Pinball machine

Pandemic Brain

I recently had an aha moment about the pandemic. It came after days of typing and clicking on my laptop without producing or accomplishing anything of value. I had zero energy and wondered if I was depressed.

Do you have those days?

Many writers have struggled to practice their craft after COVID-19 hit. I had been fairly productive for several months, but lately, I’ve felt my enthusiasm wane. During this period of writing sloth-dom, even this short blog took me three four five days to finish. (Below, I list of some of the topics that bounced around my head in the process. It’s kinda funny, actually.)

I was pretty discouraged. Building a name for oneself as a writer is not for the faint of heart. And the pandemic adds another layer.

The pandemic adds to our already-full plates.

I think it’s because every day—every hour and minute, for some of us—we’re facing existential questions about our lives, the future of our country, even the future of humanity and this planet. My husband and I have gone so far as to give each other “if I get COVID” instructions above and beyond our advanced directives. Mine was: find a way to get my memoir published posthumously.

Many of our deepest existential questions have no easy answer, if they have an answer at all. The whys and hows just bounce around our brains until they fall in a black hole, only to pop up again the next time we ask.

This intensity of unknowns creates… (and here’s my aha moment)…Pandemic Brain.

Pandemic Brain is caused by an overload of existential questioning and the intensity of the unknown.

When I realized I had Pandemic Brain, I already felt better. Funny how naming a problem can do that.

Imagine a pinball machine. If you walk past it, it’s quiet. But as soon as you engage with it by pulling the plunger, you’re trapped. There’s so much pent-up energy in that tightly coiled spring, it’s nearly impossible to resist the urge to let it snap back. And when you finally release it, bedlam ensues.

As an HSP (Highly Sensitive Person), bedlam is especially uncomfortable for me.

With Pandemic Brain, the plunger is engaged by the news, a Facebook post, a comment from a friend, or even a thought you have in a quiet moment. You may have felt on top of things, but as soon as you release the plunger with a sproing, your thoughts zig-zag in a million directions with a gazillion different trajectories all at once, and you try frantically to create some semblance of order, knowing you’ll have little control.

Pandemic Brain is like a pinball machine

Yup. That about describes it for me. So what am I going to do about it?

What I’m going to do is return to the strategies I use anytime I feel overwhelmed, distracted, unproductive, in a funk:

  • Give myself permission to be imperfectly human.
  • Look for and articulate the lessons I learn from every struggle.
  • Meditate–even five minutes helps.
  • Look for moments in the day when I am not in overwhelming pain or discomfort, nor under extreme pressure. For many of us, there are more of those moments in a day than we realize. I revel in the calm of those moments.
  • Practice gratitude of the little things. Of course we’re all grateful for family and friends, but don’t forget to appreciate curbside pickup at the liquor store, plentiful rolls of toilet paper again available, and programmable coffee makers.
  • Laugh. I’ve never watched the Ellen Degeneres show, but her funniest moments Youtube videos are fall-on-the-floor hilarious.

And for some roll-your-eyes humor, here are some topics that dinged around in my Pandemic Brain for this month’s blog:

  • Why I call my husband Michael “Mike” in my book, and my son Matt “Matthew,” and what it’s like to be “Karen” lately now that the name is infamous, and do you even know that “Karen” is a thing, and what’s really in a name?
  • My book proposal is almost done except the marketing section, which is the thing I dreaded most about writing a proposal and I think I’m having a major flare of imposter syndrome.
  • I’m such an introvert that even virtual engaging like on Twitter and Facebook is exhausting so I take breaks for a few days but then I think about what I should be posting and tweeting and I’m going to coin the phrase “the vortex of engagement,” and that would be a great essay if I ever have the time or energy to write it.
  • And what authors can I ask to blurb my book, but the real question is, do I have the nerve to ask?

One thing I failed to mention in my list of “treatments” for Pandemic Brain is writing. It may be hard to generate intelligible prose with a blur of ideas and questions and fears buzzing around in my head, but when the words come, they help me understand myself and the world I inhabit.

So writing is another thing for me to be grateful for. And I’m grateful to you for reading this today. Thank you, my friend.

Now it’s time to get back to work.


  • Karen DeBonis

    Karen DeBonis writes about motherhood, people-pleasing, and personal growth, the entangled mix told in her memoir "Growth: A Mother, Her Son, and the Brain Tumor They Survived" forthcoming in spring 2023. Subscribe today to receive Chapter 1: A Reckoning.

