Covid and culture shock feel the same to your brain — and here’s why

by Peter Olson

We suspect you’ve been feeling it too. A frustrating sense of ‘molasses’ clogging your thoughts. A fatigue you just can’t seem to shake. Feeling ‘tired’ or ‘worn-out’ as you search to journey through normal days that simply don’t feel as normal as they should.

As we have both watched and experienced the events of 2020, something has seemed oddly familiar. Every part of life seems to have changed, nearly overnight. Stores are different. Work is different. Interactions with friends and with strangers – it’s all different. Yet in a way this scene seems to be a re-run. Because, in a way, it is. This scene is familiar because it mirrors culture shock.


The One-Minute Version:
When someone moves to a completely new culture, many of the ‘autopilots’ your brain uses for thousands of small decisions every day become ineffective. In a similar way, your current environment has likely changed sufficiently enough that many of your own ‘autopilots’ are no longer working. When this happens, the next remaining option for your brain is to use a second decision-making process that requires far more effort and energy (glucose) to operate. Your body can only supply glucose to your brain at a certain rate – a rate far below what would be required to use this kind of thinking continually. Thus, additional thinking about routine matters has likely left you with a chronically depleted level of glucose in your brain. All to say: You are experiencing “culture shock”.


The Ten-Minute Version:
Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences, explains how our brains work in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Here is a summary:

    1. Your brain is a great decision-making engine.
    2. Your brain has two distinct processes it uses to make decisions.
    3. One of these systems operates quickly and automatically and does not require much energy.
    4. One of these systems operates slowly and deliberately and requires a lot more energy.

Kahneman gave names to the two processes your brain uses. He called one the “fast” system. This kind of thinking has also been called the “subconscious” system. The other he called our “slow” system. “Slow” thinking is what you are doing when you say that you are “thinking” about something.

Now, this two-system method is generally very effective for how we live. Your “fast” system is very good at monitoring circumstances for situations similar to things you have encountered in the past. When encountering a routine decision in life, your “fast” system runs through your memories and quickly offers a solution from the past it thinks will work for the present. Usually, it’s right. 

Think of fast thinking like being your autopilot while your slow system is the pilot. Autopilot can normally fly the plane as long as conditions are predictable. But the pilot needs to keep watching in case they need to jump in and take control.


Imagine entering a familiar store or driving in a familiar city. Driving in a familiar place is easy because you don’t seem to have a pressing need to think about where you are going. You just go there. Walking through your favorite grocery store and grabbing staples doesn’t seem all that difficult. This is because your brain is not actually generating many “new” decisions in these scenarios. They are examples of times your “fast” system has autopilot solutions ready.


System Failure
Yet what happens when your fast system fails to find easy answers? What happens when the circumstances all around you are different enough from normal that your autopilots stop working? You know what to do for a red traffic light. But would your decision take longer if the same light turned blue? It is the effects of that kind of scenario – repeatedly, hundreds of times a day, for months – that is the structural cause for culture shock. And – I would argue – the structural cause for much of the mental fatigue we are all facing right now.


Here’s why: “Thinking” is hard
Really hard. We could get into the biology, but in summary: Thinking requires a lot of energy. You could say that thinking is “expensive”. But not all thinking is the same. “Fast thinking” is relatively efficient, while “slow thinking” is expensive. Your brain – like your muscles – requires a sugar called glucose to function, and slow thinking requires far more of it than fast thinking does. Glucose is delivered by your blood, and the challenge is that there’s a limit to how quickly it can be delivered. Use slow thinking too much, and you risk running out of enough glucose floating around your head to pay the energy bills … so to speak.

Think of “slow thinking” a bit like ‘turbo’ from the old video games. You need it to power through some parts of life. But use it all and you’ll need to wait for it to come back again. This is why you have perhaps said that your brain feels ‘tired’ after a long meeting, an intense discussion, or after much studying. That ‘tired’ feeling is your brain calling for a break so it can replenish the sugar it just used up.


