There’s hope: Brain research shows that we can strengthen our mental flexibility and resiliency.
It should come as no surprise that the COVID-19 crisis is placing huge demands on the human brain.
We are experiencing raw, existential anxiety for the health and safety of ourselves and those dearest to us. Many of us worry about making a living in the middle of an unprecedented economic crisis. Then there is the shake-up in our routines, the demands of acclimating to new temporal and spatial constraints of home working and learning. For many, the isolation is hardest, being unable to hug grandchildren or chat with friends over coffee. And finally, there is that thing that the human brain finds particularly difficult to cope with: unpredictability.
On its own, each of these factors is a significant stressor, but together they constitute a quite remarkable set of challenges for our brains to cope with.
Stress is the perception that the demands made on us exceed our ability to cope with them, and the resulting emotion manifests as anxiety. Anxiety is an evolved emotion designed to prioritize our attention on dealing with an emergency over all the routines of daily life. It was designed to get us out of danger fast and get away from the threat.
But the problem with the COVID crisis is that there is no end in sight to the threat, and so anxiety does not serve us well in coping with it. Anxiety alerts the brain’s and body’s first responders, which then do what firefighters the world over do when they arrive at a blazing building: They close down normal traffic and evacuate the area. In our brain, the key traffic is what normally occurs between the long-term planning frontal lobe and the other memory, perception and movement regions. The buildings being evacuated are our memory banks storing our rational priorities and our medium- and long-term goals. Research shows that prolonged anxiety plays havoc with our ability to problem-solve, to use our memory and to respond flexibly to complex, changing situations.
So, can brain science help here? Research at the Center for BrainHealth at UT Dallas and a handful of other institutions around the world focused on understanding the brain’s upward potential is providing answers and some promising strategies.
These scientific advancements and strategies are possible because of fundamental discoveries about the plasticity of the adult brain, which for most of the 20th century was believed to be fixed or hard-wired from early childhood. Thanks to the groundbreaking research of Michael Merzenich at University of California at San Francisco, we now know that every human brain is changed by experience, and specific types of training can induce particular changes.
What does this mean? That the brain is like a muscle: it grows stronger when trained and exercised or falters when neglected.
And it means we can reprogram the frontal lobe networks to produce the clearer thinking and more innovative problem-solving that is so essential to surviving the COVID-19 crisis.
First responders remain at the scene for only so long before handing over the reins to teams responsible for rebuilding and re-establishing normal activity. Fortunately, cognitive neuroscience research has shown that it is possible to rapidly strengthen those frontal-lobe networks disrupted by anxiety, by learning to strategically control our attention. By zooming in to detail and out to the big picture, we are exercising flexibility that is essential not only for problem-solving, but also to integrate and innovate in our thinking.
This doesn’t just make people sharper and better able to solve the problems they face, it also helps regulate unruly emotions. When anxiety activates the amygdala, a primal emergency-responder emotion region in the brain, it sends out disruptive signals that interfere with normal cognitive function, particularly in the frontal lobes. By training the frontal lobe networks to strategically control attention, this inhibits amygdala activity, providing a double benefit of improved cognition and reduced anxiety.
People who have been in high-stress situations — consider those in the military or on the front lines of the pandemic — can suffer from repeated and chronic activation of the amygdala if their brains have difficulty switching out of first-responder emergency mode. Over time, this has been demonstrated to lead not only to chronic, debilitating anxiety, but also to depression, substance abuse and many other problems.
The good news is that we can do something about this, and all it takes is training ourselves to use our brains in a different way.
Sandra B. Chapman is a cognitive neuroscientist, co-creator of The BrainHealth Project, and the founder and chief director of Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas. She wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
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Published on The Dallas Morning News May 10, 2020