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  1. Gail Boenning on August 11, 2020 at 7:42 AM

    Hi Karen! Inspired by another blog yesterday that suggested thinking about what I’d like to “feel” more of…I thought of laughter and humor….joy. The universe, speaking through you (?) delivered Ellen along with Karen Humor—drive through liquor stores! Ha! We have a local gas station that provides that service.😁

    Pandemic Brain—You can maybe get that into the urban dictionary?

    Thank you for bringing me joy!

    • Karen DeBonis on August 11, 2020 at 9:01 PM

      Hmm. Urban dictionary – hadn’t thought of that. What a claim to fame that would be, huh? Glad I brought you joy, Gail, and thanks for returning it with your comment!

  2. Mike on August 11, 2020 at 8:14 AM

    Great blog dear, it says a lot about these times.

    • Karen DeBonis on August 11, 2020 at 9:03 PM

      Thanks Dear. You may never quite get used to how my brain works, but you make a valiant effort every day.

  3. Sheba Olenik on August 11, 2020 at 8:16 AM

    I believe you are doing great!
    Stop worrying and enjoy life!

    • Karen DeBonis on August 11, 2020 at 9:11 PM

      Thanks for the vote of confidence, Sheba. We really are blessed, so be assured that I’ll keep my inner-“worrier” in check.

  4. Debbie Kirsch on August 11, 2020 at 2:21 PM

    WOW. I’d like to leave it at that, but…
    Gotta think some more, about all of it, & what to comment on. What’s this about the name “Karen”? I can only think of one thing, but don’t think that’s it.
    My brain is fuzzy.

    • Karen DeBonis on August 11, 2020 at 9:20 PM

      I’ll take WOW any day, Deb. So there’s a fictitious collective persona now in social media and pop culture called “Karen.” Karen is white, privileged, wears a certain blond hairdo (I’m not exactly sure what it looks like), and always “demands to see the manager.” In other words, a b****. I don’t know where it originated but if you Google Karen, it’s everywhere. No big deal on my part, but I do hope the phase passes soon.

  5. judy lawless on August 11, 2020 at 7:12 PM

    I was just thinking that I haven’t seen you on Facebook lately and was wondering if you’d been writing. Of course lots of my favourite people aren’t showing up in my news feed lately – Facebook, we love it. We hate it. Anyway, love this post and the term you’ve coined! Pandemic Brain describes me to a tee.

    • Karen DeBonis on August 11, 2020 at 9:23 PM

      You’re right, Judy – I haven’t been on FB much lately–very busy writing my book proposal and working on a few essays. I usually try to work in more social media time, but lately… well… Pandemic Brain. I’m glad to have your company!

  6. Don Rampolla on August 14, 2020 at 12:49 AM

    Perhaps Pandemic Brain might be labelled Pandemic Traumatic Stress Syndrome, possibly with the acronym PTSD2. I sure feel like my brain has been traumatized, and the trauma is added to every day.

    In my lifetime (born 1932) in the US half a dozen really bad diseases have been eliminated, or almost eliminated.
    Polio, measles, smallpox and malaria have been eliminated.
    Deaths from TB are rare, from 43/100,000 in 1943 to 0.2/100,000 now.
    Aids appeared in 1981, deaths per year peaked around 1995 at about 40,000, now are about
    Life expectancy has gone from 61 years to 79 years.

    There’ve been all these advances like antibiotics, open heart surgery (which saved my life), MRI’s, cancer treatments, CAT scans.

    So up till now I’ve had this sense that medically things were just getting better and better.
    This sense has now been totally obliterated. Maybe the effect is analogous to being on the Titanic suddenly jarred by realizing she’s gonna sink.

    For years one of my prayers has been “Dear God, whatever happens, my life is in your loving hands”. I still pray this, but it just feels different – maybe because “whatever happens” now includes the virus.

    I have no words of wisdom to add. (“Thank goodness” I imagine you saying).

    • Karen DeBonis on August 14, 2020 at 4:51 AM

      Don – When the pandemic is over (I’ll get back to this), I do think there will be lots of new acronyms to describe the the fallout. Maybe PTSD2 will be one of them. See? You do have words of wisdom. Back to the pandemic: You’ve seen the power of science and medicine at work in your lifetime- it’s a fascinating, sad-yet-hopeful birds-eye-view. Sad because so many have suffered. Hopeful because science averted so much more suffering. I believe a vaccine will end this pandemic just like vaccines/treatments ended the worst of the impact of the other afflictions you mentioned. I don’t know if it will happen in your life time. I hope so.

  7. Beth Burrell on August 14, 2020 at 11:21 AM

    Thanks for writing this, Karen. I always enjoy reading your thoughts and feeling less alone. Thank you!

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