- Controlling behavior throughout the day can be taxing on the prefrontal cortex or “frontal lobe,” which is responsible for self-control.
- The pandemic is draining because of all the new and changing behaviors required of people.
- Engaging in recharging activities, such as walking, socializing or reading, can make people feel lighter and more energized.
Recently, I reviewed how our “caveperson brains” react to the pandemic. But is there anything we can do about it? While we can’t do much to control our caveperson brain, there is another part of our brain that we can do something about.
The other relevant part of our brain is our prefrontal cortex or “frontal lobe.” This part of the brain regulates executive functioning (Kesner & Churchwell, 2011; Porcelli & Delgado, 2009), including initiating behavior, promoting and inhibiting behavior planning, and delaying gratification. This is where "self-control" or "willpower" is primarily regulated.
Unlike our caveperson brain, which functions continuously, our prefrontal cortex is more like a battery (Lowe et al., 2019; McGonigal, 2011). Essentially, we “drain our frontal lobe battery” as we control our behavior throughout the day. And during COVID-19, not only are our caveperson brains “on fire” but our frontal lobe batteries are incredibly spent. There is an enormous number of new behaviors required for us to get through a “COVID day” that continuously change. All of these require frontal lobe battery power to do. And because we can’t do much to control the stress of the pandemic, we should instead focus on charging our frontal lobes.
Integrating Recharging Activities Into Our Lives
A recharging activity is something that makes you feel more energetic at the end than when you start. Common recharging activities will include behaviors such as getting good sleep, eating healthy foods, staying hydrated, engaging in physical activity, being in nature, and social connection.
But there are also individual differences in recharging activities. For example, for an extrovert, socializing will be a battery recharge, whereas an introvert may find this activity draining. There is also probably an optimal amount of time for something to be recharging. A 30-minute walk might be recharging but a six-hour walk might be draining.
A recharging activity should not feel like another item on your "to-do list." Even though going for a walk may be a healthy activity for many people, if you feel angry or irritated by the end of your walk, it is not a recharging activity even if it’s a healthy habit. What we are looking for are activities that make us smile, feel "lighter," or feel more energized. We can try to be mindful and notice activities in our day that make us feel lighter or happier, or even possibly, help momentarily draw our attention away from the pandemic to the present moment.
Many of our previous recharging activities are no longer available or altered during the pandemic. We therefore have to be more creative and deliberate in terms of identifying and integrating recharging activities into our daily lives.
Here’s a list of my recharging activities. What are yours?
- Being in nature
- Hot tub or hot bath
Lee-Baggley, D., & Thakrar, S. (2020). Helping patients and health care providers through the COVID-19 pandemic: Empirically based tips and strategies to manage mental and physical health. Nephrology Nursing Journal, 47(6), 511-521, 572. https://doi.org/10.37526/1526-744X.2020.47.6.511
Kesner, R.P., & Churchwell, J.C. (2011). An analysis of rat prefrontal cortex in mediating executive function. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory, 96(3), 417-431. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nlm.2011.07.002
Porcelli, A.J., & Delgado, M.R. (2009). Acute stress modulates risk taking in financial decision making. Psychological Science, 20(3), 278-283. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009. 02288.x
Lowe, C.J., Reichelt, A.C., & Hall, P.A. (2019). The prefrontal cortex and obesity: A health neuroscience perspective. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 23(4), 349-361. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2019.01.005
McGonigal, K., (2011). The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. Avery: New York.