How the Stress of the COVID-19 Pandemic Scrambles Your Brain

July 1, 2020

Our brains have an emergency system for alerting us to threats in the environment. The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure in the middle of the brain and acts as the brain’s alarm system. When it detects a threat, it sets into motion a cascade of stress hormones and neurotransmitters like adrenalin, norepinephrine, and cortisol to create a “fight, flight, freeze” response.

This response is designed to pump blood to the heart and large muscles to fight or flee from a predator, while taking nonessential functions like digestion offline. This is why you won’t feel hungry if you feel under life threat.

The problem with chronic, amorphous threats like COVID-19 is that there’s no fighting or fleeing to be done. The virus is invisible and there’s no cure so you can’t fight it, and there’s nowhere to flee because the whole world has it. What happens then is that we become stuck in a state of chronic threat-based physiological arousal without recovery. The stress is never over in a way that allows us to relax.

Opening up the economy has created new dangers of virus spread.  When your nervous system is stuck in a chronic state of threat reactivity,  hormones and neurotransmitters get out of sync and don’t respond to signals to stop firing. The result is toxic, chronic stress which impairs your immunity and increases the risk for heart disease, diabetes, depression, and many other negative outcomes.

Uncertainty

Your brain is designed to predict what is going to happen next and how best to respond so as to keep you safe and maximize your access to resources. Uncertainty makes your brain very uncomfortable. In uncertain conditions, there is no signal to tell us we are safe, even if just for the moment. As another Psych Today blogger Dr Bryan E. Robinson noted:

“If your brain doesn’t know what’s around the corner, it can’t keep you out of harm’s way. It always assumes the worst, over-personalizes threats, and jumps to conclusions.”

Researchers at University College, London designed a computerized experiment in which participants had to guess the likelihood of finding money under a rock. If they guessed wrong, a snake appeared, and they received a mild electric shock. It turns out that participants were most stressed when there was a 50/50 chance of finding a snake, even compared to when they knew the snake was definitely there.

If you know what’s coming, your brain can prepare you to deal with it. If you don’t know but there’s a possibility of harm, your brain gets vigilant, and overactive trying to guess the most likely outcome and execute a coping strategy. Because the best strategy is not clear, this can lead your brain to keep going over and over the information trying to find an answer. This creates a state of chronic stress and worry.

Loneliness

One of the most difficult things about the current COVID-19 crisis is that we can’t rely on interactions with other people to soothe our nervous systems. Under normal conditions, the mirror neurons in our brains allow us to be soothed by other people’s warm smiles, body language, or gentle touch. Even talking to an empathic friend is soothing to our nervous systems. While we can get a piece of this interaction on Zoom, it’s not quite as rich and comforting an experience. Even if we do get together in a socially distanced way, there is so much we have to monitor.

Are our masks on? Do we need to use more hand sanitizer? Are we too close? How much exposure has the other person had?  This can interfere with your ability to be present in the moment and listen mindfully in a way that can soothe your loved one’s stressed out brain. For those of us who live alone or who can barely leave the house because you are high risk, the loneliness and disconnection is even greater.

People in nursing homes can’t get the visitors they normally do; elderly people can’t travel to be with grandchildren; college students can’t see their dorm friends or sorority sisters.

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