IS YOUR BRAIN BEING HIJACKED BY COVID-19 FEARS?

MORE THAN HALF OF AMERICANS ADMIT SUFFERING ANXIETY DUE TO PANDEMIC, TOTAL BRAIN STUDY FINDS 

UNPRECEDENTED STRESS LEADING TO HOARDING, OVERREACTING 

POSITIVE MINDSET, BREATHING EXERCISES KEY TO FEELING BETTER 

Isolation. Uncertainty. Lack of control. The mental health fallout from the pandemic is real. And as we shift into panic mode trying to protect ourselves physically, our mental health is paying the price. A recent study by Total Brain finds that more than half of Americans admit they’re suffering from anxiety brought on by the pandemic. Twenty percent of those respondents say they are very anxious, and those numbers are rising. Dr. Evian Gordon, co-founder and Chief Medical Officer of Total Brain, says we may feel the world is out of control, but how we handle our mental health is in our control.

Aired on May 4, 2020. 

TRANSCRIPT

> HELLO AND WELCOME TO 'METROFOCUS,' I'M RAFAEL PI ROMAN.

YOU KNOW, AS THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC CONTINUES TO TAKE ITS TOLL ON OUR PHYSICAL HEALTH, OUR COLLECTIVE MENTAL WELL-BEING IS ALSO PAYING A PRICE.

IN FACT, A RECENT OBSERVATIONAL STUDY SUGGESTS THAT OVER HALF OF ALL AMERICANS COULD BE SUFFERING FROM ANXIETY BROUGHT ON BY THE PANDEMIC.

AND THOSE NUMBERS ARE REPORTEDLY RISING AMID A PERFECT STORM OF WORRY ABOUT OUR HEALTH AND OUR ECONOMY, SO WHAT CAN WE DO TO OVERCOME THESE FEELINGS OF FEAR AND ANXIETY, AND WHAT LONG-TERM IMPACT COULD THE PANDEMIC HAVE ON OUR MENTAL HEALTH?

JOINING US NOW WITH ANSWERS IS DR. EVIAN GORDON.

DR. GORDON IS AN EXPERT ON THE HUMAN BRAIN AND THE COFOUNDER AND CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER OF TOTAL BRAIN, A NEUROSCIENCE BASED MENTAL HEALTH AND WELLNESS DIGITAL PLATFORM.

DR. GORDON, THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR JOINING US TODAY.

IT'S A PLEASURE TO HAVE YOU HERE WITH US.

IT'S MY PLEASURE, THANK YOU.

SO DR. GORDON, FIRST OF ALL, YOU KNOW, THIS VIRUS CAN KILL US, AT LEAST SOME OF US.

IT CAN BANKRUPT US.

IT HAS SPREAD ALL OVER THE WORLD.

IT HAS CLEARLY SHOWN US THAT WE ARE NOT AT ALL IN CONTROL OF THINGS, AND HAS FORCED US TO HIDE IN OUR HOMES.

IN SHORT, IT HAS TURNED OUR WORLD UPSIDE DOWN, SO WHY SHOULDN'T WE BE FULL OF FEAR AND ANXIETY?

WOULDN'T WE BE CRAZY NOT TO BE?

TOTALLY.

SO THAT'S TOTALLY TRUE, RAFAEL, AND OF COURSE WE HAVE -- YOU KNOW, WE HAVE -- WE HAPPEN TO OVERSEE THE WORLD'S LARGEST BRAIN DATABASE OF INFORMATION, AND WHEN WE LOOK AROUND THE COUNTRY, THAT IS THE CASE.

THERE IS CLEARLY A BRAIN HIJACK, AND WHY SHOULDN'T THERE BE?

I'M 67 YEARS OLD, AND I'VE BEEN INVOLVED IN A LOT OF THINGS, AND I'VE NEVER SEEN SUCH UNCERTAINTY.

IN FACT, IT'S INCREDIBLE TO SEE THE WORLD BROUGHT TO ITS KNEES IN THIS WAY.

IT'S UNPRECEDENTED.

SO YES, THERE IS A HARSH REALITY THAT WE ALL SEE AND THAT IS THE BRAIN IS ABOUT STABILITY.

