Backseat Brain: Take back the wheel

Don't let uncertainty trap you in the backseat of your own mind and mental health.

Bang! Bang! Bang!

Bang! Bang! Bang!

Dizzying thoughts of what could be behind what sounds like an ever-dreaded police knock fill Jay’s head as he wakes up and scans his surroundings from the bathroom floor.

Bang! Bang! Bang!

“Jay! You okay in there man?”

Head throbbing, Jay blinks several times as he puts his hand to his temple. He tries to stand, but decides just sitting up might be a better first step as he struggles to gather his feet.

“Hey Jay, you good? I heard a thud in there.”

Still confused, Jay musters with a weak attempt at feigned confidence, “Hey!… Yeah all good. Sorry, just knocked something over.”

As Jay starts to get his bearings and slowly stands, a wave of confusion and shame washes over him as he realizes what happened in here. Working back to the last thing he remembered - he had been hanging out at his friend’s house. But, what normally would be a chill hang on the couch, had felt so… different.

Those racing thoughts? That seemingly fast pulse? That weird sensation of am I experiencing shortness of breath or hyperventilating? That notion of was this all in my head?

That was exactly what it was. A panic attack, seemingly out of nowhere.

When he had gotten up to go to the bathroom to reset… instead he had clearly fainted, collapsed, hit his head on the sink and laid unconscious on the bathroom floor for… who knows how long.

Jay looked at himself in the mirror. First, staring at the bruise already forming through even his dark complexion, across the right side of his forehead and temple. Then, he stared deep into his own dark brown eyes.


What is happening??

Between the (real or perceived) health crisis, economic crisis, and social isolation crisis - combined with what many agree to be the most important election of our lives, 2020 has held the most uncertainty many of us have ever experienced.

And guess what?

It’s not over.

Regardless of who wins the presidential election, I think we’d be kidding ourselves if we thought for a second that things will just get “comfy” right away. If anything, I believe Q4 of 2020 will be the most high octane period of the entire year, and I think it’s important to understand the impact of this on an area that for many could easily be overlooked.

Our mental health.

Specifically, the impact of extreme, prolonged uncertainty on our mental health.

In this article I’ll look to share a framework and perspective on the issues and dangers of uncertainty and mental health, I’ll use that framework to explain what happened to Jay, I’ll walk through some things that are unique to Black people and minorities, and I’ll offer solutions for everyone looking to be more intentional about their own wellbeing, being a more intentional ally, and leading others through trying times.

First, the science.

Simply put, your brain is a prediction machine. It’s tasked with keeping you alive, at all times, and for that reason it’s constantly surveying its full array of senses and surroundings for good things and bad things. Literally 5 times a second, your brain is assessing the smell of your coffee, the sounds of your home, the tone in your partner’s voice for the likelihood of threats or rewards.

This “threat and reward” response is a neurological mechanism that governs a large amount of human behavior. Studies show that when something unexpected happens (or something that creates uncertainty), the limbic system is aroused. Neurons are activated and hormones are released as your very own prediction machine tries to determine if whatever the unknown thing happens to be is a potential reward, or a potential threat. It naturally then makes sense that if your brain does determine the formally unknown to now be a “known” threat, then you go into a pure threat response (aka fight, flight, etc.).

Now, don’t forget… your brain is tasked with keeping you alive. Not necessarily with keeping you rewarded. This is an important distinction because when you acknowledge the reason why it is a prediction machine, you can more fully embrace this next insight.

When your brain cannot determine threat or reward - it defaults to threat. Then, it can ensure you are prepared just in case the worst is true. This is where prolonged high uncertainty starts to get dangerous.

You may be asking yourself if this level of threat response is applicable outside of the quintessential ‘lion in the grass’ or ‘tiger in a bush’, but research has shown that in social situations as well, you go through notable physiological change and response also. Studies using fMRI and electroencephalograph (EEG) machines show the human body responds to social needs as core to survival. Whether you’re hungry for food with none in sight, or hungry for friendship in full quarantine - similar neural responses are being activated in your brain.

This isn’t a minor response, by the way.

It’s cognitively debilitating.

Short term and long.

It literally pulls resources away from your productivity and cognitive bandwidth, and holds it hostage in preparation of responding to now expected threat. It uses up oxygen and glucose from the blood, diverting them from other parts of the brain. This literally leaves things like working memory function, analytic thinking, creative insight, and problem solving resource constrained and securely fastened in the back seat.

Now here’s where prolonged uncertainty really digs in deep. Normally, the human mind is assessing for threats, and once discovered - resolves them.

Tiger in the bush? Ran away.

No food here anymore? Found new place with food.

Worried about rain or cold? Found shelter.

But, in a year like 2020, when there’s ongoing uncertainty, confusion, and straight up misinformation around our health (COVID-19), our ability to feed ourselves (economy / work), our ability to maintain relationships with friends and love ones (quarantine / social isolation / lack of travel), we’re spending most of the year in enough of a perceived threat response that most of us are literally experiencing a physiological state of moderate threat response… most of the time.

Said another way, most of our brains are navigating the most challenging year our lives with our cognitive functions resource constrained, securely fastened in the backseat.

Without intervention, our best hope is that of an aspirational backseat driver.

Now, back to Jay.

Jay is a real person. Jay’s story is real. The only thing not real about Jay and what led up to this story is… well his name’s not Jay.

