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Pandemic brain: Why you have it (and what you can do to stop it)

Discussing how the pandemic is impacting our brains, lives, and work- and what we can do to build real resilience.

March 31, 2021
5 min read

In this Braincare Clubhouse session, we discussed the 'pandemic brain', and what you can do to feel better with expert:

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.

Study findings on the 'pandemic brain'

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

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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.

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. 

How the pandemic is impacting your brain

If you have a 'pandemic brain', you may be experiencing these symptoms:

  • Exhaustion and fatigue

  • Brain fog

  • Lack of mental sharpness

  • Sleep irregularities

  • Stress

  • Heightened emotions 

  • Depression

  • Burnout 

Escallon's study 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.

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David Rock’s SCARF Model 

The brain uses this model to assess whether it’s under threat or reward:






Escallon studies showed that people scored high in certainty, autonomy, and relatedness. Three out of the five elements the brain needs to feel safe have taken a hit with the pandemic. 

Why have these elements scored so high?

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. There are many uncertainties. We don’t know when this pandemic will end, how long the impact of the vaccines will last, when we’ll need another vaccine, if people have COVID around us, or even if we have COVID.

2. Autonomy. The brain likes to exert influence over events and have a sense of agency. For the past year, the opposite has been happening. The pandemic has been controlling lives and taking away control. Fun fact- studies show that people in care homes live longer if they are given simple choices like the color of the carpet installed in their room. By giving the brain a sense of control it is much more at peace. 

3. Relatedness. We've been physically separated from everybody, and not been able to surround ourselves with the people we love.

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The many waves of COVID-19

Why have we struggled so much during the different waves? You'd think it'd get easier the more we experienced it, right?

Think of it this way: if you were held captive and later got freed, it would be much worse getting caught again than just having been kept longer for that first time. This is what people have felt like throughout the multiple COVID-19 waves. Toward the second and third waves, we had a false sense of recovery and freedom and then got locked down again. Overall, this created more exhaustion, depression, and burnout. 

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. Can you manage your thoughts, expectations, and setbacks? That’s where you’re going to get your source of resilience. If we end up having another wave and lockdown, people need to have their internal resources set in order to draw from them. 

What is resilience? 

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. 

Tips to improve your 'pandemic brain'

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

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

  • Meditate 

  • Have a balanced, healthy diet 

  • 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.

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Try to do one change at a time in order to avoid setting yourself up for disappointment.

You can use the code "clubhouse10" for 10% off to give your brain the love it deserves.

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