Neuroscience Solutions Based on Brain Type for Thriving During Covid-19 and Beyond

This article goes beyond cookie-cutter recommendations for how to get through the added stress, pressure, and challenge during the Covid-19 pandemic.

While it is sometimes helpful to browse a menu of general recommendations to spur positive action, many experts’ one-size-fits-all tips may not be helpful depending on your brain type.  For example, executives often have difficulty meditating, and reminding them over and over that meditation is a good practice can be frustrating, as their brains do not necessarily calm down when they are still.  They may experience an increase in anxiety if they try to meditate and can, as a result, be left feeling like a failure.  People who tend to have a hard time with motivation might need a brain boost before they can even contemplate adding more to their list of things to do and might find suggestions to “do more” overwhelming.  A resulting sense of demoralization can lower productivity and motivation even more.

To help you, I’ve put together some categories of brain-types so you can see which one most closely fits your current state.  Because most of us are under increased stress right now, these tendencies may not be your default but reflect how you adapt to stress in these challenging times. So, try to think about how you’ve been functioning over the last month vs. over the last few years. Some people will identify with more than one type. You can review the specific recommendations and solutions for at-home help.  Some are free and some require technology or professional help. I hope this will be helpful to you!  Remember, we are all in this together and you are not alone.  Everyone can use a dose of extra self-care during this time and we are here to support you!

Brain Type 1: Intense and Needing Stimulation

If you are a mover and a shaker, lockdown might be causing a lot of restlessness right now.  The tendency for this type is to be hard charging, productive, and have high standards for yourself and others.  Current stressors may be causing sleep difficulties. Being attentive and present without internal distractions might be a real challenge lately.  It might be hard to stop incessant thoughts.  If you have kids at home, you might be pressuring them to do more than they can handle or be frustrated when home schooling is not going smoothly. Not being able to seek outside stimulus, travel, or attend activities might be a real challenge for you.

1.) Don’t take advice from calm, introspective types.  Sitting still and meditating (unless you are already a practiced meditator) may be frustrating for your brain type unless you use tech products such as an Alpha-Stim or TouchPoints before or during the practice to calm your busy mind.  Try activities that bring balance through movement like Hatha Yoga or exercise. If you are stuck at home, it’s OK.  Peloton (not an endorsement) is offering a free 90-day-trial of their app and has yoga and classes using body weight so even without equipment you can make it work.

2.) Give yourself credit for all of your extra work. Don’t try to learn a new language or add more to-dos right now.  It’s hard not to have a full dance card and these types often minimize the added toll of responsibility and then pile on more activities on top of that.  Take pause and write down all the extra work you are doing and don’t overload yourself.  As a single mom who has added home-schooling to my daily routine along with all the household chores and tutoring–since no one is coming into my house to help–I had to realize that, yes, I did gain time by not commuting, but these added responsibilities add a net of 3 hours of extra tasks to my day.  Sometimes you just need to be reminded that you are already doing enough or even too much, and to not create loftier goals that will add stress.  And, if this is netting you less to do during the day, remember that not every minute needs to be filled with something to do that’s exciting or “productive.”

VieLight Neuro Duo
The Vielight Neuro Duo combines two of our transcranial photobiomodulation (tPBM) devices with Vielight’s patented intranasal technology.

3.) If you want to add new things to your list, make sure they are doable.  During times of stress, we operate at a lower functional capacity.  Not everyone can bring his or her “A” game all day, everyday.  Give yourself a mulligan if you aren’t feeling particularly productive or if your mood isn’t as great as it normally is.  Let yourself rest and remember you’re probably doing better than you give yourself credit for!

4.) For performance enhancement, consider buying or renting the Vie-Light Gamma/Alpha Neuro Duo- a non-chemical way to improve brain function.  Use Gamma first (for 20 minutes) followed by Alpha (for 20 minutes).  Gamma has been shown to lower excess slow-wave activity, which can oftentimes tank our performance when we are tired.  Alpha has been shown to improve mood and can possibly prevent irritation during stressful times.  The mechanism in the Vie Light may safely block nitrous oxide in the cells, which might boost ATP production giving the cells more productivity and possibly longer life according to some research.

Brain Type 2: Hard-To-Get Motivated But Easily Stressed

If you have a hard time starting and finishing tasks and are prone to lying around and worrying, this pandemic might be especially challenging for your brain type.  You might already sleep quite a lot or fluctuate between periods of “sleeping in” and restless nights.  You may have a hard time with self-discipline and be particularly glued to the news or social media at the expense of structure and pro-active daily habits.  If you have a partner, they might be frustrated about the division of labor when you are stressed. You might get irritated if you feel like your significant other is too demanding or have difficulty if you need to work from home without the structure of a work environment.  You may be at risk for depression and anxiety during this time and may be prone to picking up an old addiction or gaining weight or starting a new bad habit.

