Tips to Help Your Pandemic Brain Bounce Back
Pandemic brain is the term used to describe difficulty concentrating and forgetfulness as a result of the coronavirus pandemic
Psychologist Dr Audrey Tang offers resilience and mood boosting tips to help your brain bounce back
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Colloquially termed the “pandemic brain” is the feeling that we can no longer focus, we are a little more forgetful, we are somehow not coping as well as we used to. Before I go further with this, if these behaviours are what you are experiencing, consider approaching your GP as while for some of us this may be related to the pressures we have been dealing with over the last 18 months, they can also be indicative of other issues such as the menopause, or even Alzheimer’s, and therefore I suggest seeking medical support not to scare you further, but to rule other things out which may need a different form of treatment.
The pandemic has affected all of us
Uncertainty is mentally and emotionally uncomfortable, and the last 18 months have certainly been uncertain.
Many have been through a great deal of sadness, loss and fear and other upheaval – including financial ruin. When loved ones were lost – sometimes the “relief” was “it wasn’t Covid”, which is hardly a true comfort, and when it came to being able to grieve and say farewell, restrictions meant that even that moment was shattered.
Neither have we had much to balance the sadness either. With weddings, christenings, parties either curtailed or cancelled/postponed there have been few opportunities to reach out and feel the warmth or a hug from our friends and families – especially if we have had to shield. And it’s just not the same to try and share in the joy of a new baby or exciting life change over an online platform – even if we’re comfortable using them! Rather than feeling OK to Great, we’ve largely been Not OK to Coping…and we’re still unsure of when it will end.
The neuroplasticity of the brain
When it comes to the descent into “pandemic brain”, we can seek solace in the brain’s neuroplasticity. What this means is the chemical balance in our brain can be altered by sustained behaviours – these can be positive or negative.
Even if we have been feeling down, and a focus on this has caused the brain to function in a certain way, changing our behaviour – through having more hugs, or exercise, getting out in the sun, practising gratitude, meditation and so on…i.e. other pursuits known to stimulate happy hormones or happy neurotransmitters – can result in more positive pathways being built, or the negative ones being dampened.
So, what are some simple things we can do to help our “pandemic brain” bounce back?
Don’t pretend “everything’s OK”
If you are feeling depressed, or anxious, try to avoid using smiling or dismissive (e.g.: “I’m fine”) behaviour to cope – it is important to acknowledge your feelings and accept that you are not “strange” or “a burden” or “just being silly”.
Stress, depression and anxiety are very real, and further to which, even if you are not at the point of diagnosis, view the negative emotions you are experiencing as a warning (like a petrol light) – that something needs to be done.
At the very least, if you find it difficult to speak to anyone, a good start is to try and find an outlet to express your feelings – some people do it through journaling, others through poetry, dance, song, music, art and so on…anything that allows you a little release of emotion can help free your mind enough to think a little more clearly about seeking help, and avoid indulging in coping methods which may cause more harm in the long term.
Learn from resilience research
Resilience research suggests that when crisis or adversity comes our way we follow one of four pathways:
- We succumb
- We survive but we might be impaired
- We bounce back (resilience)
- We thrive
Often with the latter two outcomes, the conditions that have enabled us to survive and recover may have made the necessary “changes” within ourselves or within our environment to encourage new growth and even thriving. It is certainly possible to not only bounce back after failure, but to bounce higher than before.
The key conditions to both recover and thrive include:
- Engaging in positive mood boosters (again because this can help make healthy shifts in your brain chemistry)
- Having healthy relationships
- Finding a sense of meaning in your life
As such my tips are set out under those headings – try what you enjoy, tweak what you wish, and of course, you know yourself best so use only what works for you!
Join a class or a club – something you always wanted to try, or something you always enjoyed. There you may meet like-minded people where you know it will be possible to connect on some topics of conversation
- Volunteer somewhere – this may also allow you to feel fulfilled at being able to give a little time back to the community.
- Remember that your physical health can affect your mental wellbeing. Eat, sleep and exercise – getting the blood pumping can help clear your mind. Over-indulgence can result in feeling of guilt and perhaps excess weight which can then be an additional issue to feelings of loneliness. But under-eating and a lack of sleep can also result in a lack of ability to focus or feelings of anxiety which also may not help you in forming positive connections. Simply getting out (while dressed suitably for the weather!) can help you get more vitamin D which can increase feelings of happiness and counter things such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD – often exacerbating feelings of loneliness in the winter months), and fresh air is also good for us.
- Make your bed every day! This seems like such a trivial thing to do, but not only is it an act of self care – we also spend around eight hours (a third of our day) in the bedroom, you are worth being welcome back to a straightened duvet cover. (This also goes for washing up and taking the bins out!)
- Build a “positivity reservoir”. Save images of things, people or experiences that make you smile.
Build healthy relationships
Call an old friend – randomly. If you find yourself out walking, just scroll down your contacts and give someone a call, chances are they’ll be delighted to hear from you. If you’re not quite ready to chat out of the blue, drop them a text. We do not often deliberately lose touch with people, we just don’t always find the time – and if you’re a little worried about not having been in touch, it is likely they feel just as guilty, so don’t let that stop you!
- Accept invitations – even if you are unsure if you will enjoy the event. At least you will know for next time, and you might meet other people who think the same while you are there.
- Be honest with your values – it’s OK to edit your life
Look carefully at your current relationships. Ask yourself:
- Which ones are reciprocal?
- Which ones bring me joy?
- Which ones encourage honesty?
- Which ones can I rely on?
- and most importantly: which ones are with people I respect for their own values and actions?
Then actively choose to spend time with those people (which means you can tell the ones who do not feature, quite truthfully, “Sorry, I’m busy”).
Find personal meaning
Re-connect with your authentic self. We all spend a lot of time performing adaptive roles (Professional, Partner, Child and so on…), being on your own allows you to touch base with who you are and what you love. If you want to pretend that you’re a jedi in your dressing gown, or dancing in your boxers – so be it.
- Making your living environment positive as well – photos of the people you love, or feelings of comfort in the place you like to spend time can at least help you feel good in any down-time you might get. Having at least one clear space that feels relaxing and safe can make a huge difference to how you feel.
Be effective in your self-care choices
- Recognise when you are enjoying something
- Decide if that activity energises or relaxes you
- Decide what you need – and pick from the list of things you know you enjoy
If we are feeling stressed, then something that relaxes us is going to be far more effective than something that energises us, but if we are feeling down or apathetic, then an energiser may be more useful than a relaxant.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author of new book The Leader’s Guide to Resilience