What it Feels Like When Control is Not Present

Taking a Moment: Mindful ways to cope during the COVID-19 pandemic

Robert Althoff, MD

I've talked with you before about the way that the brain processes trauma and the importance of the frontal lobes to manage emotion and fear response. This time I want to talk to you briefly about what it feels like when that control is not present. I call this the syndrome of frontal lobe offline.

Basically, you can see this in yourself when you've been stressed at work or you haven't had enough sleep. You're quicker to anger, you're more impulsive. You might say the thing that you really didn't mean to say. I like to think of it as the "Don't say it" guy that sits on your shoulder most of the time has fallen asleep.

And we all can get there. We get there when we're over-tired, overworked and taxed for resources. We outstrip the ability of our frontal lobes to control our emotions and our impulses. What leaks out are the hurtful words and the ability to control emotion, and in general, those impulsive acts that we otherwise wouldn't say or do.

The first thing I want you to do when it comes to this is to recognize it in yourself, but probably more importantly, to recognize it in your colleagues. Maybe that person didn't mean to say that thing. Maybe that person behaved in a way that they never would've behaved in before and it's because in these kinds of moments, their frontal lobes go offline. Cut people some slack.

The frontal lobes are difficult to keep online when we're tired, right? They can fatigue. They're like a muscle. If you fatigue them, they're going to basically wear out, but they can also be strengthened. So sleep, exercise, connection with other people, breathing exercises, all of these things strengthen that frontal control and allow us to have it less likely to fatigue.

So keep taking care of your frontal lobes, treat them well, and they'll stay online and we'll all be thankful for it. Thanks very much. Be strong.

Robert Althoff, MD and Aron Steward , PhD from CVPH Psychiatry offer tips and information about coping during this time of crisis.