The brain in a pandemic - our ally or implacable enemy?

Na zdjęciu dr Wojciech Glac. Fot. Arek Smykowski/UG

Photo. Arek Smykowski / UG

Dr Wojciech Glac, a neurobiologist and popularizer of science from the Faculty of Biology of the University of Gdańsk, talks about functioning in a prolonged and constantly extended lockdown and how our brain copes in such a situation.

1. The unusual everyday life in which we find ourselves, completely different from the previous one, can be uncomfortable. The limitations of everyday life, sometimes perceived as a usurpation of our freedom, are hard to come to terms with. How does our brain cope with such prohibitions and imposed rules?

There is drama going on in our brains at every turn. The cingulate gyrus, that is the part of the cerebral cortex which is connected with the detection of an error, basically has no moment of rest. Every step is a disappointment, every step instead of the expected pleasure, benefit, reward, there is emptiness, loss or prohibition. In the limbic system - the emotional system - stress, fear, anxiety, sometimes aggression and sadness are born. Fortunately, our prefrontal cortex allows us to solve problems and adapt to even the worst conditions, so we cope somehow. Of course, some of us cope better, and others, unfortunately, worse.

2. In one of your interviews, you said that the brain likes rituals, schemes of action, so it creates them. So during a pandemic, when we have to reinvent ourselves, our brain is more stressed, it feels a lack of relief - does this translate into our functioning?

Because our lives have been turned on their heads, our brains are exposed to new experiences and situations. We wake up and the brain starts running routines, habits that we have established by repeating them every day until suddenly it encounters a problem. Our prefrontal cortex, analysing the situation, has to block out certain behaviours and plan alternative ones because many things either cannot be done or have to be heavily modified. This is a challenge for our prefrontal cortex and the structures working with it. Novelty is always a challenge for the brain and involves cognitive processes with attention at the forefront and arouses emotions. We become alert, highly stimulated, accompanied by stress - all this gives us the right to feel tired. At the beginning of lockdown, this feeling of novelty accompanied us for some time and could be troublesome, but by now we have mostly adapted to the situation to such an extent that the mentioned novelty is no longer such a challenge. The problem, however, remains the lack of pleasure associated with contact with people and entertainment, which is either completely or significantly reduced. This depresses the mood and, of course, makes it difficult to function.

3. How can we take care of our psychological well-being at this difficult time? What can we do to improve our mood?

Because it is our own brain that produces a state of disappointment, frustration, stress and uncertainty it is not so easy to start thinking differently. Nevertheless, we are not out of options. I look at it this way: every emotion we feel and every rational analysis we make has a purpose - to allow us to adapt to the situation. Feeling fear, we have the drive to keep ourselves safe, feeling disappointment, we have the motivation to change something and achieve satisfaction, feeling uncertainty, we have the motivation to look for answers, analyzing reality rationally, we have the opportunity to understand it and find a solution, etc. etc. And this is what happens in most cases. We did not call ourselves sapiens to now throw up our hands helplessly. We have the instruments to solve the biggest problems we can imagine. Our prefrontal cortexes accelerate adaptation, which in nature sometimes takes long evolutionary years and costs the lives of many less adapted individuals. The solution to all problems is just behind the frontal bone - you just have to believe it. And how to help yourself? There is no universal answer that will satisfy everyone. You should focus on the positive, look for pleasures and reasons to smile, talk and spend time with loved ones when possible. And above all, look for solutions. The very fact of engaging the mind reduces unwanted emotions and stress, and when this search for solutions is done with someone close, it is much easier not only to get an idea but also to be optimistic. People close to us reduce fear, anxiety and stress, and their presence is in itself rewarding for our brain. This is exactly what we need.

4. Does our brain help to fight long-term stress? Or does it see it as some kind of good and doesn't stand up to fight it?

The stress we feel has enormous motivational power. Without stress, there is no life. Those who do not feel stress would not be able to meet any challenge. If we are looking for the culprit, it is us - our conscious actions under stress, not the stress that just tells us "Houston, we have a problem". Our fault often lies in not taking advantage of the opportunity that stress gives us. We don't take advantage of the fact that our brain is activated, motivated to act, and our cognitive processes are stimulated, able to find a solution to the problem that caused the stress. Instead of focusing on the solution, we focus on the emotion - the stress. Of course, this is easy to say and harder to do. But we should try, because that's what we stress for, to have the superpower to deal with the challenge. But when we feel that stress is too strong, paralysing, we should occupy ourselves with something engaging, preferably pleasant, to distract ourselves from the emotion and regain our mood and ability to control it. But this can't go on forever, because the source of the stress won't go away. Again, the help of someone close will be what reduces stress and gives us courage by reducing anxiety. Also, it will motivate us to take action.

