The Pandemic Brain

Friday, March 20th 2020

We’ve all seen the empty aisles at HEB and the photos of people hoarding things like toilet paper and hand sanitizer. Why does our brain respond the way it does to things like shortages or quarantines? Judy Maggio chats with Art Markman and Bob Duke, the hosts of the KUT show Two Guys On Your Head, about the psychology behind the pandemic.


Judy Maggio: The first question I have is kind of a broad one about what happens to our brain when we're living through this kind of unchartered territory that creates so much anxiety for so many of us.

Art Markman: The human motivational system has two distinct modes. One of those modes is called the approach mode and it's the one that you engage when there is some beautiful wonderful desirable thing in the world, and then there's the avoidance mode which is the one that kicks in when there's a threat or a looming catastrophe, and of course a pandemic is a serious threat of the things that engage our avoidance motivation are things that aren't really that threatening.

Pandemics, they're actually threatening and when we engage that mode one of the ways we know we've engaged that mode is that we experience the emotions associated with it, which are fear and anxiety and stress, and in the event that we successfully avoid the threat then we experience relief and so we're in a mode right now in which a lot of people are really anxious and stressed because that avoidance system is in place.

We're not just worried about the particular threat that's out there. There's work by a guy named Tory Higgins that shows that when you have a particular threat out there in the world you engage something broader that he calls the prevention focus, which means you are actually sensitive to every potential threat. So imagine for example if on top of a pandemic like this that say the stock market were going down, you'd be really sensitive to an event like that.

Bob Duke: It puts people in a situation where they're looking for things that are problematic, even things that would otherwise pass their notice. So if you're just in your normal environment and you're experiencing things that are typically, you know things that you would ignore or overlook entirely, now those things would loom large now that you're in a condition that you are feeling somehow threatened.

The other thing I think is interesting to talk about is this is how differently this affects different people. As we all know, I'm sure even among our own acquaintances, there are some people who are very frightened by this, understandably so because of health concerns, that kind of thing. And there are other people who seem quite cavalier about the whole thing. It's not just differences in the kind of information they have; it's that you know for many of us, especially many of us living here in the United States and living in a city like Austin where the pandemic has not really affected us in a dramatic way in terms of seeing people sick all over the place. For many people it's just hard to imagine that this could be that terrible because they're aren't obvious indicators that we would typically look to, you know we don't typically see a lot of people you know calling in sick or seeing our family members get sick and that kind of thing that hasn't happened yet.

Now every expectation is that that will happen in the future so it's interesting right now that some people are very willing to say look I see some impending crisis here and I'm worried about it now, whereas other people the worry isn't really going to kick in until there are some more obvious signs that this is really a serious problem.

JM: Some of us take a lot of reassurance that we have this routine in our lives that we know we're going to get up and walk the dog and drive to work and have lunch and our whole routine has been upset. How does that impact our brain?

BD: One of the things about routines is that they make our lives predictable, and things that are predictable are comforting things that are unpredictable are unsettling now. If it's unpredictable like you're watching a scary movie and you know it's a movie then that's kind of fun, but if it's unpredictable about life circumstances that you've come to expect and sometimes come to depend on, well then it’s anything but fun because now you're unable to anticipate what's likely to happen. Especially when news reports are coming from many different sources and sometimes they don't coincide, and there are all kinds of things sort of coming at you so all that predictability of knowing what this afternoon is going to be like, let alone knowing what tomorrow or next week is going to be like, that's in many ways quite unsettling.

AM: I think we're in a situation too where this kind of unpredictability has potentially serious consequences for people. Even though in Austin, Texas we aren't seeing a lot of people with the virus yet, we are seeing a lot of people out of work. We are seeing a lot of people in the service industry who've lost their jobs, who are trying to figure out how they're going to make ends meet. They're a lot of people who are on edge. They might have a job today but they're not sure they're gonna have a job tomorrow, and that kind of uncertainty is particularly difficult because it comes with a complete lack of agency.

There's no action you can take that's gonna make that better. For many people, whether you have a job tomorrow or next week is not something that you are in control of at the moment. It has to do with factors out of your control, and that creates a tremendous amount of anxiety for people. It makes it, you can actually create a kind of learned helplessness from this you don't really care about anything now because you feel like there's nothing you can do about it so this is a particularly difficult kind of uncertainty for people to deal with.

