“COVID Brain” Our New Reality…

Why does the “new normal” feel so abnormal?
And what you can do about it today.

If you or your employees have asked this question, it’s likely you’ve felt the uncertainty of this new, pandemic-driven reality on some level. According to neuroscientists and psychologists studying the physical and social impact of the coronavirus pandemic on individuals, families and business units, an unexpected explanation has emerged – called “COVID Brain.”

You’re not imagining this sensation of heightened stress, uneasiness or “fogginess.” It’s the insidious effect on an individual’s ability to focus, prioritize and navigate the decision-making process we apply every day at work and home.

Covid Brain is the fragile, drained state that keeps our thoughts both unfocused and on edge. Hilke Plassmann, an Insead neuroscientist researching this phenomenon, stated it’s caused by impaired analytical thinking combined with heightened external sensitivity.

In response to the new and dramatic challenges introduced by the onset of a global pandemic, our neocortex does what it’s designed to do. It rapidly searches existing memory banks for context, but with no previous experience navigating a “pandemic” in the last 100 years to draw on, the brain goes on the offensive. It begins to actively ping the external environment for other clues as to what this new threat is and what the brain needs to do now to survive and thrive. This chronic flexing of the brain, simultaneously searching for historical context and new, external clues as to how to interpret and respond, can be mentally exhausting.

“I’ve found this theme of Covid Brain to ring true for many of our members and their employees. From what they have shared, those experiencing this frustration seem to find it difficult to gain relief, even if they’ve been fortunate enough to escape the worst-case health impacts of the pandemic,” said Steve Quello, CEO Nexus founder. “We serve hundreds of CEOs across the country and this sensation seems to transcend industries and geography. This is an emerging issue for business owners, be it for themselves, their employees or both. CEOs as leaders need to understand how to counter the effects of Covid Brain.”

How can we as leaders overcome our Covid Brain problem and rise to the challenge? It’s time for CEOs to search for real-life strategies to help themselves and their employees navigate these very troubling times.

You can guide your brain back on course. Experts are recommending something you might have heard before, but that doesn’t make it less relevant or valuable – Think positive. It’s been proven time and time again a positive mindset goes a long way in helping individuals and businesses thrive.

But with the stress of a global pandemic and a recession on our shoulders, how can we have a positive attitude? The five strategies outlined below have been derived from top experts in psychology, neuroscience and related articles in a variety of national publications. We’ve also included insight from John Sweeney, keynote speaker from the 2020 CEO Nexus Member Conference.

Five strategies to address Covid Brain and create a positive mindset

  1. Rethink your stress and expect good results
    • How you think about your stress can actually cause more harm to you than the stress itself. If you view your stress negatively, it will cause you problems and hurt your productivity. However, if you use your stress as a motivator, it can help you channel the stress to a positive end.
    • (Hilke Plassmann, Battling ‘Covid-19 Brain’- see link below)
  2. Build up your mental resilience
    • The brain has an innate negativity bias according to Rick Hanson, author of “Resilient.” Rather than focus on the good in situations, the brain often defaults to a defense mechanism designed to identify threats and avoid risk. You can manage this natural tendency to embrace a negative bias by building up mental resilience. This can be done by finding your footing in a situation, then taking actions to calm yourself via meditation or prayer. Taking time to care for others also helps – self-preoccupation creates anxiety but taking care of other people will reduce your stress. Over time, these actions will help you build mental resilience.
    • (Rick Hanson, “Resilient” – see link below)
  3. Rewire your brain to see the positive
    • You can rewire the negativity bias of your brain and teach it to look for positivity. Journaling about positive experiences, sending an email praising good work to a coworker or writing a daily gratitude list for 21 days straight can actually boost your positive outlook and make you happier. Making a habit of these simple exercises has the power to condition your brain to look for positivity rather than negativity, improving your overall mood.
    • (Shawn Achor, TEDxBloomington talk – see link below)
  4. Strive for happiness and that will lead to success
    • The pursuit of success is counter-intuitive. The brain frequently recalibrates the definition and threshold of “success.” If you tie your happiness to a successful outcome, you may never attain the satisfaction you expected upon accomplishing the original goal. Curiously, by focusing on “happiness” rather than a fixed successful outcome, the likelihood of actually achieving that outcome will increase along with a sense of satisfaction – It’s called the happiness advantage. Studies confirm employees are statistically more productive if they are happy.
    • (Shawn Achor, “The Happiness Advantage” – see link below)
  5. Change your fixed mindset to a growth mindset
    • Success in school, work, sports, the arts and almost every area of human endeavor can be dramatically influenced by how we think about our talents and abilities. People with a fixed mindset — those who believe that abilities are fixed — are less likely to flourish than those with a growth mindset — those who believe that abilities can be developed.
    • (Carol Dweck, “Mindset: The New Psychology of success” – see link below)

As we collectively face this pandemic with heightened stress, it’s a good time to go back to the basics and reevaluate your mindset to address the stress that can compromise your mental health. In the end, navigating times of stress involves an openness to a new level of self-awareness for yourself and your team. Doing so may prevent near-term challenges from undermining your long-term goals, while possibly providing an unexpected competitive advantage to help move your business forward.

CEO Nexus is committed to serving business owners and executive teams leading growth-oriented, second-stage businesses. Our professionally facilitated Peer Roundtable Programs utilize the CEO Nexus Content Model, which focuses on leadership, strategy, operations and succession planning.

Click here to view Insead neuroscientist Hilke Plassmann’s article Battling ‘Covid-19 Brain’.
Click here to view the book Resilient by clinical psychologist and senior fellow Rick Hanson at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley.
Click here and here to view Harvard psychology researcher Shawn Achor’s book The Happiness Advantage and a related TEDxBloomington video.
Click here to view Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck’s book Mindset: The New Psychology of success
Click here to view Wall Street Journal writer Andrea Petersen’s article Mental Resilience Can Help You Through the Coronavirus Pandemic; Here’s How to Build It.
Click here and here to view Inc. contributor Jessica Stillman’s articles Neuroscientist: Covid Brain Is Real. Here’s How to Deal with It and Happiness Makes Your Brain Work Better.
Click here (members-only) to view John Sweeney’s mindset presentation from the 2020 CEO Nexus member conference.

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