An invisible threat has pushed us to our limits. Small wonder our brains are overwrought | Emma Kavanagh

It was a shoe for me. There was one missing shoe. It wasn't a great shoe. I just wore it to walk my dog. It was gone. It was apparently to the same spot all the solitary socks had gone, up there in footwear heaven. You would be forgiven for thinking that I would just keep going after all the years we had. Because I survived the pandemic.
Instead, I sat down on the bottom step and wept.

The past two years have tested us beyond our limits, sometimes even to the limit. Our environment has been one of constant, invisible threat. The limbic system is activated when there is a threat. It is amazing because it communicates information without having to go through more complex parts of the brain. This allows us to react in an instant to situations that are similar to our gut feelings.

This part of the brain is more important when we are stressed. This is great for avoiding oncoming buses but not so great when it comes to complex tasks such as remembering the kettle doesn't go in the fridge.

The net result of living through the same experiences as us is being broken by small catastrophes. Photograph by Dominic Lipinski/PA

Prefrontal cortex, the sophisticated part of our brain, is losing in the great brain war. When we are stressed, it shows less activity. We become more susceptible to errors, make rational thinking more difficult, and find it too difficult to make decisions. So, emotion is what remains when the limbic system takes control.

A woman sits on the bottom step crying over her shoe.

It seems like we should be more proficient at this stuff. Yet, so many people's brains are still on alert. The show is still run by the limbic system. It's okay. That is exactly what it was meant for.

It means that we may react emotionally more than before. We will lose our tempers and remember less. We attempt to get down from every step that we are currently taking.

Reappraisal is a proven technique to counter this. It involves getting the prefrontal cortex talking to the limbic system, basically telling it to calm down. The problem is that the prefrontal cortex has trouble communicating with the limbic system when we are sick, tired, or stressed.

Psychological research shows that we are currently in a phase where people feel like they are on the edge, but no one can explain why. This is when disasters happen. The net result of living through the events we have experienced is being destroyed by small catastrophes.

It will happen. Research shows that it will pass. The brain is extremely adaptive and can find a way to get through this phase. PTSD is only a minor issue in disaster survivors. They will be able to function as before. Another proportion will experience post-traumatic growth. This is a positive that is often overlooked. They will be stronger because of this breaking. Studies of first responders have shown that post-traumatic growth after a distressing incident is a common phenomenon with prevalence rates between 40-75%.

Although it is still early days in our analysis of the pandemic's effects, there is no reason not to believe that long-term resilience will be the most likely outcome. It is not possible to make it worse at the moment. I cannot take away the pain you've endured or the suffering you continue to endure. It's okay, I can only tell you that. It's okay to cry about a shoe that has been lost. It's okay to feel tired after a brief period of concentration, or to feel like you can't focus at all. It's okay to feel broken.

Attention feeds on emotions. We add to the attention when we criticize ourselves for feeling them.

Psychological research shows that when we do this, and accept our emotions instead of trying to control them, there are a few positive effects. This reduces secondary stressors like being stressed. Attention feeds off emotions. We add to the attention when we criticize ourselves for feeling them. This makes us more likely to ruminate, and we feel worse.

The state-dependent method of memory is what we call "state-dependent". This means that it is easier to recall other times when you feel sad. We keep going.

It can be helpful to name the emotion in a non-judgmental manner. Name the emotion and it will bring the prefrontal cortex online again, giving it an opportunity to calm down the limbic system. Remember that there are no negative emotions. Emotions serve as indicators and signposts to us about what is happening in our environment. It is important to recognize how we feel and allow ourselves to feel it.

I don't cry because I've lost the plot, but I do cry about a shoe that I lost. At least, not yet. My brain is tired and I can't bear to think about a shoe that has been lost. Sometimes, your brain can only cope with pandemic fatigue. You don't have to feel helpless about these small catastrophes.