Are you suffering from “Pandemic Brain”?


In this Tougher Minds podcast, Dr. Jon Finn explains why changes to our lives and work, created by the pandemic, have had negative impact for many people.

There are widespread reports of people experiencing poor mental health, poor wellbeing and extreme stress.

But Dr. Jon explains that the solution to these significant challenges is to begin building new helpful habits.

He also explains how we can all start to do this in a practical way.

You can listen to this Tougher Minds podcast on your platform of choice. Subscribe for instant access to the latest episode.

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Podcast Transcription

Host Andrew Whitelam

Welcome to another Tougher Minds podcast. I’m Andrew Whitelam and I’m joined by Tougher Minds founder, Dr. Jon Finn. Hi there, john. Hi, Andrew. Now, Jon, today we’re talking about the pandemic brain. And that’s a phrase that’s appeared in the media and people have been discussing it. And it describes what people have experienced during the Covid 19 pandemic. They say they’ve suffered a major mental deterioration, if you like, their cognitive ability, their well being has suffered, and they’re feeling extreme stress. And of course, all this has had a negative impact on their life and work. Now, the pandemic brain has been described as people feeling distracted, unfocused, unable to think straight and feeling overwhelmed as well. So Jon, why have the changes to our lives that undoubtedly were created by the pandemic? Why have they brought about these feelings and these negative mental consequences for so many people in our society and communities?

Dr. Jon Finn
Yeah, I think it is important to say that it is for many people, but not everybody, and there’s a continuum of how people are failing, some people have created a really positive balance in their life. But it’s almost like on a continuum, some people are doing better, some people are doing much worse than they were before the pandemic. I think for those who are doing worse, the first thing we have to understand is what the lockdown situation is……..the changes have brought about what we do in our daily lives. And very quickly into lockdown, people were reporting problems with sleep, they’re doing less exercise, their eating habits are changing. And actually, this is all about habits. So everyone in lockdown had to change their habits, some people built more helpful habits. Some people built lots of unhelpful habits. And the challenge we know is that when we stop sleeping properly, when we stop exercising properly, when we stop eating properly, our brain stops working properly. And we’ve talked a lot for a long time with Tougher Minds about how this impacts the hippocampus area of the brain. These are the only sites in the human brain we understand that produce new brain cells. If you have a pet dog, dogs also have this in their nose as well, because it’s a centre of learning. And you can actually quantify that when your brain is working well. And let’s say just in a bout of exercise, it releases – scientists think – about 700 new neural stem cells. We have about 100 billion neurons in our brain. But a bout of exercise releases about 700 new neurons stem cells. We can use these cells to help us to build new habits to think in different ways. And one of the problems is when we’re not producing lots of new brain cells, it’s easy to get sucked into cycles and spirals of negative thinking. Because you just get fixated on the worry, and the threat and the problem. And you don’t have the new brain cells to be able to like to step back and put perspective on that and think about it in a different way. So just the fact that we were constrained pretty much to our home apart from doing a little bit….. of having the opportunity……and a little bit of exercise and maybe going to the supermarket means that for many people sleep, diet and exercise, which are all interconnected. If you don’t exercise enough today, it’ll be harder to sleep tonight. And I think sleep is almost the most important of those three, if you didn’t sleep well last night, chances are you’d be less likely to exercise as much as is optimal for you, chances are you’ve been more likely to eat the wrong kind of food that is not good for you.

Dr. Jon Finn
And what we know is the more we practice these patterns of behaviour, in other words, habits, the better we get at them. So if we practice not sleeping, well, we get better at it. We practice eating the wrong food to get better at it. We practice particular exercise patterns – like not not doing much exercise at all – apart from maybe walking around the house, that’s what we get in the habit of doing and it becomes easy for our brain to do all those things. That’s our point of habit. So therefore we just default to the easiest behaviour. And then when we’re trying to think cleverly and clearly and do focused work, it becomes difficult because the brain, the Alive Perceived Energy brain is running the show and it’s just on the constant lookout for quick wins in terms of short term gratification. Of course, we all know if we want to do the type of work that makes us feel like we’ve made progress at the end of the day, which is clever focused work, we need to delay our short term gratification, turn the phone off, don’t check the emails every few minutes to give ourselves an opportunity. So it’s almost the perfect storm, I think. But in very simple terms. For many, many people have developed lots of really unhelpful habits in the lockdown period, because we get good at what we practice ultimately.

Andrew Whitelam 
And so just just to briefly digress you use the term then pandemic brain. And pandemic brain is quite useful because it describes the effect on our brain neurobiologically. And, and alludes to the consequences of that.

