COVID 19: A Neuroscience Perspective

How do anxiety and stress related to COVID-19 affect cognitive functions?  

A Conversation with Kevin LaBar, PhD
 Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience

Please tell us about your research.

My lab’s research focuses on how emotions bias cognitive processes in the human brain. We assay emotional reactions using behavioral reports and physiological responses, and we investigate how emotions impact brain function using neuroimaging methods in healthy individuals and in those with psychiatric disorders.

Your work has shown that emotional events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, can influence a person’s ability to make good decisions and think clearly.  Can you help us understand how people’s emotional responses to the current situation might affect their thinking and actions? 

The COVID-19 pandemic is a rare example of an enduring stressor that has broadly affected the world’s population at the same time and has significantly altered activities of daily living. The stay-at-home orders are unique to this event and provide additional challenges. Because of the reduced environmental stimulation and social interaction, there is more opportunity for the mind to wander and internally focus, particularly for those who are unemployed, isolated, or sick. While such a reflective opportunity can provide a means for self-improvement, in the context of a pandemic, it more likely leads to rumination or worry, catastrophic thoughts, or a sense of loneliness that can exacerbate distress. Individuals who are intolerant of uncertainty are especially prone to anxiety in the face of a pandemic due to the many unknown parameters of the event, including its duration, the likelihood of being personally impacted, and the timing and availability of an effective vaccine.

Anxiety and stress related to events like COVID-19 impact many physiological and cognitive functions, including sleep, attention, memory and decision-making. Anxious individuals tend to engage more attention to information about stressors that prolong negative mood states and divert resources away from executing task-relevant goals needed to manage the crisis. Attentional focusing on threats can cause individuals to miss other environmental features that counteract negative mood, like the beautiful and warm spring weather. Stress is known to impair sleep and memory retrieval, which can contribute to feelings of incompetence on tasks that would be handled readily otherwise. Memories of threats can be distorted in ways that make the event seem worse or last longer than it actually was, particularly if the event is repeatedly rehearsed and integrated with one’s current negative mood. Anxious states alter decision-making even when the individual is not aware of their presence and even when the decisions are unrelated to the source of anxiety; these features make it difficult to override negative biases in decision making.

Do you have any suggestions for people coping with the COVID-19 pandemic based on your research on emotion and its effects on cognition?

Research on emotion regulation provides some guideposts for effective coping tactics during stressful times. Not all strategies work well for everyone, so it’s important for people to try out different ones and to use whatever works best for them. In addition, COVID-19 policy restrictions make some outlets for self-regulation unavailable (like flying to a relaxing destination or exercising at a gym class), and substitutes may have to be identified. Suppressing or avoiding emotions related to the pandemic and blaming oneself or others for the distress will certainly be counterproductive.

Some effective strategies emphasize quelling the arousal and negative affect associated with one’s stressful reaction. This outcome can be achieved by practicing yoga, meditating, doing deep breathing exercises, going outside for a walk, or engaging in other forms of physical activity (gardening, biking, etc.). Sleep may also benefit from these activities as well as from getting into a regular routine, compartmentalizing work and home functions, and limiting stress reminders at night. Other strategies emphasize shifting attention (“attentional reallocation”) away from the stressor and onto more pleasant activities. This can be accomplished by reducing news exposure about COVID-19, creating positive distractions or forms of entertainment (playing games, reading books, watching TV comedies), or using social media to contact friends or family members. Importantly, attentional reallocations are not very cognitively demanding and are effective even in older adults and in some psychiatric populations.

More effortful strategies involve changing one’s thoughts about the crisis in ways that will mitigate stress and reframe the event in a more positive light. For instance, one can reframe the pandemic into possible benefits it might achieve (unifying the world, reducing harm to the environment), or one can imagine the event from the perspective of a distant future to placate anxiety (how will you feel about it 10 years from now?).

Prior research has shown that problem-focused coping tactics help alleviate anxiety in individuals who are intolerant of uncertainty. These include resolving issues related to managing activities disrupted by the pandemic (learning to telecommute, finding on-line tutorial assistance with home schooling, updating a resume to align with available job opportunities) and taking steps to plan for societal re-engagement once restrictions are lifted (making a face mask, figuring out how to maintain social distancing in the workplace). Self-regulation in uncertain and distressing times requires accepting the feelings and taking on the challenges created by the event, and focusing on the specific aspects that can be managed.

Where can people find additional information or resources?