Jay is a highly educated Black man who is also the CEO of his own venture-backed company. Put simply, he’s spent most of this year treading the deep waters of perceived moderate to high threat.

Thanks to the pandemic, he’s dealt with the uncertainty of revenue impact and fundraising for his company.

Thanks to the pandemic, he’s dealt with the uncertainty and lack of control of the workplace.

Thanks to the pandemic, he’s lost his ability to manage his schedule proactively in a world where he’s required to reactively put out new fires never seen before.

Thanks to the pandemic, he’s dealt with a further sense of isolation as an entrepreneur - whose path is already inherently a lonely one.

And, Jay was recently the victim of racial profiling.

Wait. Racial profiling?

Now, to some of you that last one might not seem sooo bad.

Sure, no one wants to see that…

but, it happens right?

Like, he’s a Black man… hate to say it… but, he’s used to that, right? Probably well in the “brush-it-offable” category… right?

Let me explain.

Jay was going to visit a friend, and rang the intercom from the front door of the large multi-family building. After buzzing a couple times (crappy intercom) a white woman looked out another apartment window and simply said, “Hey boy, what are you doing here?”. Jay replied, “I’m just here to see a friend…” to which the woman scoffed back, “Yeah… I don’t think so. Get your ass outta here before I call the police.”.

Some quick math for those that haven’t experienced something like this. As a Black man… you literally have to re-commit to standing there each time this happens.

You see, whether or not Jay is who he says he is and where he’s supposed to be, Jay still has to run this math down:

… yeah… there’s a decent chance this woman calls the police…

…there’s a decent chance they show up…

…there’s a decent chance things don’t go so well.

Does she call them? Do they actually come? When they actually come, do they assume he’s a criminal? If they assume he’s a criminal, do they assume he has a gun?

Do they care?

Now, Jay did eventually get in to see his friend, but that’s not the point here. The point is that when Jay, a Black man, goes through something like this, it causes the brain to cycle through the threat analysis in a way that is truly saddening. And, when Jay has been going through a year of threat like 2020, it can have dangerous impact on his cognitive ability, overall mental health and wellbeing.

We often talk about privilege in the context of pitching for funding while White vs. Black, or interviewing for a job while White vs. Black, but before we even get there - we need to acknowledge that there is real privilege in being in less of a consistent state of perceived threat, simply by waking up every day White vs. Black.

It’s important here that I clearly and definitively state that the issues of uncertainty and concerns around mental health and wellbeing due to the challenges of 2020 are dangerous for all people, but I just wanted to carve out some small space here to shed light on something unique to those suffering from diversity issues and create opportunity for those seeking to understand a bit more.

So, what do we do about this?

I’m eager to offer some solutions for those looking to be intentional about getting back in the front seat of their own brains, but to do so I need to lay out a bit more context around the “car”.

We’ve been talking a lot about threats, but you may recall the mentioning of rewards before. Yeah, normally we’re not just focused on one side of the spectrum (remember 2019?). The key to managing threat responses is by activating reward responses as much as possible. And, while simply taking a day to “Treat Yo’ Self” can be a boost, there’s a better, more scientific approach that can pack more punch.

According to research, there are five critical resources one can optimize for when mitigating threat responses by activating reward responses. They are Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. While all of these matter, I’m going to focus on the three of these most beat up by 2020.

Certainty - is what it sounds like. Your brain, as your own personal prediction machine, craves certainty. Even in small doses, added uncertainty can pack a punch. And, while at first it might seem an impossible task to add certainty to your life or to your team, there are little things you can do. This includes things like organizing your office, setting a stricter bedtime, or committing to a diet. It also includes taking unknowns off the table, like actually saying no to the things you’re not looking forward to, or letting your team know what won’t be happening regarding working from home or the office.

Autonomy - this is referring to the sense of being in control and having some choice in what’s going on. Try controlling things you’ve never controlled before. Lean into what flexibility you do have to create the most optimal work schedule. Create space for your team to work as much as possible on their own terms, making space for personal endeavors long left on the back burner.

Relatedness - is a sense of connectedness with the people you care about. Let me repeat, a sense of connectedness with the people you care about. It’s no secret that we’re dealing with isolation in ways never experienced by most of us before. Yes, many of us are dealing with Zoom fatigue, but I think we all know that comes from a lesser quality of connection. Lean into reserving time and energy to intentionally spend time with people that you do care about, and lean further into having meaningful, intimate conversations to deepen that sense of connectedness.

Oh, fancy that. Certainty, Autonomy and Relatedness literally combine to form ‘CAR’.


While I’ve offered a shortlist of solutions above (more listed at the bottom), it’s my greater hope that this framework for understanding the impact of uncertainty on our brains based on the understanding of neuroscience research can help you feel inherently more in control of your own destiny as you look to navigate the remainder of 2020, and beyond.

Remember, the most important thing is not to continually try and assess where you are, but to intentionally take this understanding and create your own reward response activation strategy. Use the understanding of this framework to identify your own CAR keys and put yourself back in the front seat of your own brain.

And, to those looking to be allies as well as manage teams, understand those less privileged than you can benefit from your intention and care as friends, loved ones, and leaders in times of prolonged uncertainty.

Be well.

Be intentional.

Be an ally, even if only to yourself.


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To learn more about the research and understanding behind the neuroscience of the human brain and the impact of uncertainty, as well as tips and tools to navigate yourself and lead others well - please check out David Rock and the NeuroLeadership Institute, as well as some of the resources linked below: