Do you feel like your brain has checked out and gone on vacation while you’re stuck at home quarantining? Does your thinking seem foggy? Are you more forgetful? Having problems making decisions? Many people are complaining of a range of cognitive difficulties arising from the current situation caused by COVID-19.
People are experiencing increased stress, brain fog, anxiety, depression and difficulty with motivation during the current pandemic. Worrying about contracting or spreading the virus, as well as isolation, loneliness, job loss, financial strain, racial and political strife, and lack of routine and structure, can change our brain chemistry and our brain’s ability to function well.
Simply put, people are stressed out. Short-term stress is central to survival as it triggers the “fight-flight-freeze” response, which motivates our behavior and protects us from perceived threats. When we’re stressed, the “fear center” of the brain, the amygdala, activates our central stress response system. After the danger has passed, the system usually returns hormone levels and functioning back to balance and the rest-digest state.
However, when you’re chronically stressed, your nervous system is turned up all the time. High levels of cortisol, the stress hormone central to the fight-flight response, have been associated with impaired memory and thinking and even brain shrinkage. Stress also leads to reduced grey matter in the areas of the brain responsible for self-control. Perhaps this is one reason you may be finding it difficult to feel motivated and stay on track with respect to work, relationships, health and the like.
Stress also influences the levels of serotonin, which can interfere with your concentration and comprehension. Over time, these changes can lead to cognitive disruptions and symptoms of anxiety, depression and general emotional distress.
Another problem with negative stress is that it interferes with the functioning of the most advanced part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex. This region controls complex cognitive functions you need daily, like attention, decision-making and planning. With the boost of adrenaline and cortisol from the amygdala’s threat warning, you also get shutdown to the neural pathways connecting to the prefrontal cortex. Instead of focusing on thinking realistically and rationally, your brain is trying to protect you from the real or imagined threat.
While the stressors we’re facing may not go away in the near future, you can make big changes in how you respond to stress to optimize your brain.
First, and very difficult for many in our society, is developing self-compassion. Given our culture’s emphasis on achievement and success, many push themselves mercilessly to obtain their goals. They fear that if they put down the stick used to motivate themselves, they will no longer accomplish what they need to do. This thought is untrue. Self-compassion can increase motivation and commitment to perform more so than self-criticism and punishment.
To become more self-compassionate, before judging yourself harshly for something you’ve done, imagine a friend did it. How would you talk to your friend? How would you treat this person? Many of us are much kinder to others than ourselves. Self-compassion is a powerful stress reducer, allowing for more organized and rational thinking and better behavioral choices.1
Second, monitor your “stinking thinking” to reduce stress. Watch out for negative self-talk, which often becomes self-fulfilling. If you’re feeling stressed and your inner voice starts, “I can’t believe everything that is happening. I am so stressed out. I’m so sick of this. I can’t stand it,” you are going to make yourself feel even worse. Making a few changes to your self-talk can help you feel more hopeful and open: “So much is going on now. All of this change is making me feel stressed. If I just deal with it one day at a time, I can get through it.” Use your thinking to help reduce your brain’s stress.
Mindfulness can reduce stress and offers a variety of brain benefits. It is based on taking a different approach to discomfort than you would usually. It involves noticing and nonjudgmentally accepting what is happening inside your body and around you. Mindfulness is present-focused and involves turning toward your emotions, thoughts and physical sensations – even when painful – rather than the typical response of trying to ignore or get rid of the pain. For example, if you were angry, you could attend to the emotion, the physical sensations of anger (tight muscles, clenched fist) and angry thoughts. By nonjudgmentally noticing and allowing them, these elements lessen and pass. Remember, acceptance of the painful thoughts, feelings and emotions does not mean you like them; it just means you are willing to allow them to be present so they can pass on. Mindfulness is associated with reduced activity and less gray matter in the stress-related amygdala. This focus helps your brain work effectively and efficiently and reduces the arousal from stress, anxiety or fear.
Adapting to the uncertainty of the present can be difficult. To boost your brain, pay attention to your cognitive, emotional and physical needs and take steps to renew your energy and feel more in control.
Sleep is an essential process during which waste and toxins are cleared from the brain. You can probably think of a time you were sleep-deprived and had difficulty thinking rationally and healthfully. Not getting enough sleep is also detrimental as, over time, it leads to the production of more stress hormones and greater brain interference.
We all know the importance of exercise for physical and emotional health. However, it’s also central to our cognitive abilities. The endorphins secreted can improve your thinking and concentration – and mood – and regular aerobic exercise can help maintain brain size and function as you age.
The key is to take good care of yourself. Make sure you’re eating nutritious meals, socializing, doing hobbies, enjoying nature, engaging in self-care, watching comedies and being kind and patient with yourself. And remember, if you’re experiencing significant emotional distress or cognitive impairment that interferes with your functioning, don’t be afraid to reach out for the support you may need.
Dr. Ravicz is a licensed clinical psychologist in Palm Springs and can be reached at (760) 904.7957. For more information, visit www.drsimonepsycologist.com.
1) Breines, J.G. and Chen, S. “Self-compassion increases self-improvement motivation”. NIH, PubMed.gov, 2012 Sep;38(9):1133-43.)