A related phenomenon: “Hangry”
For the uninitiated, “hanger” is a state of being both hungry and, consequently, irritable. When we have not eaten for long enough, our body’s overall blood sugar level begins to drop, and this affects the supply of sugar to the brain. When you are “hangry,” you have a supply issue – there is not enough sugar available to give your brain. The scenario we have been talking about ends at the same destination – irritability, loss of decision-making capacity and decreased emotional control. But the reason is on the other side – your brain is using sugar faster than your body can supply it … and you run low.

Slow thinking is great. It is what allows us to contemplate the significant things of life. To have meaningful conversations. And yet, slow thinking has its limits. You simply cannot keep using it and using it and using it and expect it to continue operating at a high level indefinitely. It’s not designed to do that. Slow thinking is designed to step-in when needed. Run it constantly and – quite simply – the sugar runs out. (In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport cites research that suggests an average adult can handle 4 to 6 hours before exhausting their capacity and requiring sleep for a full recovery.)


Back to the moment at hand:
Parts of life seem to be changing monthly, if not weekly, if not daily this year. All this change has upturned enough of the normalcy that some amount of our mental “autopilots” are currently not working. Example: Imagine walking down the street, sun shining, water bottle in hand and thinking to yourself what a wonderful day it is when you suddenly run into an old friend! Instantly, you move from recognizing your friend to greeting them. Handshake. Hug. Wave. Whatever. You don’t notice deciding what to do … because that’s how fast thinking works. Automatic. Effortless.

“But wait!” You say. “This is not how it works anymore!” COVID. Yes, I know. And that is the point. Hundreds of times every day we are now facing moments where fast & cheap was handling your decisions for you … but can’t anymore. Last year greeting a friend didn’t require us to use the limited capacity of slow thinking. But now it may. With many of our autopilots disabled, we are facing a world where we are being forced to think in ways we are not accustomed to. And it’s draining your brain of capacity you used to have for other – more meaningful – things.


You are a toddler now:
You could say our experience is now similar in some ways to that of a 2-year-old. Hang with me. A 2-year-old has not yet had sufficient time with their environment to develop a good litany of autopilots. They more commonly are stuck in slow thinking. But have you ever noticed how many naps a 2-year-old takes? Ever notice how cranky they get before nap time? Well, that’s us. Like 2-year-olds, we are living in an environment where we are forced to lean on slow thinking to the limits of its capacity. Further, the prolonged mental work of learning to live in a new environment often leads us to experience chronically depleted levels of brain glucose.

This is part of the reason toddlers commonly nap, and it is responsible for the experience expats call “culture shock”. Moving to a new country and into a new culture and language is perhaps the most recognized environment in which we find humans encountering this situation. I would argue that the first year a couple lives together is perhaps the most common one. Well, I would have argued that before this year. Not anymore. Welcome to culture shock, everyone.


A Second Point (and a warning):
If the ache of our brains facing a world where all of our ‘autopilots’ have stopped wasn’t enough, there is a second issue that arises from all of this. Here it is, the warning that we always coach people arriving overseas to expect: Prepare for self-control and emotional control to become harder. Let me explain why with an imaginary scenario: You are watching a five-year-old for the day and desperately want them to sit still and quiet for just a few minutes. (I can’t imagine where this example came from…) So, you reach for some candy, and you offer a bribe. They can have one piece of candy for 5 minutes of silence, 3 pieces for 10 minutes … and it continues.

You are asking them to delay gratification. If they are to continue sitting in silence, what kind of thinking is the child using? Is this an ‘automatic’ and impulsive response for them to sit quietly? Or will they need to use some level of focus and concentration to stay still and to stay silent? I think we can agree on the second. “Self-control” is a function of “slow” system thinking. Moderating and controlling our emotions follows the same process – ‘slow’ thinking is required. 

