person sitting at a table looking at an open laptop, leaning their head on one hand, elbow propped on the table
Bailey Zelena; Ekaterina Goncharova/Getty Images

You know the pandemic has been overwhelming. In our rush to return to normal, it’s easy to forget that the effects of the pandemic go far beyond the headlines about variants and vaccines—and might be impacting our lives in lasting ways we don’t even realize.

How? It all starts with stress.

Researchers have been studying the relationship between stress and our brains for a long time. Multiple studies have focused on the impact traumatic stress can have on the brain’s function and structure—even affecting memory and executive functioning. Others point to the relationship between poor mental health and reduced productivity in the workplace—with researchers discovering that stress and poor mental health can lead to increased rates of burnout, employee disengagement, and even physical health issues like hypertension, diabetes, and cardiovascular conditions.

Consider the immense stress caused by the pandemic, and we’re left with a question researchers will likely be studying for years to come: How has the pandemic impacted our brains?

A recent study from researchers at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital sought to explore this question, and it started a conversation about what they’re calling “pandemic brain.”

What is “pandemic brain,” exactly?

“Pandemic brain” describes a series of symptoms including brain fog, fatigue, and depression, according to the study’s lead author, Ludovica Brusaferri, a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. Brusaferri and her colleagues believe these symptoms might be a result of pandemic-related stressors producing inflammation in the brains of otherwise healthy individuals (a.k.a., people who haven’t been infected with COVID-19).

While this might sound similar to long COVID, Brusaferri explains that the two are very different—although there’s definitely some overlap between symptoms—because long COVID is a result of infection and pandemic brain is not. “‘Pandemic brain’ does not require an infection and it’s thought to be mostly linked to mental and physical/social stressors,” Brusaferri explains, and, “generally speaking, the symptoms in long COVID tend to be more severe and debilitating.”

So how is “pandemic brain” related to productivity?

If you’re struggling with productivity, it’s possible that “pandemic brain” might be playing a role. After all, symptoms like brain fog, fatigue, and depression can take a heavy toll on your ability to get things done.

“The brain is delicate and adaptable,” explains Silvi Saxena, a licensed social worker and certified clinical trauma professional who wasn’t involved with the Harvard/Mass General “pandemic brain” research. “Over time, exposure to ongoing stress (such as living through a pandemic) can lead to similar types of chronic stress or trauma that we see with those with PTSD,” she says. “The ongoing isolation, fear of death, being surrounded by death, and even losing a loved one to COVID are all risk factors, and the risk is even higher for those who work an essential job.”

Unfortunately, as your stress levels continue to rise, the likelihood of experiencing something like “pandemic brain” increases. At work, this might look like having a hard time focusing, struggling to make it through the workday on a regular basis, or simply feeling groggy and low-energy. Regardless of how this is showing up in your own life, it’s important to recognize that it’s real—and take steps to address it.

What can you do about it?

Researchers still don’t know exactly what’s causing this neuroinflammation—it could be increased stress levels, social isolation, financial strain, lifestyle changes, or a combination of multiple factors—but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do about it.

“Managing stress and psychosocial issues is critical when you’re trying to protect yourself against or [trying] to reverse the effects of neuroinflammation,” Saxena explains. “It can be hard to wrap your head around how stress impacts our physical brain, but the evidence is clear.” And—as stress levels continue to rise due to things like new waves of infection, economic instability, climate change, political upheaval, and more—it’s important to be proactive when it comes to protecting ourselves.

If you don’t know where to get started, here are a few things to try:

  1. Take a look at your daily routine. Countless researchers emphasize the importance of establishing healthy habits and routines. But don’t do too much all at once or you’ll risk what some experts call “behavior relapse.” Instead, make small changes one at a time—like journaling, listening to music, or spending time in nature—to incorporate proven stress relievers into your day.
  2. Don’t skimp on exercise. A 2019 study showed that exercise plays a critical role in maintaining—and improving—brain health, and might even help prevent neuroinflammation-related diseases.
  3. Give yourself a break. Believe it or not, self-compassion plays a role in your mental well-being and overall resilience toward stress. What does that look like? Psychologist Kristin Neff breaks self-compassion down into three parts: ditching self-criticism and judgment for kindness, remembering that no one is perfect, and practicing mindfulness.
  4. Try meditation and/or mindfulness practices. Several studies suggest that mindfulness practices like meditation, yoga, and breathing exercises might help with neuroinflammation. One study even discovered that a single 10-minute guided meditation session can improve your ability to pay attention.
  5. Connect with others. At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a big boom in Zoom meetings and virtual hangouts with friends. A couple years in, the novelty has worn off, but not everyone is comfortable socializing in person just yet—especially as winter sets in and activities begin to move indoors. However, social isolation can be a massive contributor to stress—even if you don’t realize it—so don’t forget to stay connected with coworkers, friends, and family members. Schedule a Zoom call, plan a virtual game night, or simply send a quick text—something is better than nothing.
  6. Seek professional help. As we’ve been telling one another ad nauseum for years now, we’ve been living through unprecedented times, which means there isn’t a guidebook for how to cope. A therapist can be a great resource to help you both personally and professionally.

While some people might feel like the pandemic is over, we’re still experiencing its effects in a very real way. In the rush to return to normal, it’s important to remember that our brains are reacting to heightened levels of stress whether we’re aware of it or not. The bottom line is that it’s OK if you’re struggling. It’s OK if the stress is hard to deal with. It’s OK if your productivity levels are fluctuating. And it’s OK if you need to ask for help. Remember that you and your brain are not alone, and don’t forget to be kind to yourself and others.

Updated 11/3/2022