The Covid-19 crisis is triggering global fears that are beginning to cross over into panicky feelings (especially if you or a loved one is over 80 and in a nursing home). That state of mind is called “dread.”

In this piece I will endeavor describe and explain what is going on in your brain and mind when you are in a state of dread.

A disclaimer. It is empirically (i.e. observationally and experience) based and neither evidence nor research based.  In fact, I would ask such researchers to weigh in and make what follows more scientifically sound.

Nevertheless, I hope it will help you better understand what is going on inside you and in so doing be calming, reassuring to you and even inform you and others who read this about what might psychologically stem the tide of rising fears.

When you’re fearful, it’s because the way you have been living your life and the reassuring assumptions about the world that keep you calm enough to make good decisions are suddenly upended. It’s as if the beliefs you have that help you to maintain your daily sanity and orientation are suddenly ripped away and the future you were living into, is suddenly extremely gone.

When this occurs a stress hormone called cortisol is released by your adrenal glands to alert your body to doing what it needs to do to survive. Added to that is another hormone secreted by your adrenal glands called adrenaline which directly gets your body physically ready to deal with stress – which can come from either fear or excitement.  

As your cortisol and adrenaline rise, so too does dread and a part of your brain which deals with emotions, also referred to as your mammalian/middle brain (more on that later), called your amygdala becomes highly activated.

Your amygdala is a combination emotional sentinel and point guard rolled into one. If your amygdala senses this is a time for survival it can hijack you away from accessing the prefrontal part of your cerebral cortex, that helps you assess as situation, consider options and then make rational decisions. The hijack actually coincides with more blood flow going into your middle and then lower/reptile brain to take action to survive and away from going to your upper/human brain where you can think and consider options.

When an amygdala hijack causes blood flow to go more to your middle and lower brains an interesting thing happens to something called your Triune Brain.

Paul MacLean was a physician and neuroscientist who first coined the phrase Triune Brain to go along with his theory that we have three brains: an upper/human/thinking brain, a middle/mammalian/emotional brain, and a lower/reptile/fight or flight brain. He postulated that they developed through evolution and have learned to align with each other when we’re functioning at our best. They are kept in alignment when they are all aimed a future that we’re living into.

However, when a relatively predictable future becomes completely uncertain and an amygdala hijack occurs with resultant blood flow change, your three brains can become “decoupled” with each brain functions separately from each other.  We even have metaphors that reflect that: wigged out, unglued, out of sorts, out of you mind, freaked out, etc. When that happens, you have entered into a state of dread.

When that amygdala hijack occurs and each of the three brains fend for themselves, the  upper/human/thinking brain can flip into obsessive thinking (thinking the same thoughts repetitively), the middle/mammalian/emotional brain can flip into high anxiety (with dread causing it to flirt with terror and then panicky feelings), and the lower/reptilian/fight-flight-freeze can flip into compulsive repetitive behaviors where you run, become angry or just freeze in your tracks.

When this occurs, you have what I refer to as Triunal Rigidity, where the three brains have become rigidly connected to each other after the future they were aiming towards gets stripped away. Triunal Rigidity is what makes your mind brittle and prone to feeling fragile as if it could break and shatter (= lose your mind). It is that feeling of brittleness leading to fragility leading to shattering that can cause a sense of impending doom, terror and panic.

What is the solution to this?

That is what I refer to as Triunal Agility where whatever uncertainty and unpredictability is thrown at you, you can pivot, realign with what you need to do and then take action.  And if that action is a little off, your Triunal Agility can enable you to re-pivot and realign some more.

What is necessary to transform your brittle Triunally Rigid mind that is consumed by dread into a rapidly adapting Triunally Agile mind that can reason?

Let’s use the Coronavirus as an example.

It is the following information regarding Covid-19:

  1. What is the status of its spread – where, how many, what is its likely path, and when will it hit your community?
  2. How is that being confirmed by what tests and who in your community is getting tested and when and where can you get tested?
  3. What can you do to protect yourself and prevent it from infecting you?
  4. If infected, what and where shall you go for treatment?
  5. What will the treatment be and how long will it last?
  6. What is the course of the illness likely to look like and where can you go for help?

Generalized non-factually founded reassurances or worse, consistently inconsistent messages from President Trump who doesn’t appear to grasp the situation or even understand the virus rather than being assuring actually appear to increase uncertainty and dread, because he makes it difficult to believe him.

The person best qualified to deliver the message must be highly trained, experienced in such matters, calm, clear, with specific directions and someone we can believe. Dr. Anthony Fauci who is head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases appears to be the current “go to” person to advise us. 

See Glossary of terms above


  • Mark Goulston, M.D.

    Author, speaker, podcast host, psychiatrist

    Dr. Mark Goulston is the inventor and developer of Surgical Empathy an approach that helps people to break their attachments to counterproductive modes of functioning and frees them to connect with more productive and healthier alternatives. He is the host of the “My Wakeup Call” podcast where he interviews people on the wakeup calls that changed who they are and made them better human beings and at being human and the host of the LinkedIn Live show, "No Strings Attached." He is a Founding Member of the Newsweek Expert Forum. He is one of the world’s foremost experts on deep listening, radical empathy and real influence with his book, “Just Listen,” becoming the top book on listening in the world, translated into twenty languages and a topic he speaks and teaches globally. He is an advisor, coach, mentor and confidante to CEO’s, founders and entrepreneurs helping them to unlock all their internal blocks to achieving success, fulfillment and happiness. Originally a UCLA professor of psychiatry and crisis psychiatrist for over 25 years, and former FBI and police hostage negotiation trainer, Dr. Goulston's expertise has been forged and proven in the crucible of real-life, high stakes situations including being a boots on the ground suicide prevention specialist and serving as an advisor in the OJ Simpson criminal trial. Including, “Just Listen,” he is the author or co-author of nine books with multiple best sellers. He writes or contributes to Harvard Business Review, Business Insider, Biz Journals, Fast Company, Huffington Post, Psychology Today and has appeared as an psychological expert in the media including: CNN, Headline News, msNBC, Fox News, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Forbes, Fortune, Psychology Today and was the subject of a PBS special. He lives with his wife in Los Angeles, California.