1.) One trick for your brain type is to create some positive change without too much effort.  Because you might develop “demand resistance” if you feel like someone is dictating what to do, any goals would be better if you are the one to develop them.

2.) Start with the two most important issues for your health and well-being: sleep and stress.  If you are having problems sleeping, see #1 below under general recommendations. Create a boundary with your smartphone or news watching habits so the pandemic isn’t on your mind the last thing before you try to go to sleep.  Try to limit how much you are exposing yourself to the negative news and make sure if you read distressing news you offset that by something positive (like John Krasinski’s “Some Good News” on You Tube that is bringing many joy in this difficult time).

3.) To lower stress, find something that you are willing to do to rearrange the automatic worry thoughts that might come into your mind.  Remember, negative thoughts aren’t a problem unless we get stuck on them.  If you’re willing, make two columns on paper. The first is “automatic negative thought” and the second is “alternative possibilities.”  If my automatic thought is “I’m going to lose my house because of the pandemic,” write that down and then in the second column make a quick list of alternatives that might also be true like “I won’t lose my house” and list some facts that support the alternative like “I have 6 months in savings” and “If I lose my job I can trust myself to find another one” or “Things may bounce back in a few months.  Remind yourself that if something isn’t happening now, it’s a catastrophic thought that can be changed.  This is not an attempt to talk yourself out of reality.  But acknowledging other possibilities can help us not feel the despair of catastrophic thinking that can ruin our mood.

4.) Ask for structure if you need help.  Your brain type might be able to do tasks if you have a partner who does them with you or if you have help with some of the steps needed to get multi-step projects finished.  If you can make it fun, or at least not so tedious, you’ll be more likely to be productive.  Make sure you congratulate yourself for even small things you accomplish.

Brain Type 3: Even-Keeled and Supportive

Some people have an uncanny ability to remain calm and levelheaded during global crisis.  If this is you then, congratulations!  You may have the capacity to be supportive to other people with different brain types during this time.  People who are generally calm sometimes have a problem identifying when they are stressed.  Stress might manifest as physical pain or restlessness or take you by surprise and then be difficult to cope with because you may not have as much experience dealing with anxiety.

1.) If you are doing fine, that’s great!  Use your light as a beacon for others during this time as you’ll probably have some energy reserves to help others in many ways and this will boost your mood and your self-efficacy.

2.) Don’t ignore symptoms of stress.  You may not be easily rattled, but you aren’t immune to the human condition.  If you find yourself in sudden physical pain, struggling with sleep, or suddenly irritable, take a look at the recommendations for the other brain types and start a plan of a higher level of self-care.  You probably have healthy coping strategies already, but it’s good to focus on humor, healthy diet, exercise, rest, and social connection to bolster you during this time.

3.) Be aware of compassion fatigue.  If you’re normally a rock for others, the sheer amount of support that everyone is seeking right now might be overwhelming.  Remember to balance supporting others with supporting yourself.  Try not to become judgmental or impatient with people who may be struggling more than you are.  Remember you can’t help everyone with everything.   Professionals are here to help and most therapists are now offering teletherapy services for loved ones or friends who are struggling.

Brain Type 4: Irritable and Angry

If you tend to be irritable when stressed, “stay-at-home” orders might be creating too much closeness and a spike in this tendency.  Trying to stay calm often doesn’t work and those around us can typically pick up on non-verbal cues even if you aren’t saying anything.  If you live alone, anger can build to levels that create despair, depression, and sleeplessness.  Without the normal distractions and outlets, you may be feeling like being calm and happy is becoming more and more of an elusive state.  Quick fixes such as alcohol, cannabis, or addictive anti-anxiety drugs might be especially tempting.  Instead of engaging in behaviors that have consequences that will require more clean up after this pandemic is over, know that there are alternative solutions to help get you through.

the stress switch dr amy serin
The Stress Switch, The Truth About Stress and How to Short Circuit It.

1.) We all have “landmines” in our brains that when triggered create strong reactions.  Diffusing these landmines is more effective than trying to contain explosions after they detonate.  EMDR Therapy (teletherapy or in-person) can be an effective, long-term solution for lowering reactivity.  The therapy by itself is recommended when there are specific triggers. If you are someone that could be set off by many things and are easily irritated in general, then it might be necessary to exercise, get 7-9 hours of nightly sleep, and avoid caffeine and alcohol to help create a more even, balanced brain state.

