Brain freeze in COVID-19: Understanding the way our brain responds during a pandemic

First published 8 May 2020

Feeling stuck, unmotivated, or ready to give up? You are not alone. Professor Selena Bartlett from QUT’s Faculty of Health and Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation says the coronavirus pandemic impacts how our brains are wired.

“People have been reaching out to me because they’ve been noticing things that they can’t really explain.

“What we are surrounded by is unprecedented and different; being in isolation, having this relentless news cycle around physical distancing, job loss and death.

“This has had a massive impact on our mental health.”

Professor Bartlett, who has over 30 years’ experience as a neuroscientist, explains how stress predisposes the brain to depression, anxiety and addiction, as well as leading to greater emotional brain reactivity.

“The thing to understand is that this isn’t you, it’s your brain and its processes.

“Being a sensory organ means it always senses everything, and because the brain’s main job is to keep you alive, it processes stress, anxiety and fear at a much greater rate than love and pleasure.”

Professor Bartlett goes on to explain that in order to stop the brain ‘freezing’, we need to maintain mental strength and happiness by making a conscious effort of being kind to ourselves – driving the love and pleasure component – particularly during this period time.

“Now is the time to maintain your mental strength despite everything that is going on around you.

“By doing this, you are helping healthcare workers by minimising the impact on the healthcare system right now, and that’s an extraordinary role on your part.”

To help get you started, here are four tips to help with unfreezing the brain:

  1. Set aside some time for exercise each day
  2. When you wake up, think of three things you are grateful for
  3. Try to minimise your sugar and alcohol intake
  4. Keep communicating with people – whether that’s family, friends, or online support groups.

The current pandemic has emphasised the need for a greater understanding of how our brains work during periods of uncertainty. Professor Bartlett hoping to begin a clinical trial of an online brain training platform that applies neuroscience and neuroplasticity to brain health and fitness. Professor Bartlett is confident the program will provide much needed mental health support for those impacted by the pandemic such as young people including QUT students.

Find out more about work QUT is doing in behavioural neuroscience and mental health.