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Pandemic brain: causes and treatments

Thoughts been a little foggy lately? That's pandemic brain for you. Here's what it is and how to beat it.

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Heights
May 26, 2022
5 min read

You may have heard of the 'pandemic brain', where people have reported increased brain fog and forgetfulness since the onset of Covid-19. Maybe you've even experienced it yourself and found your focus is few and far between. If you have, don't worry, you're in the right place.

In this article, two experts discuss what it is and what you can do to feel better:

  • Cristina Escallon: Independent consultant in leadership development and culture, working with top teams of organisations around the world. 

  • Dan Murray-Serter: Co-Founder of braincare company Heights, and host of our Braincare podcast.

Article breakdown

What is a pandemic brain?

Since the start of the pandemic, people have reported difficulty thinking straight, trouble staying focused, and a weird kind of brain fog. In summer 2021, an article in The Guardian coined the term ‘pandemic brain’ to label this strange phenomenon.

It seems that the ongoing shock, uncertainty, anxiety, and isolation have taken their toll. Escallon has found that tiredness, stress, and sleep irregularities have been constant throughout the pandemic (although much higher at the beginning). Even people returning from holidays were still suffering from exhaustion due to there being no clear endpoint to the pandemic.

Symptoms of pandemic brain

Here are some symptoms you might be experiencing if you have pandemic brain:

  • Brain fog

  • Exhaustion and fatigue

  • Lack of mental sharpness

  • Sleep irregularities

  • Stress

  • Heightened emotions 

  • Depression

  • Burnout 

...now you're likely wondering 'why has it impacted me this way?' and 'how do I fix it?'. Let's dive into how the pandemic has affected our brains and how we can bounce back.

How has the pandemic is impacted our brain?

Here are two theories we can look at to consider how pandemic brain fog has come to be:

  1. The grief curve

  2. the SCARF model

1. The grief curve

The coronavirus pandemic has led to collective trauma. The experience we are all going through is similar to the grief curve.

"Coping With The 5 Stages of Grief After Losing a Pet", Dignity Pet Crematorium.

You have emotional highs at the top and emotional lows at the bottom. You would imagine that with a disaster, your emotions would go down. However, the support from friends and family around you gets you to this honeymoon period.

This is similar to the beginning of the pandemic. In the UK, people would gather to clap for the NHS which was community building. Even though people were going through a shock, this collectiveness increased resilience and gave people an emotional high.

After the short honeymoon period, we experienced a big drop when we realised that life was never going to be the same again. The result? brain fog.

In the typical grief cycle, people start the phase of reconstruction approximately a year after an incident. This period is about integrating change and accepting a new reality. 

2. The SCARF Model

David Rock, leading scholar of neuroleadership, created the acronym SCARF, to describe how the brain assesses whether it’s under threat or reward: It stands for:

  • Status

  • Certainty

  • Autonomy

  • Relatedness

  • Fairness

Our brain is in the highest state of engagement when we have SCARF, and it's suggested we can use this model to help us comprehend the impact of the pandemic.

3 out of the 5 elements the brain needs to feel safe have taken a hit since the onset of Covid-19 and resulted in brain fog during the pandemic:

1. Certainty

The brain likes to predict the future- it feels comfortable and safe in doing this. This is likely the first time in our lives where we have least been able to predict the future. 

2. Autonomy

The brain likes to exert influence over events and have a sense of agency, but for the past year the opposite has been happening.

3. Relatedness

We've been physically separated from everybody, and not been able to surround ourselves with the people we love, which has resulted in feelings of loneliness.

The different waves of the pandemic have contributed to the brain fog too. You'd think it'd get easier the more we experienced it, right? Toward the second and third waves, we had a false sense of recovery and freedom and then got locked down again. Overall, this has hit these 2 SCARF factors and led to an even foggier pandemic brain.

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How do you cope with pandemic brain?

Now let's get on to how to mend your broken pandemic brain. One small keyword might help you out massively: resilience.

We need to develop a resilience that relies on deeper psychological stamina. It should rely on your internal state rather than something external, like the government lifting the restrictions.

Resilience is often equated with strength- but this is not true. Resilience is staying grounded internally, and flexibly integrating with what is happening on the outside. This means that whatever happens, you know how to respond and stay centered.

You can increase resilience by appeasing your brain and managing your energy. Pause, take deep breaths, or go for a walk. What you want to do is slow down your heart rate and allow oxygen to flow to the prefrontal cortex. 

5 Tips to improve your pandemic brain

  1. Sleep

You should be getting at least five cycles of sleep (7.5hrs). 

2. Routine

Go to bed and wake up at the same time everyday to set your internal body clock.

3. Meditate 

4. Diet

Have a balanced, healthy diet 

5. Get outside

Go for a walk (even 20 minutes can change your day for the better). Sit outside and get some vitamin D.

By doing these things you’ll notice a change in your energy levels and overall physical and mental health.

Try to do one change at a time in order to avoid overwhelm and gradually beat the brain fog.

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