It feels like brain fog has crept in everywhere we turn, and that we’re looking at our lives through a hazy lens. We’re feeling unmotivated, having trouble concentrating, needing a beat or two to recall why we walked into a room, and we can’t seem to finish a task within the same time frame that we used to.
And trust me when I say you’re not alone! Many people are struggling with the emotional long-haul of the pandemic which mental health professionals are calling “pandemic brain”, caused by living through the ongoing stress of a global health emergency.
To better understand the Pandemic Brain we need to first understand the stress response in our brain.
How the brain responds to stress
The stress response begins in the brain when faced with any sort of threat, the eyes or ears (or both) send information to the amygdala, the area that contributes to emotional processing, which triggers the hypothalamus that acts like a command center, this area communicates with the rest of the body through the autonomic nervous system which has two components, the sympathetic nervous system, which triggers the fight-or-flight response, providing the body with a burst of energy so that it can respond to perceived dangers, and the parasympathetic nervous system that promotes the “rest-and-digest” response that calms the body down after the danger has passed.
When the amygdala sends distress signals, the hypothalamus activates the fight-or-flight mode by sending signals through the autonomic nerves to the adrenal glands which respond by pumping cortisol, a primary stress hormone. Normally, the parasympathetic nervous system that promotes the rest-and-digest response urges the body to calm after the danger has passed. However, the pandemic has triggered ongoing stressors without the time needed to recover, which led to mental and physical fatigue. That’s why many of us are experiencing unpleasant cognitive challenges like forgetfulness, lack of motivation and brain fog.
The basic idea according to Dr. Ressler at Harvard Health Publishing is that “the brain is shunting it’s resources because it’s in survival mode, not memory mode, this is why you might be more forgetful when you are under stress or may even experience memory lapses during traumatic events”.
A recent poll published by CAMH found that 50% of Canadians reported worsening mental health since the pandemic began with many feeling worried (44%) and anxious (41%). Similar results were found in a survey of Canadian workers, where 81% reported that the pandemic is negatively impacting their mental health, indicating a significant drop in overall worker mental health since the beginning of Covid-19. This impact on mental health played a main role in the lack of motivation most of us have been feeling.
Languishing & lack of motivation as a result
Feeling stuck in a limbo and life seems overwhelming yet not engaging enough. “It’s not burnout - we still have energy. It’s not depression - we don’t feel hopeless. We just feel somewhat joyless and aimless.” as Adam Grant put it, describing what some of us have been experiencing in the last few months in addition to the motivation paralysis; languishing.
Languishing is a sense of ennui, apathy, and loss of interest in life according to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, which seems to be the dominant feeling of 2021. We’ve been doing this pandemic thing for so long, we forgot how to be normal. Covid-19 has dragged on so many of life’s challenges that people were not prepared for; job loss, isolation, worrying about family members. And with that comes the intense grief and fear that have negatively affected many people’s mental health and created new barriers for people already suffering from mental illness.
When we lose interest in life it directly affects our motivation, as motivation involves associating an activity with a reward; whether it’s a paycheck, a vacation after a busy quarter or anything you treat yourself to. Covid-19 took all of that away from us, people lost their jobs, travelling was banned, family gatherings were not allowed and so on, and now that things are moving towards normal again we still seem to be stuck. So what can we do?
While we can’t make it all go away with a finger snap, there’s some actionable ways to ease and cope with this mental malaise and promote mental health resilience. However, if you suffer from mental health illness, self-care might not be enough and seeking professional help is vital.
Mindfulness as a coping mechanism
Lifting yourself out of those unpleasant feelings is building resilience. The key is to interrupt your feelings of despair or brain fog with an action like calming the body and the brain by bringing attention to the breath and controlling it:
Through this breathing exercise we are focusing our attention on the present moment, and we are being mindful of our breath that becomes shallow and short when we’re feeling stressed or anxious, this shallow breath leads to tense muscles and physical discomfort, so relaxing the body through deep breathing is the first step.
Second step is practicing mindfulness to create a mindset shift by focusing on the here and now:
Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. We do so by focusing on the body's sensation and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgement.
But why, exactly, does the ability to stay focused on the present in a non-judgmental way promote emotional regulation?
Studies by Medical School professor Jon Kabat Zinn on meditation have shown that brains can be changed through sustained engagement in mindfulness practices. At the core of all these experiments is emotional regulation which promotes resilience, as those who practice mindfulness can better cope with difficult thoughts and emotions without becoming overwhelmed and shutting down emotionally; “Pausing and observing the mind may help us resist getting drawn into wallowing in a setback.”
Being resilient is having the ability to cope with adversity and self-regulate emotions and that is a powerful tool in fighting pandemic brain. Additional research has found that a mindfulness practice promotes self—compassion, which increases happiness and advances well-being.
The thinking-feeling cycle is vicious. It’s all connected to the overwhelming stress we feel, and learning how to break this cycle is something mindfulness meditation can help you do.
There are so many ways to practice mindfulness, some of them include:
But I get it, some days we don’t have enough time to sit around and meditate. Fortunately, mindfulness can be applied to anything you’re doing throughout your day. Whether you’re drinking your coffee in the morning, preparing your desk for work, or making your lunch. All you have to do is to focus on the task at hand and the sensations it gives you. Our minds wander all the time but try to make some effort to bring back your attention to what you are doing and be present.
When to seek Professional Help
It’s important to take a close look at your day-to-day life to see how you are really doing. The pandemic took a toll on all of us but sometimes venting to a friend is not enough, and healthy coping strategies like the ones described in this post don’t help. If that’s the case, then here’s some questions to ask yourself:
Take some time to reflect and remember you’re not alone, there’s so many people out there who can help you. If you think it’s time to seek professional help you can Contact LAYLA to connect you with a therapist.
We know it’s been tough, and the LAYLA team is here to help.