IT IS ABOUT SAFETY, AND THE NUMBER ONE THING THAT CHALLENGES THAT SAFETY, OTHER THAN A PHYSICAL THREAT, IS UNCERTAINTY.

SO IT IS TOTAL -- IT'S A PERFECT STORM OF NEGATIVE CHALLENGES TO THE BRAIN.

SO I THINK, RAFAEL THE ISSUE IS THIS NOT REALISTIC AND SHOULD WE NOT BE ANXIOUS, WE SHOULD BE.

I THINK THE CHALLENGE THAT WE SEE WHEN WE LOOK AT THE DATA WEEK TO WEEK AND WE SEE THAT THIS INCREASE IN ANXIETY, THIS PRECIPITOUS INCREASE IS COUPLED NOW WITH FUNDAMENTAL CHANGES IN OUR BRAIN CAPACITIES.

WHAT DO I MEAN BY THAT?

I MEAN THAT THE ANXIETY IS NOW STARTING TO AFFECT THE WAY THAT OUR FUNDAMENTAL BRAIN WORKS, HOW WELL WE CAN FOCUS.

CAN WE MAKE GOOD DECISIONS IN FLEXIBLE, AND THAT IS BECAUSE WE'RE IN THIS FIGHT OR FLIGHT STATE, SO THE QUESTION TO ME IS EXACTLY SPOT ON WHAT YOU'RE SAYING, BUT NOW IT IS A SIMPLE CHOICE.

WE HAVE ABOUT 50,000 THOUGHTS A DAY.

HOW MANY OF THOSE THOUGHTS DO WE WANT TO BE PREOCCUPIED WITH MAGNIFYING THE THREAT THAT COULD LEAD TO OUR INERTIA AT LEAST, AND HOW MANY DO WE WANT TO START SHIFTING TOWARDS REFRAMING THIS CHALLENGE TOWARDS STARTING TO DEAL WITH A SLIGHTLY MORE MEDIUM TERM AND LONG-TERM FUTURE OF HOW WE'RE GOING TO DEAL WITH THIS.

YEAH, AND I WANT TO GET TO THAT.

YOU HAVE THREE SUGGESTIONS OR THREE TIPS ON HOW TO DEAL WITH IT.

BEFORE WE GET TO THAT, I WANT TO TALK ABOUT -- YOU CALL IT THE HIJACKING OF THE BRAIN.

I WONDER IF YOU COULD ELABORATE ON THAT.

SURE.

HOW HAS THIS FEAR, THIS UNIQUE FEAR AND ANXIETY HIJACKED OUR BRAIN?

SO THE BRAIN FROM WHAT WE KNOW -- AND WE LOOK AT THE ESSENCE AS BEST AS WE CAN AND BRING ALL THE PIECES TOGETHER, BUT EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS, THAT THE BRAIN HAS -- IT'S GOT BIASES, AND IT'S ABOUT SAFETY.

SO WHAT IS THE BIAS?

THE BIAS IS ABOUT THREAT.

WHEN WE HAVE A THREAT, THE BRAIN WILL DEAL WITH THAT FIRST, SO THE HIJACK IS BECAUSE THE PROPORTION, THE IMPACT OF THE STRESS HAS BEEN SO UNPRECEDENTED THAT IT IS HIJACKING US.

NOW, SOME PEOPLE HAVE DIFFERENT DEFENSES TO IT.

WE KNOW THAT ONE OF THE GREATEST DEFENSES IS DENIAL.

SERIOUSLY PEOPLE, WHAT ARE WE DOING.

AND OF COURSE THAT'S UNDERS UNDERSTANDABLE, TOO, BUT IN THE SCHEME OF THINGS, THIS IS A VERY REAL THREAT FOR WHICH WE HAVE NO REAL SOLUTION.

SO OTHER THAN DISTANCING.

SO IT IS VERY REAL, AND IT IS A REAL BRAIN HIJACKING.

I'LL JUST TELL YOU ONE OTHER THING.

IN THE BRAIN 85 BILLION HIGHLY INTERCONNECTED NEURONS, HUGELY INITIALLY FOCUSSED ON SAFETY, SO WHEN I SAY HIJACKED, I MEAN THAT THE FEAR IS SO DOMINANT THAT WHEN WE LOOK IN OUR DATABASE ABOUT HOW FEAR WORKS, THE BRAIN IS WIRED FOR THIS KIND OF STUFF.