Dr. Jon Finn

Yes, people’s brains have been changed. And this is the thing. And what we do know is, our brain is changing all the time, because our brain is made up of about 100 billion neurons, and it changes in accordance with what you practice. Now humans are designed to prioritise staying alive, thinking about how we’re perceived by important people and saving energy. And we’ve got a set of instinctive habits that drive up behaviour. And that these habits are things like worrying and beating ourselves up and procrastinating and giving into temptation, and taking the shortcut. And the pandemic context made it easier for those habits to become more dominant. They’re like little infections that – if left unchecked – they take over your brand. And if we want to get rid of them, we’ve got to change our brain in a different way, by practising a different set of things. But the types of things that we need to practice to rewire what is maybe now for you, your pandemic, brain, are much more difficult to do. So developing the pandemic brain was a bit like eating more Doughnuts or watching more Netflix, and there may have been some other things you were doing. But changing our brain to build better sleep, diet and exercise habits, to be able to do more bouts of focused work, think more cleverly, is going to be a bit more like doing that training to do a 10k or something, it’s going to take some effort, it’s going to require delayed shots and gratification. But if we persist with it, we will re-establish more of our healthful habits.

Andrew Whitelam 
Now we’re going to come on to exactly how we can respond in more detail to some of these challenges and problems in a few moments. So we’ll deal with that. But just a couple of other specific things. What you’ve described, I guess, is – basically in common parlance – stress in another form, people have been stressed during the pandemic, I’m sure. So how does stress affect us then? And what are the negative consequences of stress for our bodies and our brains?

Dr. Jon Finn

So let’s think about what stress is. It’s a neurobiological response. And it’s a natural response that happens in everyone’s brain. Stress happens, because what you expect to happen, doesn’t happen. So I don’t expect my boss to send me an email like that. I don’t expect my partner would say good morning to me, give me a smile when I see them first thing in the morning. I don’t expect someone to get really close to me in the supermarket. You know, when I’m doing my shopping, expect them to respect the two metre rule. And stress doesn’t only have to be about things that have actually happened. We have a predictive brain, and our brain all the time is projecting into the future, what’s going to go on, and of course, what’s happened and what still is happening in the pandemic is just huge levels of uncertainty.

And this has been fueled by the attention economy. So people are publishing news stories, almost every five minutes about what might happen, and what the potential consequences might be. And this is just, like, come there, for our brain wants this. This only wants to be aware of this uncertainty because it wants to be aware of what problems might emerge in the future, and what are the threats I’m gonna have to deal with in the future. So we’ve got this, this brain is a threat detection machine, our dominant brain, and we’ve just been primed with lots of real stressors…..like that person getting too close to me, or potential stressors during this period of time, lots of what we call disconnections of meaning systems, firing up the stress response. Now, as I said, stress is a natural response. But if we stay in stress states for too long, it starts to, in very simple terms, damage our brain, things like we get too much cortisol in our brain, and that’s damaging for brain function and brain structure. And the brain….the APE Brain……the stress centres, if you like the limbic regions, they also take over every other site in the brain. So people say, for example, when they’re stressed, I just can’t think clearly. And that’s because the part of our brains we used to think clearly with, if you like, is our prefrontal cortex, but the APE brain takes over everything. So again, the pandemic has been this perfect storm, to create stress responses in people’s brains. And one stress plus another stress, in the maths of stress, doesn’t necessarily equal two stresses very quickly, we can find ourselves with one stress plus one stress equaling 27 stresses. And then this is going on day after day after day. Of course, the first thing that we need to do to manage stress is sleep well, exercise properly, and eat properly. But of course, when we’re feeling stressed, we sleep worse. We don’t exercise, and we don’t eat well. So that’s the challenge that we face, and no doubt for many people. Again, it’s been a perfect storm.

Dr. Jon Finn
It’s great to understand the complexity of that. And I think it will certainly help people, Jon. And another consequence of the pandemic, of course, has been enforced remote working for many people. Indeed, it was perhaps law at one point I can’t quite remember, it WAS certainly a government directive. And a consequence of that, of course, increased social isolation. So why does that affect us negatively? And why can it be also unhelpful and damaging for work and life?

Andrew Whitelam
Well, we are social, and were designed to work in teams. Or all, we’ve got really good at working in teams. And that’s how our brains are wired. So if we just think about Homo sapiens as a species, they are phenomenal at working in teams. And our ability to do that helped us to survive and thrive on the planet. And if you think…. If you go back to the early man on the Savannah plan, and you think about the other animals that were around at that time – big and dangerous – humans were not the fastest, or the strongest. Humans unique survival advantage was our ability to work intelligently in teams. And this relates to the P in APE, which stands for perceived. And we are innately wired to be mindlessly concerned by what other people think about important people in our lives. So think about social status, we’ve seen this dramatic rise of social media over the last 10 years or so that’s all fueled by showing people how great you are. And we have a part in our brain that drives this desire to be liked by all the important people in our lives. And this part of our brain is actually wired into the parts of our brain that tells us we were thirsty and hungry. So being part of a team, a group is absolutely fundamental to what it is to be human. And there are some studies emerging that show that isolation is just as damaging for our health as some of the most damaging things we understand, like smoking and too much alcohol consumption, etc. So I think just fundamentally , if you have been forced to be in isolation, because you don’t have a family and you live by yourself, the problem is that you’re actually designed to be around other people. Even if it’s just, you know, going to the coffee shop every day and engaging with those people in the coffee shop. That’s been a really important part of your mental health and that gets taken away. So yes, it is problematic and the extended challenge is that obviously, we’ve moved to a world of remote communication, video conferencing, if it’s just not the same when you do that. Because the technology in our brain, if you want to think of it like that, allows us to communicate with people and read other people’s emotions. And I’m sure neurobiologically get all the benefits of being in other people’s company, that just doesn’t work as well, when you’re not in person. You know, so you get these sort of delayed feeds on video conferencing, you’re not really looking people in the eye and tend to have tripped over each other’s sentences, because it’s just a much clumsier interaction. They’re just not as neurobiologically satisfied. So, yeah, it’s a good point, and I think many people have suffered. But I suppose that the positive thing is that it highlights how important it is to be part of groups and communities, and we need to make sure that’s a staple, you know, in our lives going forward.

