A crisis of control

NOTE: The following is NOT medical or mental health advice. I am not a therapist or medical doctor. Rather, it is a summary of evidence-based methods for improving cognitive control. If you or someone you love is struggling, contact 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Recently, we passed the two-year anniversary of when everything changed. On March 11th, 2020, the World Health Organization designated a global pandemic for the COVID-19 virus. The chaos that ensued, and still persists to this day, will likely take years for most of us to fully process. Overnight, all of us lost so much, and today we are all grieving something. While many of us, myself included, have suffered the unbearable loss of a close loved one due to COVID-19, the damage extends beyond the physical losses. Some of us lost our beloved and cherished senior sports season, our date nights out at the restaurant, our spiritual gatherings, our mental health, or even our own sense of safety, security, and certainty. We all lost precious time with the people we love.

It’s no wonder that we are seeing some persisting mental effects of the pandemic. As a cognitive scientist whose doctoral work has focused on the impacts that anxiety can have on cognitive control, I’ve been paying close attention to what has been unfolding. Cognitive control is a term that psychologists use to describe how we can inhibit both distractions and unwanted automatic behaviors. It is considered perhaps one of the most important skills we can use to optimize our well-being and our community’s well-being. For example, you may use cognitive control to get yourself to exercise routinely, even when you feel like laying on the couch. Unfortunately, there is some building evidence that the pandemic has considerably weakened our cognitive control abilities.

For example, traffic accidents, particularly involving reckless behaviors such as drinking, speeding, and failure to wear seatbelts have skyrocketed since the pandemic, despite fewer people driving on the roads. In schools, student misbehavior is up after months of remote learning. Remote workers have described feelings of “languishing”—feeling aimless and having difficulty concentrating. Many friends of mine who have worked in the service industry have described increases in nasty comments or behavior from guests who are frustrated with their service—perhaps comments they would have had the control to keep to themselves two years ago. From here, you can see how the initial struggles we faced from the pandemic can cause a ripple effect—a feedback loop of sorts, that cause further stress and pain down the line. There are of course some nefarious individuals out there who may take blatant advantage of this pain and exhaustion to commit evil. However, too many of us are merely acting out because we are simply exhausted and in pain ourselves. Our job is to interrupt this cycle and stop it in its tracks.

How might we do this? Here, I will let you in on one of my top pieces of advice as a cognitive scientist: have fun. Yes, that is correct. One of the best things you can do for yourself, your community, and the world right now is to find ways to safely have fun. Today, I’d like to share with you several fun, evidence-based strategies for improving your cognitive control and focus. While COVID cases are in remission in many places around the country, today I’ll talk about strategies that will always be “pandemic safe,” even if there is another surge.

  1. Spend time outside in nature

Much of my pre-pandemic research was spent hooking people up with electrodes and taking them on camping trips in the vast desert of Southern Utah, where we examined how their brain activity changed compared to their baseline in the lab. We found evidence that cognitive control abilities in the brain increase when individuals spend time outside in nature. We are not alone—there is now a building body of evidence suggesting that we are happier, healthier, less stressed, and more focused after we spend time interacting with nature.

 In all likelihood, there may be trails in your backyard or neighborhood that you never knew about. The AllTrails app is a great (and free) option for learning about these trails and their maps. As the COVID virus is much less likely to spread outdoors, our trail systems will almost always be safe from pandemic lockdowns and restrictions. Why not take an opportunity to explore something new today? Why not ask your kids, pets, and friends to join you? (P.S. Do you hate the cold? Blair Braverman, a dogsledder in Wisconsin, has some advice for how you can make winter feel less terrible).

2. Socialize with friends outdoors

Growing up in the North Country, I always loved a good bonfire. In high school, on summer nights when we all got off of work, we would round up the usual suspects and some firewood from Stewart’s, and spend the night chatting away. The nice thing about outdoor fires is that they provide warmth even in the winter, light even after dark, and heat to cook food. They also provide the opportunity for perhaps one of our greatest needs right now: socialization.

Of all the methods of improving cognitive control, let me be clear that the most superb method is social support and feelings of social belongingness. It is one of our deepest human needs, and the higher-order processes of our brains suffer when we don’t have it. So, this is your excuse to throw that backyard party. Organize that cornhole tournament with friends. Have that barbecue. Did anything positive in your life happen? Celebrate it. Did you fail at anything recently? Celebrate that too. After a tree fell in his pool, my uncle once famously threw a “fallen tree” party. My fiancé, an avid snowboarder, throws snow dance parties to ask whoever controls the weather for snow. Whether life is going well, badly, or just meh, gather the people around you so that you can support one another. And have fun. Even if you can’t gather right now for whatever reason, spending just a few moments writing a text message, note, or e-mail thanking someone in your life can go a long way. Both for you and for them. At the end of the day, community is all we have.

3. Journaling

I have always loved writing. Maybe it runs in the family. I found it helps me to organize my thoughts, feelings, and emotions. It turns out, that this is supported by science. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that journaling can reduce our worries and improve our focus. This is because when we journal, we quite literally offload our worries from our brain and on to the page. In fact- there is neuroscience evidence (examining brainwaves) of a reduced burden on your cognitive control after you journal about your thoughts and emotions!  Spending even 10-15 minutes a day writing in a journal can improve your well-being and attention. In particular, spending some time (even 2 minutes) writing about things you are grateful for in your life, whether your family members or your coffee maker, can provide even more benefits. Pick up your journal from a local book store, and get writing.

4. Mindfulness Meditation

Yeah, I know. You are probably as sick of hearing about this as I was. And you might be wondering what meditation even is. Meditation is many things, but perhaps the easiest way to describe it is the deliberate practice of living in the moment and focusing our attention on the present. Often, we practice this by paying attention to our breath or to our own bodies. I initially was skeptical that this would do much for me, but after meditating almost every day for a year, I personally have felt a very dramatic and positive shift. There is also ample evidence, both from long intergenerational knowledge stemming from Asian cultures, and from science, suggesting that meditation matters, and can improve both our focus and our mental health.

Several local parks offer “5 senses walks” (and there are also apps and youtube videos out there for this). This is a fantastic opportunity to check several of these wellness ideas off at once—being in nature, socializing, and meditating! It also could be a great introduction to the practice if you are new to it, and don’t know how it all works. 

These are just a few ideas for combating the growing pandemic-related malaises we are all experiencing. I hope you will take the opportunity to take care of yourself and your community by trying one (or all) of these suggestions. Most especially, I hope you take the opportunity to give or receive support to those in your life. We all need it right now.

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