The prison of pandemic brain

Coronavirus has certainly made us worry about our health at an unprecedented level. Since March 2020, the menace has only been intensifying and the second wave left our entire country shaken to the core. With the advent of vaccines, some of the fear has been alleviated but a vast majority of the population is yet to receive the jab.

In a stressful environment like this, one of the things that has caught the attention of mental health experts across the world is the pandemic brain. “We’re all walking around with some mild cognitive impairment. Based on everything we know about the brain, two of the things that are really good for it are physical activity and novelty. A thing that’s very bad for it is chronic and perpetual stress,” Mike Yassa, a neuroscientist at UC Irvine told The Atlantic.


One of the things that has changed is our habits – we’ve stopped taking public transport and started wearing masks. Even if we are living comfortably, our brains are exposed to a considerable amount of stress. Till now, there have been very few studies conducted on the impact of coronavirus on cognitive function. There’s not been much time for that.


According to some people, the pandemic experience can feel similar to swimming against a strong current. People are finding it difficult to get up from their sofa and reach their dining table. “I have been waking up with an increased level of grogginess. It’s like a permanent brain fog that keeps me from functioning optimally,” Paras Gupta, an advertising professional based in Bengaluru told us.


What is brain fog?


In an interview with HelloGiggles, psychiatrist Dr. Leela R. Magavi said, “Research indicates that burnout and chronic stress could potentially stimulate and enlarge the amygdala (the fear center of the brain), thin the prefrontal cortex, which is used during cognitive functioning, and weaken the connections in the brain that are responsible for memory and creativity.”


With the coronavirus restricting us to our homes, our physical activity has reduced. When we step out, we meet more people and have more novel experiences. In a 1960 study, neuroscientist Marian Dormand proved that rats who are given things to play with perform better at mazes compared to rats who are given no stimulation.


In a pandemic situation, we are more concerned with surviving than thriving. Our brains are exhausted, our bodies are suffering and our lives are just dragging along.


How do we guard against this?


Two things that can hold you in good stead are meditation and exercise. Yes, it’s difficult to exercise when you’re depressed and that’s probably the oldest advice ever given. Still, taking baby steps to give your body more activity can’t be emphasized enough.


According to a study published in Neurological Sciences, physical exercise seemed to be a valid line of defense against pandemic brain. Along with releasing happy hormones, it also increases your brain’s neuroplasticity which is useful against degenerative diseases.


Even meditation can help. If you struggle to concentrate or meditate on your own, you can try listening to guided meditations on YouTube. They help you unwind after a long day spent in front of your screen and give your brain the necessary downtime and rest. If you are suffering from anxiety and depression, meditation can help. “Meditation can help us embrace our worries, our fear, our anger; and that is very healing. We let our own natural capacity of healing do the work,” spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh had said.


Looking forward


Not too long away from now, we’ll be free to spend our Saturday nights in a bar and go on a flight without getting tests done. We’ll be able to invite more people at our functions and shake hands again without reaching for our sanitizers. Our brains would have been a little damaged by incessant stress by then, but we’ll still be grateful for having survived one of mankind’s darkest times. As we gain more novel experiences, our brains would recover from the fog that envelops it at the moment.


Till then, we must practice patience and resilience.


References:

  1. Late-Stage Pandemic Is Messing With Your Brain (The Atlantic)

  2. ‘Pandemic Brain’ Is Real—And It Explains Why You Can’t Focus (Glamour)

  3. Physical exercise effects on the brain during COVID-19 pandemic: links between mental and cardiovascular health (Neurological Sciences)