SO TRIGGERING IT, WE KNOW THAT POLITICIANS DO THIS ALL THE TIME, AND THEY BECOME EXPERTS IN IT.

BUT TRIGGERS US IN THIS WAY IS KIND OF UNIVERSAL.

YOU CAN SEE THE WHOLE WORLD HAS BEEN HIJACKED BY THIS.

IT'S NOT AN ISOLATED KIND OF POCKET OF PEOPLE, THE MAJORITY OF PEOPLE, THE VAST MAJORITY OF PEOPLE.

YOU TALK ABOUT -- YOU ALSO MENTION FIGHT OR FLIGHT OR FIGHT OR FLIGHT MENTALITY.

I WONDER IF YOU COULD SPECIFY FOR US AND EXPLAIN SOME OF THE P PECULIAR BEHAVIORS AS ASSOCIATED WITH FIGHT OR FLIGHT, FOR EXAMPLE, THE HOARDING OF TOILET PAPER.

HOW IS THAT ASSOCIATED WITH FIGHT OR FLIGHT?

THERE'S THAT AND THERE'S ALSO THIS SECOND PIECE I SEE WHICH IS REAC REACTIVITY.

I'VE BEEN ON WALKS, I'VE BEEN IN THE SUPERMARKET, I'M IN MY 41st DAY OF LOCKDOWN.

PEOPLE WERE SHOUTING AT EACH OTHER.

PEOPLE WERE BEING SUPER REACTIVE BECAUSE THAT'S WHAT HAPPENED IN FIGHT OR FLIGHT.

FIGHT OR FLIGHT IS TO DEAL WITH THE IMMEDIATE THREAT, THAT'S WHAT IT'S ABOUT.

WHEN THAT STARTS PERSISTING, ALL THE MYOPIA, THE NARROW SHUTDOWN FOCUS AND THINKING AND REACTIVITY TO GET OUT OF DANGER BECOMES -- STARTS BECOMING INAPPROPRIATE, SO THAT'S WHY PEOPLE ARE STARTING TO OVERLY COMPENSATE, HOARDING STUFF OR BY BEING REACTIVE TO PEOPLE OR BY DENIAL.

THESE ARE VERY EXTREME REACTIONS TO A VERY UNDERSTANDABLE MAGNITUDE OF THE THREAT.

WHAT'S BEEN YOUR OBSERVATION ABOUT HOW WE'RE DEALING WITH SOCIAL DISTANCING?

I MEAN, APART FROM THE FEAR OF THE PANDEMIC, FEAR FOR OUR LIVES, FEAR FOR OUR WELL-BEING ECONO ECONOMICALLY, THERE'S THIS SOCIAL DISTANCING WE HAVE TO LIVE THROUGH.

WE'RE SOCIAL ANIMALS, AND WE'RE NOT MEANT TO BE HIDING AWAY IN A HOUSE FOR WEEKS, AND WE'RE NOT MEANT WHEN WE'RE WALKING DOWN THE STREET TO WALK ACROSS THE STREET WHEN SOMEBODY'S COMING BY.

IT'S JUST BIZARRE.

THAT HAS TO BE HAVING AN IMPACT ON OUR BRAIN.

WHAT IMPACT IS THAT HAVING?

WELL, YEAH, WE ARE SOCIAL ANIMALS, AND CLEARLY HAVING OXYTOCIN, THE BONDING CHEMICAL IS A VERY INTEGRAL PART OF OUR LIVES.

IT DRIVES A LOT OF BEHAVIOR.

THE TWO CHEMICALS, THE REWARD CHEMICAL, DOPAMINE AND OXYTOCIN, HOW DO WE GET THE BONDING?

FIRSTLY WE'RE LOSING IT, AND PEOPLE ARE STARTING TO GET A LITTLE UNNERVED BY IT, BUT THERE IS ALSO A SOCIAL CONNECTION THAT'S HAPPENING ON THE WEB, THE FACT THAT I'M TALKING TO YOU TODAY.

NOW, CLEARLY THERE'S LIMITS TO THAT, BUT PEOPLE ARE ALSO LOOKING AT -- AND TALK ABOUT THE NEW NORMAL.

