All those weeks of remote work caused by a pandemic, telehealthgrocery delivery and online shopping have changed many of us—and not necessarily for the better.
Research shows that now, several years after COVID-19 became a household name, we are less likely to seek the company of other people, exercise regularly eat vegetablesget enough sleep or have a life outside of work.
Here’s how it all affects the brain, and what you can do about it.
1. Lack of communication with other people
Long before COVID-19, researchers knew this social isolation increases the risk of inflammation throughout the body, as well as dementia.
We can probably thank evolution for that, according to James Giordano, a professor of neuroscience and biochemistry at the Pellegrino Center at Georgetown University Medical Center.
When it comes to survival, humans underperform in a number of skills. This includes running, climbing, swimming, seeing at night, fighting, and tearing apart prey with our jaws, Giordano explains.
“For most of our history, we were more prey than predator,” he says.
So how did such weak, feeble creatures come to dominate the planet? We have thumbs in part, which allows us to make tools. Also, our brains evolved to allow for social connection, and that helped us work together, Giordano says.
Read more: Human evolution in the modern era
After millions of years of evolution, this need for social interaction is already hardwired.
You might think of social connection as brain exercises. It takes brain power not only to remember people’s names, but what they do for work, whether they have children, and what they do for fun. A typical conversation forces your brain to hear words, pay attention to tone of voice and body language, and then anticipate what that person might be trying to say.
All this cognitive work seems keep our frontal lobes in shapeand leads to a cascade of brain chemicals (such as endorphins) that affect our sensitivity to reinforcement, pleasure, and pain, Giordano says.
“One of the most pressing discoveries in all of psychology is that social connection is vital,” says Janet Bosseowski, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.
So what can you do, post-pandemic, if you’ve lost your enthusiasm for… people? Start small, says Boseowski. Ueak social connections can be just as defensive as the strong ones. So if you’re a telecommuter, consider spending part of your workday in a coffee shop or bookstore where you can see, hear, and casually interact with other people.
Or, if you usually work out in your basement, maybe move some of your exercise outdoors or to a gym where you’ll run into other people, she says.
2. Stay committed to the work
With the rise of both telecommuting and mobile technology, it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate ‘work time’ from ‘leisure time’. When we answer Pants and emails, when we’re technically not working, we’re often not 100 percent relaxed. Nor do we enjoy our free time, says Boseovski.
To see if the lack of separation of work and personal life is affecting your focus and moodconsider these questions:
Do you feel content and relaxed when you are on vacation, at the movies, out with friends, or at home with family?
When you’re not at work, do you think about the people you’re with or about your work?
If you answered no and at work, it’s likely that your “always on” mindset is leading you to consider work, Boseowski says. It’s like leaving your headlights on when your car isn’t running; It drains your mental battery. in research published in a 2020 issue Frontiers in Psychology, “high-functioning survivors” had poorer executive functioning skills — such as the ability to plan, remember, focus attention, and juggle tasks — compared to “low-functioning survivors.” In other words, people paradoxically do less when they stay constantly in work mode, Boseowski explains.
To break free from the “always on” mindset, think of ways you can separate “work” from “home.” If you’re telecommuting, you might be limiting your work to one part of your home—perhaps a spare bedroom or kitchen. Then you can make a rule: if your body is not physically in this area, and neither is your mind – you are not at work.
Another strategy: Turn “down time” into a ritualized series of steps that take you from “Working” to “Not Working.” Boseovski, for example, will close his laptop. She will then close the door to the spare bedroom where she is keeping him. These are her signals that the job is done.
3. Consuming more sweets and less vegetables
According to review of 23 studies published in 2021 edition International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Policy, many of us are consuming more ultra-processed foods and fewer fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods than before the pandemic. All of this can go up levels of inflammationespecially in the gut, which in turn affects the brain, Giordano says.
“Diets with a strong antioxidant bias are important for reducing the overall level of inflammation and its effect on the brain,” says Giordano. Try to include plenty of:
4. Insufficient exercise
Initially, during the pandemic, many of us took to our bikes, footpaths and walking paths, making the most of our time away from work. But as telecommuting began to pile up — and gyms remained closed for extended periods of time — many people began to move less and sit more, according to research published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine.
That’s not good for our brains, both in the short and long term, says Wendy Suzuki, a neuroscientist at New York University and author of Good anxiety and Happy brain, happy life.
Long-term, sedentary lifestyle is associated with cognitive decline such as dementia. In the short term, lack of activity interferes with focus, concentration and mood. This is most likely because movement triggers the brain to release a cocktail of chemicals such as serotonin and endorphinsthat reduce anxiety, eliminate depression and improve focus, says Suzuki.
“You might think that if you spend an extra 15 minutes answering an email, you’ll improve your productivity,” says Suzuki. “I would argue that if you instead use that time to move your body, your mood will be better, your focus will be better, your memory will be better, and you’ll be more productive .”
5. Saving sleep
According to studies done by the Better Sleep Councilthe percentage of people classified as ‘rough sleepers’ has increased by 6 per cent between 2019 and 2021.
When we sleep, the brain not only organizes memories and restores brain processingit too flushes out toxins which accumulate when we are awake. When you don’t get enough of shuteye, these toxins can hang around, increasing the risk of dementia. Also, lack of sleep makes it harder to break the bad habits mentioned above, says Boseowski. You cannot concentrate at work, which makes you work longer. You’re tired, so you skip the gym. You’re craving sweets, so the vegetables are rotting in your fridge. And communicating feels like too much work.
Think of sleep as a master habit that allows all the other good brain habits to happen, says Boseowski.
Read more: Important habits to keep your brain healthy
That said, getting more sleep is usually more complicated than just telling yourself to do it. Paradoxically, trying too much can backfire, a raise anxiety levels that keep you awake. So take baby steps, making small, tiny changes, like going to bed 5 minutes earlier, rather than aiming for huge changes, suggests Boseowski.
Changing these bad habits for the brain
If you’re feeling a little anxious after reading about the negative consequences of these habits, try to see that anxiety as fuel for growth, Suzuki suggests. Take your “what if my bad habits are screwing up my brain?” anxiety and turn it into an actionable to-do list, she says.
For example, if you’re worried about the lack of vegetables in your diet, you might take action by deciding to eat one vegetable each day with dinner. Or, if you’re worried about sitting too much, you can choose to walk for five minutes once an hour during the workday.
This will move you from anxiety paralysis toward an active determination that not only feels better, but also helps you do things that are good for your brain, she says.