JM: When we talk about dealing with it I guess everybody has their various ways to cope with stress, but what are some general things that we can do to try to calm down to try to get rid of some of that anxiety that we're all feeling?

BD: Keeping with the idea of routines, for those aspects of your life that can be maintained, I think we should continue to do those things because that provides some stability and regularity in terms of our routine. But also I think what happens in sort of stressful times people react in different ways of course, but some people gather with other people either online or on the phone or in person and sort of talk about how terrible things are. While it's important to be able to express concern to other people and to be empathetic to other people who are expressing their concerns, I mean one can get into quite a cycle of just talking about how terrible everything is, which is not productive at all.

I'll bring up something that Art mentioned a minute ago about a sense of agency. Being able to do something is a really good feeling for a human being, even if that something doesn't obviously make the situation better in some discernible way like buying 28 rolls of toilet paper. But I mean just doing something that makes you feel like you can take action and that you can affect the world around you is a good thing.

Another thing I want to say about social interactions, unfortunately many times people who are anxious or stressed tend to isolate themselves because they think, “Well, I'm not feeling very happy" and "I'm kinda worried about this" or "I don't want to talk to anybody about it." That's a mistake. I think it's really important that people keep in contact with other people, with friends and relatives and make sure that you're just reassuring everybody that as difficult and as unpredictable as this is, we're gonna get through it in some way.

AM: This type of threat engages this kind of avoidance motivation, but we have an opportunity here also to engage in some beautiful, wonderful, desirable activities. We have a chance to hang out with pets that we may not be able to see all the time and family members that we may not get to spend that much time with. So taking an opportunity to create desirable moments of pursuing something fun, teaching a child a favorite hobby of yours or just sitting and doing a puzzle. These are wonderful activities that actually can engage some of that approach motivation.

Those two motivational systems, they're sort of incompatible with each other which means that if you find a way to do some wonderful, beautiful, desirable things for at least a while you can push away some of that anxiety and stress. I think that's one of things that we want to keep in mind and then the other is there is a tendency to hunker down a little bit in ways that then lead you, for example to stop moving around.

Just because you're supposed to hang out in your home a lot doesn't mean that you have to be there exclusively. This pandemic involves a disease in which being close to other people is the problem, but being close to nature isn't necessarily a problem. Taking a walk on a trail with a good distance between you and the people around you or hopping on a bicycle or anything like that. Getting outside is wonderful in all sorts of ways. Exercise leads to a release of dopamines. It makes your body just feel better. It creates a little change of scenery if the same four walls are beginning to drag you down. Making sure that you take care of your body is really important because I think a lot of people forget that we're creatures, we're not just brains inside of some kind of vat. You gotta get out there and take care of your body. The better your body feels, the better your mind's going to feel.

BD: I think a lot of people whose typical lives are fairly sedentary, this is an opportunity to move just a little bit. I think many people underestimate the importance of our physical health in relationship to our mental health, our bodies and brains as Art is saying. This is all one system and to have an unhealthy body makes it really difficult to have a healthy brain and vice versa.

I think just getting out and taking a short walk, anything. I love this phrase that Gretchen Reynolds came up with. She writes about health in The New York Times. She says, "Some is good. More is better. Everything counts." I think a lot of times people think well you know just walking around the block, "What's that gonna do?" Well, it's better than not walking around the block. Take the opportunity to do small things. Not turn everything upside down, but take little opportunities to think you know instead of sitting in my cubicle at my office, maybe I'll take a walk around the block today, and maybe, heck, tomorrow I'll go around two blocks. Something that just gets you doing something physical, which I think is really important as Art is saying not only for elevating mood, but also for reducing stress responses a little bit.

JM: Any ideas on how parents can cope with having their children at home indefinitely?

AM: It's really hard, and anyone who's ever been a parent has both fond memories of having younger children at home and also a tremendous amount of relief that they're past that stage. It's hard, and kids don't necessarily completely understand why their routine has been constrained.

You can give them reasons and they sort of internalize that, but they still much rather be out, being engaged and doing a lot of things. I think one of the most important things to do is to find goals that you can pursue together with your kid and I think this is particularly hard because a lot of us are trying to work while at the same time being at home.

I think one of things we have to recognize is that if you have kids at home you're just not gonna be as productive as you would have been if you'd been in your office, so see if you can find a way to spend some amount of time creating a common goal with your kids where you and your kids are engaged in the same activity. Even if that activity is cleaning out the pantry. If you're all doing it, it's still a joint activity and you can actually create wonderful moments with that.

