How the COVID Pandemic Changed Our Brains + How to Mentally Prepare for a Re-Opened Society & Going Back to "Normal"
In this podcast (episode #296) and blog, I talk about the impact of COVID on the brain, how we can manage COVID-related mental health struggles, and more!
A lot has changed over the past year, including our brains! Or, rather, re-shaped, since our brain is changing all the time (this is called neuroplasticity). With our mind, we experience the events and circumstances of life and build these into our brain as actual physical structures made up of proteins. Understanding this mind-brain-body connection (otherwise known as psychoneurobiology) is the key to both recognizing the effects the pandemic has had on our brain and biology and empowering ourselves to manage these changes.
But what exactly is the mind? This can be a tricky concept, so it’s best to start with what I believe, based on my practice and research, the mind is not. Your mind/consciousness is not just your brain, just as you are not just your brain. The mind is separate, yet inseparable from, the brain. The mind uses the brain, and the brain responds to the mind.
Contrary to the way we tend to speak about the mind, the brain doesn’t just produce the mind. The mind changes the brain. So, when we speak about the pandemic, we need to realize that the brain didn’t re-shape itself during the pandemic; the brain was reshaped by our mind, which was processing our individual and communal experiences of COVID-19.
I believe this is a better way to understand how the past year may have affected us. Rather than just saying “this is your brain on COVID”, we can recognize that our unique minds filter our unique experiences, and we can learn how to manage this. This gives us a sense of agency in a world that often feels like it is spinning out of control!
Indeed, there would be no conscious experience without the brain, but our experience cannot be reduced to the brain’s actions. The mind is energy; our “aliveness”. It generates energy through our thinking, feeling, and choosing. (I call this our mind-in-action.) We generate energy through our mind-in-action 24/7, and this is part of the activity we pick up using brain technologies like qEEG.
When we generate mind energy through thinking, feeling, and choosing, we build thoughts, which are physical structures in our brain. This is called neuroplasticity. In our most recent clinical trials, we saw how the energy in the brain changed as the subject thought, and this stimulated neuroplasticity, which I discuss in detail in my latest book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess. The brain responds to the person experiencing “something” with their mind (and in this discussion, the something would be the pandemic).
We need to understand that the brain is an extremely complex neuroplastic responder. Each time it is stimulated by your mind, it responds in many ways, which includes neurochemical, genetic, and electromagnetic changes. This, in turn, grows and changes structures in the brain, building or wiring in new physical thoughts. The brain is never the same because it changes with every experience we have, every moment of every day.
And the good news is that we can learn how to manage these changes through our unique thinking, feeling, and choosing (our mind-in-action). We use our mind to use our brain. We are the architects of our brain!
When we experience something as traumatic as the pandemic, it’s nice to know that, even though we can’t change that it has happened to us, we can influence what happens in us, and how it plays out in our mind, brain and body—and we can do all this with our minds!
Of course, this is easier said than done. This past year has been incredibly hard, and both individual and collective healing will take time. If you still feel anxious, worried or vulnerable, there is nothing wrong with you! These are normal human reactions to life’s challenges.
We see this in the data. Anxiety levels have dramatically increased over the pandemic, which has impacted how our brains function on a day-to-day level, especially if left unmanaged over long periods of time. In addition, the negative impact on our brains and bodies from social isolation (which is often, paradoxically, at odds with our deep need as human beings for meaningful connection), the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, the physical symptoms associated with contracting COVID, financial loss, and grief are are incredibly adverse circumstances, and anxiety and depression are normal responses to these kinds of situations, not brain malfunctions. In fact, our brains should change in response to adversity, or we wouldn’t be very good at being human!
All our experiences are wired into our brains as habits by our mind, as I mentioned above, and this takes place in cycles of around 63 days. These habits then become behavior changes. If the habits and behaviors are negative, then our mind, brain and body generate emotional and physical signals to warn us that we need to pay attention to what is happening and process what going on, or things may get worse.
Over the past year, we all have had many “toxic” pandemic experiences. (There are a quite a few 63-day cycles in a year!) This means we have had plenty of opportunity to wire negative experiences into the brain – experiences that can impact both our mental and physical health. Not only has the virus created physical changes in the brain of those who contracted it, but the toxic pandemic situations we have all experienced and our reactions to these experiences have also changed the brain and body, right down to the level of our chromosomes.
But these changes are not set in stone. As I mentioned above, there is hope. As our mind changes, our brain and body changes. And, with directed mind input, or what I call “mind-management”, we can learn how to shift these neuroplastic changes in our brain.