Andrew Whitelam
Okay, so we’ve seen a very detailed analysis from you there Jon, we’ve looked into that, and I think many people will recognise some of the things you allude to, and now they know the root causes, how can we respond to these problems? We’re starting to see hopefully, now a pathway out of the pandemic. So what can we do about these things?What actions can we take to start feeling better? I suppose

Dr. Jon Finn

Yes, well, we need to adopt the mindset of becoming Habit Mechanics, because this is going to be about building new habits. The quick tips and tricks are not going to cut it here because they don’t change your behaviour.

Andrew Whitelam
That sort of thing where you might read an article saying “10 things you can do on a daily basis”, that kind of thing?

Dr. Jon Finn
Yes, there’s many people out there, you know, well intended pushing that stuff about the some other people out there also were not well intended, they were actually being quite deceitful about, for example, saying, Why do this, and this helps me and only text me this much time. And when you scratch the surface, it’s a lie. They’re not, you know, they’re not getting those benefits at all. And there’s some stories coming out the minute of people pushing some quite dangerous and irresponsible practices about what they said they’ve done to boost their health. And actually, if others do that, it’s going to damage their health. So be wary of that. But it’s always about, we’ve got to take more control of how we shape our brains. So, if we want to do better, we’ve got to get, we’ve got to learn how to change our brains. So we can build new habits, that’s going to help us to feel better and do better. But to do that, we have to adopt this identity of becoming a habit mechanic, because we live in a world now, after the after the pandemic, where we’re still in this war against the technology that we use…..and against big business trying to get us to do what they want them what they want us to do, trying to get us to eat, what they want us to eat and spend our efforts and our energies consuming materials that that’s good for their business and is not good for us. So if we’re going to become a Habit Mechanic, the first thing we need to do is step back and just look at ourselves and rate how well we are doing. And you can just do that on a simple continuum from one to 10. And 10 is…..I feel like everything’s going great for me right now. One is I feel just really rubbish and feel like I’m a bit of failure, doesn’t matter where you are in the continuum, we just have to do what we call intelligent self watching and that type of exercise you like to do that, then you’ve got to just pick one tiny thing, one tiny new habit that you can start to build, it’s going to start to make your life a bit easier, is I’m going to do a little bit of exercise every morning could just be a five minute walk around the block, it could be I’m going to start a one more piece of fruit a day than I have been doing could be I’m going to write a written reflection at the end of every day to focus more on the positive things. And slowly but surely, if we keep repeating that, we’re going to end up building more and more healthful habits. So to become a habit mechanic, we just need to get better at intelligently reflecting and intelligently planning. Use the structure of the day, the week and the month to do that. daily planning and reflection from two to five minutes a day. It will save you hours every day.

Andrew Whitelam
That’s all it takes….that time?

Dr. Jon Finn

Yes…..weekly planning and reflection. Maybe take 15 minutes at the end every week just to reflect back on what’s happened for you…..really focus on the positives or the helpful things but then have a little thing about what you can do even better next week. And the same with every month. And obviously, you know, Habit Mechanic Programmes we’ve created very specific tools to help people to do that. But they’re all centred on intelligent planning and reflection.

Andrew Whitelam
Yes, I was going to say Jon, how can people talk about becoming a Habit Mechanic…. How can people maintain that approach, then consistently once we do finally navigate our way out of the pandemic, so they not only overcome the pandemic brain and COVID and its consequences, but they feel better, and they do better in their life and work for the long term?

Dr. Jon Finn

Well, a good starting point is trying to become a Level One Habit Mechanic, which is absolutely free. And I’m not selling you something here, because that will give you a deeper dive understanding of some of the things we’ve been talking about in this podcast. And then that will take you on to the next level and the next level. So we live in a world where I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that unhelpful habits increasingly infest our brains and invest in our brains. And if we don’t, if we’re not proactive, our life will just become more and more challenging. So we have to take positive action as soon as possible. And a great way to do that is to, you know, sign up for something and work through a structured programme that will guide you to build better habits, just one small change at a time.

Andrew Whitelam
Well, Jon, thank you very much for your time. You can access that Level One habit mechanic training for free, at the Tougher Minds website……tougherminds co.uk. You’ll see it there on the homepage, you’ll be directed to it. Look at the buttons, you can access that course. It’s a free video course to work through very, very rapidly, and you will become a Level One Habit Mechanic for free. Jon, thanks for your time. Once again. You’ve been listening to the Tougher Minds podcast. Thanks for that. And we’ll speak to you soon

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