Krise to Go #9

KRISE TO GO #9 — The „Pandemic Brain“
Observations and challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic by the research group inequality and digital sovereignty

You feel drained, exhausted and dizzy. Your legs hurt, even though you only walked two-hundred steps today. In the night you can’t come to rest, in the morning you can’t get out of bed. The white light of your computer screen is always on, to the extent that it’s replaced your room lamp when it’s dark outside. Your dining table has become a hybrid between workstation and dish rack. To-do lists of every kind pile up in between cups with dried tea bags. These lists include simple tasks like “shave your legs”, “bring the trash out” and “answer e-mail”, just because you like the satisfaction of crossing something out and because you can’t really rely on your memory capacity anymore. Your concentration span is shorter than a toothpick and you forget the question someone asked you before you even start with the answer. Your brain seems to float in a dense fog, disoriented and inert.

This brain fog is also called “pandemic brain”. Our brain – clever as it is – adapted to the new situation of the pandemic. Seeing as our daily routines were completely disrupted and the level of constant risk and anxiety rose, our brain had to find ways to cope with these major changes. Unfortunately change due to long-term stressors causes our cognition to suffer, leading to our behavior being less efficient for our overall health. But what exactly happened to our brain structures?

The brain consists of different units, each performing different tasks. Researchers believe that “when one part of the brain is engaged, other parts may not have as much energy to handle their own vital tasks.” So when we are stressed, several parts of the brain are activated and hormones sent out for us to navigate the situation efficiently. When the situation has passed, our brain and hormones return to a normal level. But when we are constantly under some level of stress, the going-back-to-normal-part is disturbed and the energy of the brain is not distributed evenly, causing brain structures to change over longer periods of time.

The prefrontal cortex, for example, is the part of the brain that handles higher-order tasks. Complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making and moderating social behavior are processed in this part of the brain. „The prefrontal cortex shows less activity when one is under stress. And so we become more error-prone, find rational thinking harder, decisions too complicated to process.”

The release of a lot of stress hormones into the prefrontal cortex also lessens the number of connections to the amygdala, the part of the brain that governs the survival instinct. It is especially activated when you find yourself in stressing, dangerous or emotionally taxing situations. The prefrontal cortex partly controls the amygdala, bringing in a more rational voice to moments of distress. With the connections decreasing, this control is also lessened, which leads to the amygdala being more active. Emotional answers like fear and anxiety can run unchecked, once again a stressful and draining state for the body to be in. Stress „keeps our mind vigilant and our nervous system vigilant, and that uses more energy,“ says Elissa Epel, a psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco.

After two years living in a constant environment of both visible and invisible threat, the numerous parts of the brain adapted, like the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. Not only the virus itself but also job insecurity, housing and financial constrains result in long periods of stress and anxiety. Future studies have to further investigate these first findings on how the pandemic impacted our brain.

The good news is that our brain is very plastic and very capable of repair. As it went into this direction, it can also return to the way it was. Being in this weird state is a normal reaction to the past two years, with the pandemic experience being different for everybody. According to Emma de Conga “long-term resilience will be the most common outcome” and the brain fog will eventually pass as the pandemic passes. Next to waiting around for that to happen, there are a few things you can do to speed up the process.

Jennifer Payne, Director of Johns Hopkins‘ Women’s Mood Disorders Center reminds us of things that are always useful in stressful times: getting enough sleep, a bit of movement, healthy foods and relaxing activities. Being social and interacting with people can especially help ease the stress, even if it feels unfamiliar at first. When the struggle becomes too much to carry by yourself, there is nothing wrong in reaching out to a friend, co-worker or professional. We’re all in need of a little extra support these days, no matter where it comes from. We have to treat ourselves with patience, acceptance and self-compassion, since this situation has already been taking much longer than expected and probably will linger around for a while. “Remember that returning to previous levels of functioning may take time,” says Dr. Bryan, a clinical psychologist. “Pace yourself and be kind to yourself in the process. You will get there.”