Elon neuroscientist Amy Overman: Follow these tips to cope with pandemic life

Overman's program, "Brain Basics and how the Pandemic has Influenced our Thinking," was presented Monday by Elon's Office of Leadership and Professional Development.

Our brains are amazing at storing and processing information, but they can only handle so much.

The anxiety, fatigue and muddled thoughts many are experiencing during this period of pandemic and national turmoil are symptoms of information overload. The best thing we can do for our brains is slow down and give them a break, Professor of Psychology Amy Overman said Monday during a campus conversation around neuroscience and COVID-19.

Amy Overman, professor in the Psychology Department and Neuroscience Program and assistant dean of Elon College

“Brain Basics and how the Pandemic has Influenced our Thinking” was presented virtually through Elon’s Office of Leadership and Professional Development. A cognitive neuroscientist in Elon’s Neuroscience Program, Overman has expertise in neuroscience, memory, aging, the science of learning and metacognition among other subjects.

She began with a brief overview of brain function. The brain looks for patterns and creates narratives. Things that are new, colorful and out of the ordinary tend to be remembered better. Stress increases difficulty in holding attention, retaining information, and making and storing memories — meaning our brains turn us to reflexive habits rather than higher-order thinking to preserve its processing power.

The pandemic has decreased our ability to meet basic needs of social interaction and warped our perception of time by removing our old daily routines. Also, as we are more isolated, there’s not as much novelty day-to-day to help us mark time.

But the brain constantly changes. Our brains have already changed to help us cope with the pandemic.

“Think back to March: You’ll already see that you’ve adapted and been resilient in many ways,” Overman said. “Our brain is made to adapt and survive and thrive. We can trust that the brain will do what it’s supposed to do.”

Through an informal series of questions and answers, Overman offered these tips for decreasing stress and finding more pleasure in mid-pandemic life.

  • Slow down. When we hurry, we are more likely to rely on reflexive behaviors and habits rather than being intentional and thoughtful about our actions.
  • Be as clear as possible with each other. Even more than usual, don’t assume someone knows what you’re talking about.
  • Focus on what you can control. There is so much we cannot control, and the pandemic has made that even more obvious. Focusing on what we can control — our routines, our self-care and hygiene, and daily goals — reduces stress.
  • Break things down into small, manageable pieces and only focus on one piece at a time. This reduces the load on your attention and memory. Overman recommended making short lists of tasks to be completed within a couple hours, then taking a break to go outdoors or move around.
  • Practice self-care. Get exercise, preferably outdoors, drink enough water, try to make healthy food choices, don’t consume too much caffeine or alcohol, keep a good sleep schedule, and do things that relax your mind like hobbies, meditation, prayer, talking to friends, and so on.
  • Focus on positive thoughts and framing. Our brains connect positive thoughts and experiences to each other, which have the effect of making us happier. The same goes for negative thoughts: They can build on each other leading to a spiral of negativity. Limit your news intake to a few minutes at a time when you have the mental capacity to focus on it. If something in the news causes you great anxiety, practice limiting your thinking about it by giving yourself a few minutes to dwell on it and then moving on to something else. “Don’t try to suppress negative thoughts altogether because you’re working against your brain and can cause the negative thoughts to resurge later.”
  • Follow or create routines, many of which may look different from your routines pre-pandemic. Routines are comforting and can act as cues for your brain to help you transition to the task at hand. For example, having a nightly routine of preparing and drinking a cup of herbal tea before you go to bed will help you prepare for the transition to sleep.
  • Give children space to be heard. They are also dealing with changes in their lives, routines and feelings of insecurity. Have honest discussions about the world but remind them of things they can be grateful for. “Kids aren’t only going to remember the bad stuff about this. They’ll remember being on Zoom, or spending more time with their families, or watching cartoons more often. Kids are super-resilient. They will bounce back from this if they have supportive adults around them.”
  • Create new events, traditions and things to look forward to. Even watching Netflix can be something fun to anticipate if you set a specific time, plan what you’ll eat, perhaps coordinate with a friend to watch it together, and otherwise plan to make it special compared to your usual daily tasks.
  • Lower expectations and give yourself and others grace. That includes this list: Take what you can manage from it and don’t worry about doing everything described here. You are already using a lot of processing capacity in dealing with the pandemic. If you’re getting the essentials of your job done and managing to take care of yourself and others who depend on you to the best of your ability, that is enough for this challenging time.

Overman is principal investigator of Elon’s Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory and Aging Lab and assistant dean of Elon College, the College of Arts and Sciences. Her research is currently funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.