THEY'RE LOOKING AT WAYS TO CONNECT TO PEOPLE, TO FRIENDS, TO FAMILY IN NEW WAYS, SO THAT'S NOT NEARLY THE SAME, AND IN ANSWER TO YOUR QUESTION, THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTE FOR THAT.

BUT PEOPLE HAVE BEEN SURPRISINGLY ADAPTIVE.

I MEAN, I'M SHOCKED AT HOW MUCH PEOPLE HAVE ADHERED TO THIS.

IT'S WELL OVER 90% OF PEOPLE ARE DOING THIS AND CERTAINLY IN CALIFORNIA, I AM SHOCKED AT HOW PEOPLE ARE JUST WITH THE PROGRAM.

THERE'S NO QUESTION ABOUT IT.

IT'S AMAZING.

HOW MUCH LONGER CAN WE GO THROUGH THIS?

YOU KNOW, I DON'T KNOW, BUT I DO KNOW THAT, YOU KNOW, EVERYTHING IS A TRADE-OFF IN LIFE, AND SOONER OR LATER THE STRATIFIED STEP BY STEP OPTIONS ARE COMING, BUT NONE OF THEM ARE GOOD.

SO YOU HAVE SOME TIPS.

YOU HAVE SOME SUGGESTIONS ABOUT HOW WE CAN BEST DEAL WITH THIS UNPRECEDENTED REALITY THAT WE ARE FACED WITH.

GIVE US THOSE TIPS.

SURE, I MEAN, THE FIRST THING RAFAEL, JUST TO CONTEXT IS WHAT WE SEE IN THE BRAIN IS THAT THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A VERY ADAPTIVE BRAIN AND NOT, IT'S JUST SELF-INSIGHT.

SO THE FIRST THING IS, I THINK, FOR PEOPLE TO JUST ASSESS THEIR OWN BRAINS.

DO PEOPLE -- THIS IS THE OPPORTUNITY, IN MY VIEW, WHERE IT IS AN OPPORTUNITY WHERE WE'RE LOOKING AT YOUR OWN BRAIN AND UNDERSTANDING YOUR STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES.

THIS IS A GOOD TIME FOR THAT BECAUSE WITH THAT YOU CAN USE IT STRENGTHS OR WEAKNESSES IS ANXIETY A WEAKNESS, ARE YOU REALLY OVERREACTIVE?

IT'S IMPORTANT TO KNOW.

IF YOU DON'T MEASURE IT, YOU CAN'T MANAGE IT.

BUT THEN YOU CAN DEPLOY TOOLS, VERY SIMPLE TOOLS TO BREAK THE -- OR TO SHAKE, I SHOULD SAY, SHAKE THE BAD 50,000 THOUGHTS WE HAVE A DAY.

NOW WE HAVE A CHOICE, WE CAN LIVE IN NEGATIVE, PROBLEM FOCUSED OR SOLUTION FOCUSED THOUGHTS.

50,000 THOUGHTS A DAY, SO THE ISSUE IS WHAT CAN WE DO FOR REAL, NOT A KIND OF LIST OF THINGS BUT SPECIFIC WAYS THAT WE CAN IN THE MOMENT SWITCH FROM THESE NEGATIVE THOUGHTS TO POSITIVE THOUGHTS.

I'LL GIVE YOU AN EXAMPLE JUST TOP OF THE LIST.

RAFAEL, THE THING IS THIS, IF WE WANT TO SWITCH OUT OF THE FIGHT FLIGHT, BREATHING AT SIX BREATHS A MINUTE IS ONE OF THE BEST SWITCHES WE HAVE SEEN.

NOW, YOU GO, HANG ON, YOU KNOW, WE ALL KNOW THAT BREATHING SLOWLY IS GOOD FOR US, YEP, BUT IT TURNS OUT THAT SIX BREATHS PER MINUTE AND YOU FOLLOW A BREATHING PACING TO GET IT ACCURATE, IT'S GOT DEEP UNDERLYING PHYSIOLOGY.

IT'S LINKED TO YOUR BLOOD PRESSURE CONTROL.

SO IT'S A REAL SWITCH.

IT'S NOT SOME, YOU KNOW, NICE ATTITUDE.

IT'S A REALLY SERIOUS PHYSIOLOGICAL SWITCH.

SO THERE'S ONE SIMPLE TIP OF FOCUS.

