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What Happens to Your Brain In a Pandemic

It’s been two years since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and oof, does it feel like it. Even though there appears to (maybe, possibly, hopefully) be some light at the end of the tunnel thanks to vaccine rollouts and increased levels of immunity, there’s no denying that the last 24 months have taken their toll on our physical and mental wellbeing. In terms of the latter, many words come to mind (stressful, draining, dumpster fire), but how exactly has the pandemic impacted our brains? And what will our cerebrums look like when this is all over? We reached out to some brain experts to find out.

We’re more anxious

Remember when we were all wiping down our groceries? And panic-buying toilet paper? It was…not fun. And even though we now have a better sense of how the virus can spread (ahem, not through that carton of milk you picked up at the store), navigating how to work, travel and socialize in these pandemic times has been difficult. So yeah, it’s no surprise that our anxiety levels have skyrocketed over the last two years. But perhaps what’s less obvious is the impact of all this angst and tension…and what we can do about it.

“The pandemic has casted a giant spell of uncertainty on all of us,” says Moshe Bar, a neuroscientist and author of Mindwandering: How Your Constant Mental Drift Can Improve Your Mood and Boost Your Creativity. “Living in a constant state of uncertainty breeds anxiety and can even lead to depression,” he adds. And that’s not all. “Chronic stress and anxiety…promote inflammation, which in turn is a risk factor for dementia,” says molecular neuroscientist Dr. Tracey Evans.

Ready for some good news? Bar notes that being aware of this effect (i.e., how the pandemic is making you more anxious than is normal) can go a long way towards diminishing its consequences. But more on that below.

Our creativity has suffered

Aside from the obvious negative emotional aspects of anxiety, another byproduct of this unpleasant feeling is that it takes away from our other mental capabilities.

“It is a zero-sum game, and if a significant part of your brain is constantly grinding on worries then there is much less left for other capabilities such as memory, attention and even creative thinking,” notes Bar. “In fact, a loaded mind is not only less creative, but it is also less able to appreciate the qualities of things that occur around us, from listening to your daughter’s story to the beauty of a piece of art.”

In other words, all that time you spend worrying about transmission rates and masking guidelines means that there’s less space in your brain to think about the good stuff, whether that be finishing that novel you’ve been working on or feeling grateful for a warm spring day.

There are less neurons being formed in our brains

While many of us have been able to ease up on social distancing restrictions recently (thank you, vaccines!), there’s no denying that the pandemic has kept many of us isolated from other people. And this is bad news for your brain cells. “Keeping company is not only beneficial for our mood and intellectual engagement, but it is, perhaps surprisingly, directly encouraging the growth of new brain cells (neurons) in our brains,” explains Bar. “By spending less time with friends and family, we are deprived of such ‘neurogenesis.’”

Indeed, people who feel lonely and disconnected from others (something many of us have struggled with over the last two years) have been shown to have faster rates of cognitive decline than people who don’t feel lonely, the scientists at Harvard Medical School tell us.

The brain fog is real

Here’s the thing about stress—a little bit of it is actually not necessarily a bad thing (think: a deadline that pushes you to succeed or facing a fear and the feeling of accomplishment afterwards). But high levels of stress over time can have a detrimental effect on how we function and on our wellbeing. Enter: brain fog. “One effect that [the longterm stress of the pandemic] has had on many people is brain fog, which can lead to fatigue, finding it difficult to think and cognitive inefficiency,” says neuro-psychologist Alexander Burgemeester. “This makes it much more difficult to pay attention and solve problems, as well as complete daily tasks. It can make lots of things seem much more challenging, as the emotional center of the brain becomes activated, interfering with our ability to think clearly.”

That might explain why, pre-pandemic, you were able to wake up, work out, shower, do your hair and makeup and prep your lunch all before 8:30 a.m., but now you struggle to even put a clean pair of sweatpants on in the morning (just us?). If things feel harder these days, that’s because they are.

So…what can we do about it?

“The good thing about the brain is that it is incredibly plastic, which means it is changeable and can compensate for damage,” cardiologist Dr. Sanul Corrielus tells us. “Even serious conditions such as memory loss and depression can be improved by doing things that alter brain function and its chemistry,” he adds. Phew.

So what type of things can help us get our pandemic brains back into shape? Unsurprisingly, exercise and mindfulness are two of the big ones. “My own ways for fending off the negative effects of these irregular times have been primarily running (another great vehicle for mood and the growth of new neurons) and meditation, which requires much less investment than novices seem to believe,” says Bar.

Indeed, both exercise and mindfulness are about staying in the present moment—something that is unsurprisingly more beneficial to our health than looking back (“Oh no, did I forget to sanitize after opening that door?”) or fretting forward (“What if another variant comes along?”).

“Studies have shown beneficial functional and structural changes in the brain’s prefrontal cortex (involved in planning and decision making), hippocampus and amygdala following mindfulness training,” adds Dr. Corrielus.

Another way to help our brains in these troubled times is to seek out help from a licensed professional. “Therapy can support people in learning skills to better manage pandemic-induced anxiety so they can activate their parasympathetic nervous system response, which brings them out of ‘fight or flight’ and into a more ‘rest and digest’ way of being,” explains Talkspace therapist Minkyung Chung. “The pandemic put the whole world off kilter and left us scrambling to try and make sense of the aftermath. It takes time to readjust and rebalance ourselves. Learning healthier coping skills and readjusting our expectations of how to live a ‘normal’ life will help to manage and decrease levels of anxiety.”

But if therapy isn’t an option, another way to counteract the effects of the pandemic on your brain is to ensure that you have a strong support system around you. “Support systems can and will look different for everyone–whether it’s a close friend, family member, support group or mental health clinician, it’s important to find someone you feel comfortable opening up to during challenging times,” says Dr. Anisha Patel-Dunn, psychiatrist and Chief Medical Officer at LifeStance Health.

Unfortunately we can’t predict what the rest of 2022 will bring, and as we now know, uncertainty can cause anxiety, brain fog and other challenging emotions. Getting some exercise, trying to stay present with things like meditation and mindfulness and having someone you can talk to are all good strategies to have in your pandemic toolbox. Your brain will thank you for it.