May 3, 2021
By Joe Grasso, PhD
If you’ve noticed yourself saying things like, “My memory isn’t what it used to be,” or “I’m so worn down all the time,” or “I feel unmotivated” during the pandemic, you’re not alone. As the battle against COVID-19 drags into its second year, many of us are experiencing unpleasant cognitive changes like forgetfulness, lethargy, lack of motivation, and brain fog.
Mental health practitioners have begun calling this mental malaise “pandemic brain,” and it’s often caused by living through the ongoing stress of a global health emergency. For over a year, we’ve worried about our health and our loved ones, monitored safety guidelines, navigated a flagging economy, and missed out on social activities that once brought us joy. The cumulative effects of this chronic stress can include numerous symptoms, even for those with no diagnosed mental health disorder.
While vaccines offer hope for an end to the pandemic, we aren’t free of pandemic brain just yet. If you’re struggling to manage these and other symptoms, it’s important to learn coping techniques and, if necessary, seek professional help.
To understand pandemic brain, it’s helpful to understand how the brain responds to stress.
The human brain fires up an alarm system when faced with any kind of threat. The process begins in the amygdala, the primal “fear center” of the brain, which triggers the hypothalamus. This activates our adrenal glands to produce adrenaline, the hormone released during the fight, flight, or freeze response. The hypothalamus then produces corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH), which signals the pituitary gland to make adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which is responsible for telling your adrenal glands to release cortisol, a primary stress hormone.
Since the body isn’t made to sustain this state of fear indefinitely, the nervous system urges it to recover when the threat subsides. Nerves in the brainstem and spinal cord signal your heartbeat and breathing to slow. Your muscles relax, and you can then rebuild your energy.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has triggered ongoing stressors that don’t resolve quickly. Because of this, we’re constantly flooded with stress hormones without the time we need to recover and leading to mental and physical exhaustion. It’s no wonder our brains are tired after the past stress-filled year.
Fortunately, there are effective ways to ease the effects of chronic stress. Although you can’t control the events around you, you can interrupt your nervous system’s stress response and spend more time in the recovery stage of the cycle.
Interrupting the stress response happens in the following three key areas.
The first step in managing chronic stress is learning how to use the body’s own calming mechanisms. A set of behavioral strategies called relaxation training can help you activate your body’s calming response. This practice can lower your heart rate and blood pressure, relieve tense muscles and headaches, and help you maintain calmer emotions.
First, signal your brain to relax with deep breathing. Controlling the pace of your respiration sends calming feedback to the brain.
Why such a long exhale? Anxiety can make you unconsciously hold your breath, leading to shallow breaths, which keeps your brain in fear mode. Long breaths out fully empty your lungs and promote a deeper inhale, which signals safety and rest to the brain.
Next, help your muscles unclench with progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). As muscles relax, your nervous system will follow suit.
Continue for five to ten minutes, with a different muscle group each time. This exercise can be very effective for reducing stress in the body but isn’t advised for those with acute or chronic pain conditions.
The human stress response isn’t only physical–your thoughts contribute, too. Where your attention goes, your emotions will follow, so moving your focus away from stressors will soothe chronic stress. You can accomplish this through mindfulness.
Mindfulness is an awareness and acceptance of your thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and environment in the present moment. When you are mindful, you’re not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, but experiencing the here and now.
To achieve mindfulness:
Remember, the goal isn’t to scold yourself for worrying or to label any of your feelings as incorrect. The goal is simply to become more aware of your thoughts. Watch them. Get curious about them. Consider yourself a scientist taking notes.
Becoming adept at mindfulness can benefit your daily life in two important ways.
First, mindfulness can help you use free time in ways that serve your mental health. We all drift toward autopilot sometimes in free moments, zoning out to social media or unproductive worrying over a problem, but these habits don’t improve mental wellbeing. Mindfulness helps you notice these patterns so you can seek healthier, more nourishing time-fillers: You might instead spend free time relaxing, napping, connecting with loved ones, exercising, or practicing a favorite hobby.
Second, mindfulness can help you shift your attention outward. Rumination and worry are very self-focused by nature. While you should care for your own needs, constant self-focus with no external outlet can make you feel worse. Mindfulness directs you toward the world beyond yourself, such as friends, neighbors, volunteer work, or a cause you believe in. This broader perspective improves mental health.
Once you’ve calmed body and mind, it’s time to take action against chronic stress. This means becoming familiar with your emotions and approaching them more intentionally.
First, engage in emotional regulation and learn to dial down the intensity of negative emotions that cause distress. Emotional regulation will help you pursue goal-directed behavior, or behavior that moves you closer to what you need or want. When your emotions trigger knee-jerk reactions, you may paradoxically sabotage your own best interests. Regulating your emotions can also help curb unhelpful or risky behaviors, such as substance abuse.
When negative emotions overwhelm you, consider implementing the practice of opposite action. This means, if a strong emotion tempts you to take one type of action, it may be best to intentionally do the opposite. For example, if your anxiety motivates you to avoid fearful situations, consider engaging with those situations head-on instead, as avoidance can sustain or even worsen the fear over the long-term. If sadness pushes you to isolate yourself, do the opposite–reach out to a friend for help. If you want to take your anger out on a coworker, make a point to keep your cool and investigate that person’s perspective.
With that in mind, managing negative emotions is only half of the solution. The other half involves cultivating positive emotions.
To encourage positive emotions, remember the ABCs:
Sometimes self-care isn’t enough. How do you know whether to manage your pandemic brain alone or seek professional help?
These signs indicate the need for professional mental health services:
If you’re experiencing any of the above signs, consider reaching out for support. A trained mental health professional can help you sort through your symptoms, challenge unhelpful thoughts, gain a new perspective, and learn mood and behavior management skills. A care provider can also help you improve your relationships, a key ingredient to mental health. Professional help can provide the structure and accountability you need to make changes for the better. It’s been a rough year–you don’t have to cope by yourself.
If you’d like help connecting with a therapist or mental health coach, Lyra can assist you. You can get started today if Lyra is offered by your employer. Sign up now.
The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Joe Grasso, PhD, is the Director of Workforce Mental Health at Lyra Health and a clinical psychologist by training. At Lyra, he consults with employers on programs, policies, and communication strategy to support mental health in the workplace, and he leads the development and delivery of Lyra’s educational content on psychological wellness and behavior change. Prior to joining Lyra, Dr. Grasso managed the implementation of a national training program for more than 1,500 mental health providers at the US Department of Veterans Affairs, where he also led quality improvement initiatives and conducted health services research. His peer-reviewed research spans topics including integrated health care, psychotherapy outcomes, and the intersection of social identities and mental health.