an edge in a time of crisis.

  2. Focus on what is in front of you. You may find that you can spend more time with your family. Read a good book, or perhaps a couple of good books. Keep your reading choices positive.

  3. Do what you can to help your practice be ready when things return to normal. Use this time to build relationships with your patients and team with regular communication via email, social media or however possible. And perhaps use this time to thoroughly clean clutter, update inventory, reorganize spaces or whatever makes you feel more productive.

  4. Share your concerns with others (virtually) or write in a journal.

  5. Let go of what you can’t control.

  6. Exercise and eat well.

Don’t let fear and anxiety triumph! The COVID-19 virus has already disrupted enough in your life. Don’t let it defeat you personally. Work hard to overcome the battle in your brain by consciously fighting the fear. Strive for contentment, defined as a state of having accepted your situation first. Eventually, peace, happiness and even joy will follow. We can’t control the things that happen to us, but by working to keep our brains in a healthy, positive zone during this pandemic, we can be assured that when this is over we will still be standing strong.

About the author 

Kim Harms headshot

Dr. Harms practiced dentistry as an enlisted officer in the U.S. Public Health Service, as a dental associate and for most of her career as co-owner of a private practice in Farmington, Minnesota. She served as a clinical assistant professor of operative and hospital dentistry at Loyola University Medical Center and School of Dentistry. She was the first woman president of the Minnesota Dental Association, chair of the ADA Council on Communications and member of the ADA Council on Government Affairs representing the 10th District. Dr. Harms has sent more than 164,000 books to 34 libraries in Rwanda through the Eric Harms Libraries (organized in memory of her son), through Books for Africa.

A former grief counselor and a civil mediator, she is a published author and national speaker focusing on major life events and conflict that can create shock, grief and coping struggles while practicing dentistry. Learn more at drkimberlyharms.com.