How COVID-related stress can disrupt your brain circuits and nine tips to prevent it

COVID-19 has touched each of us some­how. Many now rec­og­nize that car­ing for our men­tal health is as essen­tial as address­ing the virus if we are to emerge stronger, more con­nect­ed and more resilient.

The Ancient Greeks said “know thy­self” to live sound­ly, but it is only now that we have the tech­nol­o­gy to start under­stand­ing how our indi­vid­ual expe­ri­ences arise from the com­plex­i­ty of our brains. Gain­ing under­stand­ing of our brain respons­es offers a win­dow into how men­tal health symp­toms arise, and allows us to mit­i­gate the neg­a­tive effects of the pan­dem­ic on men­tal health.

At the Stan­ford Cen­ter for Pre­ci­sion Men­tal Health and Well­ness (PMHW), we are look­ing at cut­ting-edge tech­niques to under­stand how brain cir­cuits make us who we are – and what hap­pens when they go awry.

Brain cir­cuits are like sec­tions of an orches­tra; they are com­posed of many indi­vid­ual brain cells and per­form diverse func­tions on their own, yet must oper­ate in con­cert with each oth­er to cre­ate a har­mo­nious mind. Myr­i­ad fac­tors influ­ence the way these cir­cuits oper­ate, for bet­ter or worse. Among the most dam­ag­ing influ­ences on these cir­cuits is chron­ic stress, where­in parts of your brain that help you with short-term prob­lems (a hun­gry tiger) are applied to prob­lems with longer time­frames (a glob­al pandemic).

Chron­ic stress on your cir­cuits can be the first step toward clin­i­cal depres­sion or an anx­i­ety dis­or­der. We have quan­ti­fied the ways that dif­fer­ent brain cir­cuits can get dis­rupt­ed or stuck (which we call “bio­types”). If you rec­og­nize your­self in a bio­type, it doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly indi­cate a diag­no­sis of clin­i­cal depres­sion. But it can be a step toward learn­ing how your brain functions.

Here are six bio­types based on work from the PMHW, with tips to deal with their impacts. These are informed by our under­stand­ing of the brain cir­cuits and not the result of sys­tem­at­ic stud­ies in their own right.

Six biotypes and tips to deal with their impact

1. Neg­a­tive Bias

A ten­den­cy to dwell on the neg­a­tive aspects of your expe­ri­ence asso­ci­at­ed with the over-acti­va­tion of the brain’s neg­a­tive affect cir­cuit that, when func­tion­ing opti­mal­ly, helps us detect risk and appraise neg­a­tive emo­tion but does not gen­er­ate neg­a­tive biases.


  • Make a con­scious effort to seek out good news. After read­ing grim sta­tis­tics, take a moment to recall a pos­i­tive memory.

2. Threat Response

Auto­mat­ic reac­tions that are acti­vat­ed when the brain’s neg­a­tive affect cir­cuit is put into “alarm mode” by threat­en­ing sit­u­a­tions (real or per­ceived, imme­di­ate or remem­bered, phys­i­cal and social) and which are hard to switch off when the sense of threat persists.


  • Avoid stim­uli that are acti­vat­ing, such as alarm­ing media sources. Over time, grad­u­al­ly increase expo­sure to nec­es­sary stimuli.
  • Focus on nor­mal rou­tines to cre­ate stability.

3. Emo­tion­al Numbness/ Anhedonia

Unable to take plea­sure in activ­i­ties that usu­al­ly bring you joy, asso­ci­at­ed with reduced acti­va­tion in the brain’s pos­i­tive affect cir­cuits that pre­vi­ous­ly respond­ed to reward­ing events, activ­i­ties and memories.


  • Use sources of stim­u­la­tion to engage the brain’s reward net­work — find­ing pleas­ant smells for the home, play­ing favourite music, and sur­round­ing one­self with pos­i­tive images.

4. Inat­ten­tion

Dif­fi­cul­ty con­cen­trat­ing and stay­ing focused asso­ci­at­ed with dis­rup­tions in the con­nec­tiv­i­ty of the brain’s atten­tion circuit.


  • Break down your tasks and decide which you want to achieve in that hour or day. Write it down. Expand the list only once that task is done.

5. Rumi­na­tion

Gen­er­al ten­den­cy to wor­ry and “rumi­nate” on neg­a­tive thoughts from your inner voice. PMHW stud­ies and oth­ers sug­gest this aris­es when the brain’s default mode cir­cuit is in over­drive, mak­ing calmer self-reflec­tion difficult.


  • If you find your­self over­whelmed by news, lim­it your­self to a sin­gle, trust­ed news digest.
  • Sched­ule “wor­ry time”, cre­at­ing a sense of con­trol and lim­it­ing impact on activ­i­ties impor­tant for men­tal health, includ­ing sleep, mean­ing­ful dis­cus­sion and exercise.

6. Cog­ni­tive Fog

Brain may feel fog­gy, reflect­ing reduced acti­va­tion in the cog­ni­tive con­trol cir­cuit (the brain’s “exec­u­tive”).


  • Take peri­ods of rest for brain plas­tic­i­ty to catch up.
  • Be mind­ful that with the rapid changes we are expe­ri­enc­ing, our brains are going through accel­er­at­ed learn­ing. Our brains get tired just as our bod­ies would if we ran a marathon with­out training.

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

Top Articles on Brain Health and Neuroplasticity

Top 10 Brain Teasers and Illusions


Subscribe to our e-newsletter

* indicates required

Got the book?