2.) If you already have a healthy base of daily behaviors but are still frequently irritable, you may consider reviewing your patterns to deconstruct them.  One patient blew up at her family every day around 5:30 p.m. She ate a light, early lunch, and testing revealed her adrenaline increased if she had low blood sugar.  The remedy was to eat a high protein snack every day at 3 p.m.  The result was a better mood and more peace.  Consider all possibilities.  Stimulant medication for ADHD has a notorious “rebound” period in the late afternoon and early evening for people. Exercising during that time or using TouchPoints can smooth out the rebound and prevent outbursts.  Take note of the patterns of your irritability. Is it a particular person’s actions or time of day? Sometimes simply understanding our own patterns can help us find an easy solution.

3.) Write down your frustrations instead of verbalizing them.  Revisit when you are calm, soften the language, and then decide if there is a problem that really needs to be addressed.  Remember that when our stress switches are on high, we generally see things as being rigid and negative.  If you are in a partnership, don’t engage when either person is higher than a 5 on a stress switch scale of 0-10. Make an agreement that it’s not ignoring the other person’s needs if you take a break.  Agree to self-soothe and then re-engage when both people are calm.  If the conversation gets heated again, take another break.  Don’t believe your thoughts when you are stressed.  They are not reflective of how you will end up feeling.  And remember the importance of not spewing out contempt or name-calling towards your partner.  Anger can fade but verbal attacks leave cuts that can erode relationships over time.

4) Don’t add insult to injury.  Try not to be frustrated with yourself for being frustrated.  By giving yourself grace and accepting that your feelings are probably temporary, you’ll leave room for them to fade.  What we resist persists.  So sometimes we just need to acknowledge that things suck temporarily and then we can move on.

Recommendations for everyone regardless of type:

1.) Develop a healthy base of basic behaviors.  Now may not be the time to go nuts with detail on changes if you’re already overwhelmed.  Here are the basics:  Eat at least 6 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, try to maintain a healthy weight, exercise at least 5x/week for 30 minutes per day (brisk walking counts), get at least 7-9 hours of sleep per night and try to go to bed around the same time, foster positive social connections (at a distance), maintain basic hygiene even if you don’t have anywhere to go, limit alcohol, limit caffeine, limit other addictive substances.

2.) For mild sleep problems (taking 20-40 minutes to fall asleep), consider adding amber colored glasses to regulate your circadian rhythm and improve melatonin production.  For more serious sleep problems, (waking in the middle of the night, unable to go to sleep for more than 2 nights per week, taking more than 40 minutes to fall asleep most nights, nightmares or night terrors), consider the Alpha-Stim.  FDA approved for anxiety, depression, and insomnia, this non-chemical solution can be used daily to promote calm and improve functioning.

Alpha-Stim AID
Alpha-Stim AID treats anxiety, insomnia, and depression through cranial electrotherapy stimulation (CES) applied via patented Alpha-Stim Earclip Electrodes. Requires a prescription from Serin Center before purchase.

3.) Try the free Woebot app.  Woebot is an Artificial Intelligence Cognitive-Behavioral “robot” that has mechanisms for gratitude journaling, identifying and re-writing thoughts that cause anxiety and depression, breathing, and inspirational tutorials based on solid psychological principles.  Many of our patients have found it useful to check-in and do simple exercises that can help with anxiety or give a quick mood-boost.

4.) If you have a significant history of trauma, have had a sudden change in a major life circumstance, or feel you are having problems coping, teletherapy is recommended.  Therapists are more than a kind person who will listen to your problems.  The specific methods they use (i.e. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, EMDR Therapy) have been shown in thousands of studies to bring lasting relief and positive change beyond medication or other methods alone.

5.) Remember, many treatments are available at home during this time.  Use this time wisely so you can come out better and stronger than ever.  We can help prevent the onset of a problem like PTSD very easily in most cases.  Therapies are the most successful and have the fastest cure rate when someone starts them as soon as they recognize the problem.  Waiting for help only prolongs suffering and increases the cost and number of sessions needed for resolve.  If you think you or someone in your family might benefit, you can call us and at no charge our friendly staff will take the time to determine how we can help you.  If we do not offer what you need, we are happy to refer you to another doctor or provider who can help.

“Life always waits for some crisis to occur before revealing itself at its most brilliant.”

–Paul Coelho, Eleven Minutes

You are not alone during this trying time and there is help. Together we can support each other so that at the end of this we can look back, be proud of how we handled ourselves and the choices we made, and rebound stronger and with greater perspective.