Deciding when and how to pivot your business may be the difference between bankruptcy and survival. Putting that mask on, or not, could keep you or someone you love out of the hospital. With stakes so high, you'd think that evolution would have pushed our brains to be sharper about making decisions during a crisis. But for most of us the pandemic hasn't left us feeling any smarter.
On the contrary, many people are feeling fuzzy-headed and emotionally fragile at the moment. Frantically trying to figure out how to keep our heads above water despite the huge changes in our lives is one obvious reason for that. But according to Insead neuroscientist Hilke Plassmann, the trouble goes deeper.
You're not just sleep deprived and stressed, you're experiencing the effects of very real brain changes brought on by the trauma and uncertainty of the pandemic. In a recent Insead Knowledge article, written together with her Insead colleague Benjamin Kessler, Plassmann dubs the phenomenon "Covid brain" and explains its physiological roots:
In times like these, our brains tend to work differently. The prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for complex planning, working memory, and analytical thinking, is swamped with ambiguous signals, impacting our decision-making abilities. Meanwhile, the brain scours its long-term memory systems for comparable experiences. Finding few precedents for this pandemic, it looks intently outward for guidance on what to do next.
The combination of impaired analytical thinking and heightened external sensitivity creates what can be called "Covid-19 brain"--a fragile, frazzled state that keeps our thoughts simultaneously on edge and unfocused.
If that sounds familiar, you can at least take comfort that you're not alone and you're not imagining things. Your brain really is struggling at the moment, and a couple of extra naps won't solve the problem (though they certainly wouldn't hurt).
What will? Time and self-compassion are essential, but in the meantime Plassmann offers three ways to start feeling more clear-headed:
1. Rethink your stress
A whole body of research shows that generally it's not our stress that harms us. It's how we think about our stress. If you expect your body's natural response to a challenge to be harmful, then it will be. If you conceptualize stress as a helpful adaptation to dealing with tough times, it causes less mental and physical harm. According to Plassmann, this is especially true during a pandemic.
"Regarding stress as a catalyst for positive change rather than a threat, for example, can promote clearer thoughts and keep negative emotions at bay," she says.
2. Chill out with the right tunes
Many of us instinctively use music to regulate our moods and calm our thinking. This makes scientific sense. The right tunes really do chill your brain out.
"Something as simple as listening to music can restore our equilibrium. Indeed, one study linked emotions induced through music to activity in brain networks that are essential for generation and regulation of emotions. Playing music in the background while working can also bolster productivity in times of stress by sustaining mental attention and sharpening focus," Plassmann says.
What kind of music is best? This column gets into the details.
Ugh, you might be groaning, not yet another expert nagging me to try mindfulness meditation. But the reason so many people recommend the practice is because a mountain of research shows it works. In the article, Plassmann goes into detail about how meditation affects your brain, but the basic lesson is this: "Exercises such as focusing on breathing can help regulate brain activity at will."
The benefits of adopting all these Covid brain-busting strategies may even outlast the current crisis. "It is worth devoting conscious attention to developing healthy mental habits, with the knowledge that it will only get easier with time," Plassmann concludes.