I think a lot of times what we try to do is to see can I try and find a way to keep my kids busy for just another half hour so I can finish this paper off, this report off, when in fact I end up spending the first fifteen minutes of that surfing for more news about the coronavirus so actually don't engage in fake work. Give yourself a chance to spend some time with those kids at home. Enjoy that time and if you're a little bit less productive, well then, frankly, I think everyone's a little bit less productive this week.

BD: You know that brings up another important point too, and that is not trying to maintain whether it's levels of productivity or whatever, when we know things are going to have to change. All of us are naturally understandably resistant to change. Even right now at UT of course what we're all trying to do is trying to rework and rethink courses and how we can move things online that were in person and those kinds of things.

One of the first things that has to be relinquished in that is the expectation that it's gonna be just like before except it's gonna be online. Or expectations about how much can get done and how it's gonna get done are gonna be just like they had been. That's not going to happen and I think one of the things that paradoxically increases stress is maintaining an unrealistic expectation about how much or how little has to change.

Anytime we encounter or engage in anything new, things initially are more effortful and more confusing and less successful. To say let's accept that going in this is not going to be smooth, it's going to be challenging and there's gonna be a lot of things that we're gonna have to do differently, and we're gonna have to adjust to and learn about.

To say okay that's now the expectation, then when those things happen rather than responding in, "Oh my God!" No. This is one of those things that we knew was going to happen. That this thing that we thought was going to work out now that I've actually tried it, I see that it's not going to work out the way I thought it was going to work out, but this has to do with everybody as individual as it also has to do with our employers and supervisors and teachers who need to be more forgiving about what the expectations are so everybody can have time to adjust and adapt in a positive way.

AM: One of the great sources of stress in many relationships is around child rearing and one of the reasons for that is there's often an imbalance in couples. If we're stereotypically, and reasons stereotypically, in heterosexual couples, it tends to be that the mom is spending more time on child care than the dad is and it's very hard to change that dynamic in the midst of the busy life that everybody leads where everybody is trying to get off to work take care of everything that needs to be done, and at the same time manage the kids and their schedules.

Well, here's a lovely opportunity in which everything has been disrupted to rethink the balance a little bit. To ask yourself, "Could I do a little bit more than I've been doing? Are there things that I haven't traditionally helped out with?" Where this might be a good time for me to learn how to do something as a parent that I didn't know how to do before or didn't do very well. Can I rethink the way the division of labor in ways that might actually create not just a more equitable distribution of responsibilities, which is important, but also an opportunity to enjoy some of those responsibilities.

I think a lot of times the parent, you shirk those responsibilities, you don't realize looking back on it how many times getting your kid dressed in the morning actually led to wonderful interactions that you remember years later. So taking that opportunity to really rethink some of these ingrained habits at a time when we are all gonna be enforced to be out of our routine probably for several weeks if not several months.

JM: Final words of wisdom. Anything that you want to leave people with as we try to muddle through this unpredictable anxious time in all of our lives?

AM: Don't touch your face.

BD: Yeah, that's number one.

JM: That’s hard too.

AM: It's very hard. But I think continuing to practice all of the safe behaviors that we've been told to do. Right now we're at the front end of this. Most people have been cooped up for a week and we're being vigilant about this, but what's gonna happen if we succeed is that the number of new cases of the virus will eventually begin to slow down a little bit. They're not disappearing, it's just the number of new cases is slowing down. There are still going to be active cases in town, and there's gonna be a tendency to declare victory before that's appropriate. I think we just have to be patient and recognize this is gonna take longer to play out than we think it is and we gotta let that happen.

BM: I think one thing I would add to this just in terms of the day to day experience and it goes back to what Art mentioned a while ago about having a sense of agency. I think when all of us consider the interactions we have on a given day, either with people in our own homes or people online or work colleagues, or that kind of thing. I think it's important to be very deliberate about kindnesses and about opportunities to be kind to another person.

I think one of the things that happens when we're involved in something like this and stressed out things get focused on ourselves a lot. I think one of the things that moves us away from that is showing kindness to other people, and whether that's people in our family, or people who we interact with professionally or personally or neighbors or whatever, being deliberate about that, and then actually at the end a day, sort of thinking about those kindnesses and maybe even sharing that with your family. That's a huge way of kind of putting our attention on something else other than dread, which there'll be enough of that, right.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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