This Is How The Pandemic Changed Our Brains, From A Neuroscientist
A lot has changed over the past year—including the structure and shape of our brains. Understanding this mind-brain-body connection (aka psychoneurobiology) is the key to both recognizing the effects the pandemic has had on our biology, and empowering ourselves to manage these changes.
First and foremost, it's helpful to understand the difference between the mind and the brain. Our minds are responsible for experiencing the events and circumstances of our lives. The brain, then, takes that information and builds it into physical structures made of proteins. So, in essence, the experiences of our minds reshape our brains—not the other way around. (I explain the difference between the mind and the brain in full, here.)
How the pandemic changed our brains.
As we processed the individual and collective experiences of the pandemic, our brains were being reshaped by them. In my opinion, this is a more useful way of understanding 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 cope with the changes.
Anxiety levels have dramatically increased, which has impacted how our brains function on a day-to-day level—especially if left unmanaged over long periods of time. This is not to mention the negative impact on our brains and bodies from social isolation, uncertainty, physical COVID-19 symptoms (for those who contracted it), financial loss, grief, and more—these are incredibly adverse circumstances, and our brains are designed to change in response to adversity.
Even though we can’t change the fact we experienced something as traumatic as the pandemic, it's nice to know that we can change how it plays out in our mind, brain, and body. Yes, 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.
All of our experiences are wired into our brains as habits, which become behavior changes. If those habits and behaviors are negative, then the mind, brain, and body will generate emotional and physical warning signs: signaling the need to pay attention to what is happening, or things may get worse.
Throughout the pandemic, we've had plenty of opportunities to wire negative experiences into the brain, which can impact both our mental and physical health—but these changes are not set in stone. With directed mind input (what I call “mind-management"), we can learn how to shift and direct these neuroplastic changes in our brain.
How to cope with the changes.
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. Here are some ways we can start doing this:
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 five-step system for changing your brain (aka the Neurocycle), based on my clinical research and practice over the course of 38 years. 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. (To learn about the five steps, listen to my mbg podcast episode or read my book Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess, where I discuss them in full.)
Using this system, you can process trauma and re-conceptualize it so you can cope, begin healing, and move forward. Just remember, you won’t solve everything in one cycle. In my experience, it takes at least 63 days to form a habit, so be patient and consistent. By processing a little each day, you will create 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.
We are only beginning to understand the brain’s incredible capacity to change and heal. In my work with people who had traumatic brain injuries and Alzheimer’s, I found that using the five-step Neurocycle system was significantly effective in improving memory, cognitive, emotional and social functioning.
Brain-building is like eating a healthy diet: We need to use our mind to build or “feed” our brain regularly. By doing this, we make the brain more resilient and healthy with new and challenging information that is well “digested."
For example: You could do this by reading a small section of something you are interested in, reflecting on it, writing down what this reflection means, comparing it back to the original text to see if you have understood correctly (and editing if need be), then explaining it out loud to make sure you understand it. You would repeat these five steps until the article or chapter is completed.
Older generations helping younger people.
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 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.
Perhaps by encouraging people of different ages to communicate and discuss their unique experiences and expertise, we could find collective healing. Both groups could benefit and learn from each other post-pandemic!
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Caroline Leaf, Ph.D, BSc, is a communication pathologist and cognitive neuroscientist, specializing in cognitive and metacognitive neuropsychology. She received her masters and Ph.D. in communication pathology, as well as a BSc in logopaedics from the University of Cape Town and the University of Pretoria in South Africa.
During her years in clinical practice and her work with thousands of underprivileged teachers and students in her home country of South Africa and in the USA, she developed a theory about how we think, build memory, and learn (called the Geodesic Information Processing theory). The learning process has been turned into a tool for individuals with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), learning disabilities (ADD, ADHD), autism, dementias and mental ill-health issues like anxiety and depression.
Leaf is author of Switch on Your Brain, Think Learn Succeed, Think and Eat Yourself Smart, and Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess. She teaches at academic, medical and neuroscience conferences, churches, and to various audiences around the world. Dr. Leaf is also involved in the global ECHO movement, which trains physicians worldwide on the mind-brain-body connection, mental health and how to avoid physician burnout.