5. How do I motivate myself? Is it possible to do this despite persistent tiredness, stress and tension?

Motivation is derived from several processes in our brain. And we have a problem with motivation either because we fail to see the potential benefits, or because we perceive them as not too significant or as too costly or distant, or because we feel a high risk that our actions will lead to a loss instead of a benefit. All this is of course influenced by our mood and our experiences. Let us first take care of our mood by creating the conditions to smile, which we can always ask or do with someone close to us. Then we will be more optimistic, which will translate into motivation. We can also pre-stimulate the reward system a bit. I know of some really powerful activators of dopamine release in the brain, but maybe let's stop at coffee, a cube of chocolate or good company. Let's also analyse what our experience tells us about ourselves - whether we are effective, whether we can cope. But be careful - let's not rely on overconfidence, which can give us a sense of hopelessness. This should be a rational analysis. An orderly one, not a piecemeal one. Preferably on a piece of paper. Let's write down our successes, even small ones, what we are proud of, preferably recalling situations similar to those we are currently facing. Then plan your actions, step by step, until you reach your goal, so that you can see the big picture and eliminate potential obstacles in advance. Of course, let's give ourselves some time to imagine ourselves at the end of this road - this will allow us to expect more reward, that is, to feel more motivated. If possible, let's set intermediate goals to have small joys that give us the power to continue. Present the plan to someone we trust, because their opinion on the chances of success of our plan has a huge impact on our perception of risk. In a nutshell, let's add a few solid shovels of coal to the furnace of the prefrontal cortex - it will pay off in the end, especially if we have a bit too much coal in various folds. Motivation is a very complex subject and we could talk about it for a long time and still not exhaust the topic.

Dr Wojciech Glac

Photo. Arek Smykowski / UG

6. How does prolonged stress affect our brain?

Long-term stress deregulates our brain. The cerebral cortex, which analyses and plans, but also controls emotions and behaviour, and the various systems regulating both the cerebral cortex and the emotional system are disturbed. The result is heightened emotions, impulsivity, lack of a sense of control, inability to find a rational solution, problems with motivation and memory, and, as a result, a tendency to panic, to take chaotic, ill-considered action, to succumb to emotions such as fear or anxiety, to avoid, to run away, to irritability. One can go on for a long time listing, and yet we haven't even gone beyond the brain. What's worse, this condition can become entrenched leading to affective disorders. This affects many people these days who, unfortunately, cannot cope on their own with the challenge of lockdown - the risk of illness, lost connection with people, limitations, financial situation, etc.

7. How else can we ensure the comfort of our brain?

It's certainly worth getting in touch with nature. Sometimes a stroll can work wonders, especially since you can take off your face mask completely legally. It's worth thinking about exercise because movement naturally helps to keep not only the body but also the brain in good condition. And this in two ways - directly by positively influencing the operation of cortical and subcortical structures, but also indirectly - because when the information comes from the body that everything is fine, our brain creates a good mood, analogous to a situation in which, for example, feeling pain creates a nasty emotional state. It is worth taking care of sleep and not sitting late in front of the computer or television, because during sleep our brain has the opportunity not only to rest but also to self-regulate, which will allow us to more easily control our emotions and find solutions to problems. However, we will find nothing less expensive and easier to create well-being than contact with people with whom we have a strong bond. We should hug a lot, talk a lot, and not forget about sex, which has a good effect on our brain. You can combine all this - go for a walk or jog in the woods with your partner, then have a tasty, healthy dinner, talk, reminisce about good things, solve problems together, and finally make love and fall into a blissful sleep. And in the meantime, a new day will rise, which may even greet us with sunshine.

8. What would you say to all the distressed by lockdown, the weary and the resigned? To refresh the hearts?

This will not last long - remember that death, which inevitably awaits us, induces in the brain one of the most pleasant states that we can experience - bliss, even euphoric experience, a beautiful slide show that summarizes our life, a feeling of detachment from our own body, travel to other worlds... But seriously, there is always a new day after the night - it is worth trying to notice and focus on the good things, not to be carried away by bad emotions and to analyse reality rationally, noticing the obvious - we are not alone and with the help of others, we can cope with anything!

Dr Wojciech Glac was interviewed by Elżbieta Michalak-Witkowska

Press Office of University of Gdańsk