THE SECOND ONE IS POSITIVITY.

YOU KNOW, WE ARE WHAT WE FOCUS ON.

IF YOU WANT TO FOCUS ON MAGTIVETY, YOU'LL MAG NIFY IT AD IT WILL CONSUME YOU.

WHAT ARE THE STRATEGIES?

WHAT ARE THE STRATEGIES TO, WHAT IS WORKING?

LET'S SEEK IT OUT, BUT IT REQUIRES TRAINING.

YOU CAN'T DO THIS JUST FROM SORT OF, YOU KNOW, HAPPY THINKING.

YOU'VE GOT TO REWIRE YOUR BRAIN, GET A NEW HABIT THAT INSTEAD OF BEING CONSUMED BY PROBLEMS, START LOOKING IN A REALISTIC WAY TO TRAIN YOURSELF TO PICK UP WHAT IS WORKING AND MAGNIFY THAT, AND THERE ARE TOOLS THAT CAN HELP THAT, LITTLE GAMES ALMOST.

BUT THEY'RE TOOLS, THERE ARE TOOLS TO DO THAT.

AND THEN THE THIRD THING IS FOCUS.

WELL, FOCUS IS BEST ACHIEVED IN SMALL STEPS BECAUSE WHEN WE'RE ANXIOUS, WE'RE SUPER DISTRACTED BECAUSE WE'RE NOT IN THE FLEXIBLE STATE.

WE'RE IN AN INFLEXIBLE STATE, SO TAKE SMALL STEPS, BE IN THE MOMENT AND COALESCE INTO BIGGEST STEP INTO FINISHING TASKS THAT ARE IMPORTANT TO YOU.

THERE ARE THREE WAYS THAT I THINK THE DIGITAL TOOLS ON THE WEB CAN BE HELPFUL TO PEOPLE TO GET THEM TO TRAIN THEIR BRAIN AND NOT JUST THINK ABOUT IT IN A PLATITUDE IN A SENSE.

REWIRE YOUR BRAIN.

IT CAN BE DONE, IT CAN BE DONE PRETTY QUICKLY AND VERY SIMPLY IF YOU FOUND THE RIGHT TOOLS AND MATCH THEM TO THE WAY YOUR BRAIN WORKS AND WHICH YOU FIND MOST HELPFUL.

LISTEN, WE HAVE ABOUT A MINUTE LEFT, AND IN A MINUTE CAN YOU TELL US THINKING POSITIVELY ABOUT POSITIVITY, WHAT ARE THE POSITIVE THINGS FOR OUR MENTAL WELL-BEING THAT COULD COME OUT OF THIS CORONAVIRUS CRISIS FOR US?

YEAH, GREAT QUESTION.

WELL, FIRSTLY, BEING MORE FLEXIBLE.

JUST THE NOTION THAT THESE KINDS OF THINGS ARE PART OF LIFE, AND IF WE'RE NOT FLEXIBLE AND ADAPTIVE, IT'S NOT GOOD.

IT DOESN'T END WELL, AND THE STRESS AND THE ACCUMULATED STRESS CAUSES ALL SORTS OF DOWNSIDE.

NUMBER ONE IS FLEXIBILITY.

NUMBER TWO IS REFRAIN.

KNOWING OUR BRAINS AND THINKING STRATEGICALLY ABOUT THE SHORT, MEDIUM, AND LONG-TERM GIVES US A KIND OF GAME PLAN TO USE OUR BRAINS EFFECTIVELY TO DEAL WITH THE SITUATION GOING FORWARD, AND THEN FIND SPECIFIC WAYS TO MEASURE AND TRAIN YOUR BRAIN, REWIRE IT IN A GRANULAR WAY, NOT IN JUST A SORT OF SIMPLISTIC AND CHECKLIST WAY.

SO HOPEFULLY ALL THIS, WE WILL LEARN FROM THIS AND MOVE FORWARD IN A POSITIVE WAY.

DOCTOR, THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR JOINING US TODAY.

IT'S BEEN A PLEASURE.

IT'S BEEN A PLEASURE TO SPEAK TO YOU.

THANK YOU.

Funders

MetroFocus is made possible by James and Merryl Tisch, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bernard and Irene Schwartz, Rosalind P. Walter, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Janet Prindle Seidler, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.

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