The mind is made up of trillions and trillions of thoughts. A thought is a real physical thing that occupies mental real estate in the brain and the mind. A thought is built into the brain as we use our mind, or as we think, feel and choose.
Thoughts look like trees in the brain. A thought itself is the concept, the big idea. Inside the thought are the embedded memories. So, a thought is made of memories, and there can be any number of memories (thousands even!) in a thought, just as there are hundreds or even thousands of branches on a tree. For example, a thought could be the fear that “I am concerned about the impact not going to school has had on my adolescent child” or “I have just graduated – there is no hope for my future!” Within this thought, there will be hundreds of memories related to the fear or concern.
Now, these are very valid thoughts about the pandemic, but if these thoughts are not processed, they can damage the brain and body, affecting the brainwaves and the oxygen and blood flow to the different parts of our brain. This, in turn, can manifest as impulsive thinking, inflexible cognition, reduced creativity, feelings of depression and anxiety, a nagging sense of dread, and so on.
The key to managing these effects is to embrace and rewire the negative thought, not suppress it or ignore it. We need to transform our fears by embracing, processing and reconceptualizing them. Otherwise, we will transmit them, and they can potentially take over our thinking and life.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of regulating our thoughts—we shouldn’t just let any random thing occupy our mental real estate. To help people learn how to do this, I have developed a 5-step system over the past 38 years based on my clinical research and practice, called the Neurocycle. I discuss it in Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess and my app Neurocycle. Moving through the steps in the sequence increases the resilience and efficiency of the brain, helping us manage and deal with negative thoughts and memories.
Using the Neurocycle, you can process trauma and reconceptualize it so that you can cope, begin healing and move forward. As you do these five steps over cycles of 63 days, you can rewire the toxic patterns you may have developed during the pandemic into healthy patterns in your brain. In fact, as you progress sequentially through the 5 steps, you are essentially driving healing energy through the brain, increasing coherence between the two sides of the brain and increasing blood flow to the front of the brain.
The five steps are:
1) Gather awareness of the emotional, physical and behavioral warning signals you are experiencing (for example, are you feeling depressed, do you have excessive heart palpitations, do you feel very withdrawn?)
2) Reflect, or get curious about what you have gathered awareness of (for instance, you would ask yourself “what does this pattern of depression look like/ how often/when/what triggers it?)
3) Write what you have gathered and reflected on in the previous two steps (just pour it all out on paper or on your device, and don’t worry about being organized or it making sense), which helps draw memories out of the depths of your consciousness
4) Recheck what you have written, organizing it to make sense of what you have put down on paper to start reconceptualizing/reimagining it (for example, how do you want this to turn out in your life?).
5) Active reach, which is a simple statement or action that sums up the work you have done in the previous four steps that anchors you in positivity as a way of moving forward. This could be something as simple as the statement “I am not depression. This does not define the whole of me. I am depressed because of what has happened to me during the pandemic and I am working on how to manage this.”
As you go through this process, remember that you won’t solve everything in one cycle. As I mentioned above, you will need to do this over at least 63 days, processing a little each day, to see any kind of sustainable change in your life. I also recommend going through this process with a therapist, counselor or trusted confidant, as other people can help us stand outside of ourselves and develop a different perspective on how to deal with our issues. Plus, we are often better at giving others advice than following our own advice!
Interestingly, a recent study from the university of Connecticut found that older adults are managing the stress of the pandemic better than younger adults and reporting less depression and anxiety despite experiencing greater concern for their health. Researchers suggest that this may be because older generations are more inclined to be satisfied with life, as they have experienced a lot already and may have a broader perspective. On the flip side, they suggest that younger people may find it more challenging to imagine a good future, even if they have more technological expertise. One other possible way of moving forward and finding healing could be to encourage people of different ages to communicate and discuss their unique experiences and expertise. Perhaps both groups could benefit and learn from each other after the pandemic!
For more on COVID and the brain, listen to my podcast (episode #296), and check in again next week for part 2 on this topic! If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).
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3:28 How our brains have changed during the pandemic
4:00 The mind-brain-body connection
5:00 Anxiety has tripled during the pandemic. What can we do?
6:15 How our experiences change our mind & brain, and what we can do about it
8:20 Why we can’t change what happens TO us but we can change what happens IN us
15:15 How get out of “stuck” thinking
20:00 How to change the mind and brain & find healing
This podcast and blog is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice. We always encourage each person to make the decision that seems best for their situation with the guidance of a medical professional.