Why and how to help your “Covid-19 brain”

by | Jul 26, 2020 | Blog | 4 comments

“Are you back at work?” — a recent message from a LinkedIn contact.

Reading those five words immediately triggered my “Covid-19 brain.“ My annoyance level soared.

What an insensitive thing to write, I thought. Since I’ve had a home office for years, it was simple to switch seamlessly to #WorkingFromHome (#wfh) months ago.

Then I paused and realized my contact probably just forgot to include the word “site” as in “Are you back at your work site?” after months of sheltering in place and working virtually. Although he’s showing ignorance about my situation, he’s not a close connection and I should give him the benefit of the doubt.

A few days later, I was relieved to learn:

  • I am not alone in my dislike for the phrase “back at work.” In a NeuroLeadership Institute webinar, a couple of the guests said they’re now both referring to the “eventual return to the work site” after employees pushed back at the idea of “returning to work.” After all, they’ve been productive #wfh all along.
  • I am not alone in experiencing “Covid-19 brain.” Dr. Hilke Plassmann, Octapharma Chaired Professor of Decision Neuroscience at INSEAD, has coined the term “Covid-19 brain” to call attention to how Covid-19 is taking a toll, subjecting us to high levels of anxiety, uncertainty and stress.

In a recent article for INSEAD Knowledge, Dr. Plassmann and her co-author, the magazine’s editor Benjamin Kessler, explained that the virus has “anti-compartmentalized” our lives.

Our work and personal lives have mushed together. Workers who are also parents are more involved in schooling.

As neuroscience studies have shown, our brain loves to look for patterns to explain what’s happening. But because these are unprecedented events, there’s nothing to compare them to.

And when we try to apply analytical thinking to our situation, we get a range of ambiguous signals that cloud our ability to make good decisions.

The result is “a combination of impaired analytical thinking and heightened external sensitivity,” according to Dr. Plassmann. This creates “Covid-19 brain” – “a fragile, frazzled state that keeps our thoughts simultaneously on edge and unfocused.”

Unfortunately, there’s no cure. And prepare yourself — things could get worse before they get better.

For example, Covid-19 continues to spread throughout the world unlike a hurricane, earthquake or even a terrorist act. Those are all isolated short-term bursts of awful events followed by recovery.

With the continuation of the pandemic on top of the economic pressures and the recent racial inequity reckoning, Dr. Plassmann and other scientists are concerned about the following:

  • Societal problems such as obesity, the digital divide, and income inequality could worsen, especially when combined with the recession that many countries are experiencing too.

While there’s no cure, we can take actions to help us cope. If done regularly and well, our hacks can move us to a better path forward.

Three suggestions from Dr. Plassmann include:

1. Reframe stress not as a threat, but as a catalyst for positive change.

2. Listen to music you enjoy as a way to restore your equilibrium.

3. Practice any form of mindfulness or meditation that puts you and your brain at ease.

Four additional tips from me include:  

4. Feel compassion for yourself and your brain, especially when you’re feeling foggy, forgetful or not your regular self.

5. Carve out time for enjoyable and healthy activities, such as spending time outdoors, especially in nature; exercising; eating well; sleeping 7 to 9 hours a night; talking, laughing and playing games with friends and family whose company you enjoy; and spending time with pets.

6. Find joy and other simple pleasures wherever you can.

7.Look for role models who can inspire you or even make you laugh.

And if you still feel despair, keep in mind that we’re now in the second half of the first year of the new decade. As my LinkedIn contact noted, “2020 being half over is the one silver lining I see.”

Here’s hoping you see more silver linings, as I do. For example, we’ve got a great opportunity to shape a better future. We’re making history together in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world!

We do need to respect each person’s unique Covid-19 brain. 

And since we are in this together so it helps to learn from each other. What things are you doing to help you manage this very strange time? Please share.


  1. Georgia Patrick

    Brilliant, Liz. The one thing I am doing more of, I noticed? Normally, I insist on total quiet to think and work. My office was always designed for that level of quiet, even when we constructed our own office building for the whole team in 1990-2000. Today, I use “brain music” during many periods of the work day to stay focused and on deadlines. I never knew there were so many kinds of brain music, but there are. Thank you for your constant work with neuroscience and practical applications.

  2. Jonathan Gottlieb

    When I wasn’t able to go to the gym which was always a source of centering for me, I started taking 10-12 mile power walks in areas surrounded by vineyards. Slowly I internalized more exercise equipment (weights, spin cycle) to add to what we already had. Now, I’m walking 5 miles each day, spinning 30-45 minutes daily, and doing core and weights throughout each week. In addition, because each day was seeming like every day, my wife and I have created a different at home routine for weekends. So, exercise and a clear differentiation of weekends has helped.

  3. Liz Guthridge

    Thanks, Jonathan, for sharing these helpful tips. Walking around vineyards sounds delightful! Much better aromas than a sweaty gym!

  4. Liz Guthridge

    Thanks, Georgia. Wow, what a counter-intuitive change, and great to read how well it’s working for you. Kudos to you for experimenting, which is a great testimony for how we humans need to consider ourselves a “work in progress.”

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