In a world where simply purchasing groceries is now at least somewhat different than the routine action you became used to, groceries are sucking at least some ‘thinking power’ away from the kinds of things we usually used our limited supplies of ‘thinking power’ for. In classic ‘culture shock,’ people experience moments where they feel some loss of emotional control. There is a flash of anger or sadness or frustration or … and you don’t understand why. What we are discussing here may be exactly why. Your brain just ran out of sugar. You’re not ‘crazy’. You are ‘limited’. Your autopilot doesn’t know where to go, but your pilot ran out of steam and is taking a nap right now … So blame yourself a little less when autopilot’s unsupervised guesses leave you smoldering on the side of a mountain (so to speak). Rather, admit you’ve never had reason to learn this environment. This is new, and sometimes this is just how new goes.


Here is the take-away:
Anything we are relying on ‘self-control’ to accomplish will become increasingly a challenge in any situation where we are forced to use more ‘slow’ (conscious) thinking than normal. The reason is simple. The amount of ‘slow’ thinking that we are capable of is limited. The more we must consume discovering how to navigate the new reality of our neighborhood grocery store, the less capacity we have left ‘in-the-tank’ later for deciding not to eat half of the ice cream we just purchased. It is simply reality that our brains are not accustomed to actually thinking all day long. When our environment changes suddenly and completely enough, we can easily overwhelm our capacity for conscious, deliberate thought.


Let me say it bluntly:
Self-control is a function of ‘slow thinking.’ Emotional control is a function of ‘slow thinking.’ Yet you and I now live in a world where we are all being bled of our ‘slow thinking’ capacity. Bled by the need to consciously make decisions in scenarios we used to have ‘autopilots’ for. Decisions that last year we could have made without really thinking. In this reality we have been left with less available capacity for engaging our minds in rational, logical, deliberate consideration of meaningful things. Less capacity for self-control. Less capacity for emotional control. . . . interesting. And considering the moment, very unfortunate.


So, are we helpless?
Of course not. Dealing with massive amounts of sustained change over a long period of time is certainly not the easiest thing in the world to do. But plenty of people have done it. Some of us have even done it willingly. And repeatedly. One thing that most people have found reassuring, if not helpful, is the knowledge that this is normal. This is how it goes. This is how the brain works. This is how and why your whole mental world has some ‘catching up’ to do. But you are normal, and you will get through this.


Finally, if you are looking for some advice:

1) Eliminate Options

When faced with the limits of your mental capacity, it can be helpful to realize you cannot deliberately make a choice about everything – you will run out of capacity. So it can be very powerful to use some of your limited capacity deciding what you will not decide about. We coach people moving overseas to limit the choices they make and the options that they will consider – for a time. Have you ever heard those stories of Silicon Valley execs who have perhaps twenty of the same shirt – and nothing else – in their closet? This is what they are doing. If you only have so much ‘slow thinking’ to use today, what is not worth spending it on? Those execs decided shirt choices are simply not worth spending thought on.

2) Routine is your friend

All of us have just lost a massive amount of the familiar in our lives. Routines which effectively accomplished parts of our lives (and at minimal thinking cost) have vanished. Those ‘autopilot’ decisions are gone, so do what you can to get some of it back. Create routines – even imperfect ones – to win back some thinking capacity. Decide how you will do x, y or z and then refuse to continue rethinking it. For now.

3) Reduce Input

Look, I want to be as informed as the next person. But at some point we need to recognize our brain may need a break. Refer back to #1 – this is the opposing side. Your mental capacity is not unlimited, and it’s probably a wise investment to use some of that capacity deciding what you are willing (and able) to spend it on. More may not be better if you cannot process it – don’t overextend.

4) Talk

Externalizing what you are experiencing is key. If you don’t have someone to talk it through with, journal. As Brené Brown has shown in her work, getting our emotions out of our head is one way to gain invaluable perspective. You are not alone, strange, crazy or losing it. Either that, or we all are.


Following a career in engineering, Peter Olson began life as an expat in 2013. He and his family now serve with Assemblies of God World Missions in the nation of Ethiopia. There they partner with the Ethiopian Assemblies of God and help lead Eastridge Church Addis international church in Addis Ababa. You can reach Peter at

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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.

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