by Arhana Aatresh | October 5, 2020
Welcome to Pandemic Panacea! In this column, I will cover everything regarding living through the COVID-19 pandemic, from mental and physical effects to new scientific discoveries, and also offer remedies and solutions. This issue, I will discuss the mental impact of the past six months in quarantine.
Ever since governments mandated shelter-in-place in March, mental health across the U.S. has declined severely. Google Trends revealed an uptick in searches related to anxiety, panic attacks, and treatments for panic attacks. It is crucial to prioritize our mental health to stay balanced and emerge stronger from the pandemic. By understanding our brains’ responses to these circumstances, we can begin to care for ourselves.
The brain is composed of neurons connected by circuits, which determine our behavior and memory based on how and when they fire electrical signals. These circuits must work in harmony for a balanced mind; however, external factors can affect this precarious balance. One such harmful factor, chronic stress, has become more prevalent in the population. Researchers affiliated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) surveyed approximately 5,000 American adults and found that over 40 percent surveyed experienced a mental or behavioral health condition related to the pandemic. When regions of the brain that deal with short-term problems incorrectly switch to solving long-term problems, people may experience clinical depression or anxiety disorders. Chronic stress, for instance, stems from loss of control, financial instability, fear of contracting the virus, and ubiquitous worries. The increased production of the hormone cortisol causes cognitive fog, disrupting the functions of the prefrontal cortex and leading to apathy, indecisiveness, and mood swings. Some people may also experience escalated stress levels, bordering on clinical anxiety, due to their always active fight-or-flight response. Others may feel emotionally numb since they receive less of a positive reward from normally gratifying activities.
Isolation also contributes to chronic stress. Youth tend to be less willing than adults to communicate their feelings, and internalization can have long-term effects linked to mental health conditions. Since today’s children and teenagers no longer have the option of physically socializing, they are relying more heavily on social media, reading sensationalized news reports regarding the pandemic and other current events. Dr. Robin Gurwitch, professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University, stated at a media briefing this past spring, “What we know about children is if they’re spending most or all of their time related to tragedies, that can increase their stress reactions.” As a result, dopamine and oxytocin levels, which create a sense of reward and bonding, are too low, leaving youth at a higher risk of feeling restless and lonely. Also, those who are unable to spend time with loved ones can experience increased blood pressure, stress hormones, and inflammatory response, all of which increase the risk for chronic illnesses.
The effects of stress manifest physically and mentally, through muscle pain and tension, restlessness, lack of motivation, unbalanced eating and exercise habits, and mood swings. Taking steps to manage this stress can benefit health in numerous ways. For example, setting routines, such as regular sleeping and eating habits, creates predictable tasks in an individual’s day. Regular physical activity—such as running around the neighborhood or participating in the fitness groups and teams meeting on campus—can boost the immune system and alleviate mental pressure. Exercise also increases dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin levels, improving mood and stability. Even scheduling time for introspection can assist one’s body in transitioning from an elevated fight-or-flight response to a more peaceful state. Likewise, scheduling socially distanced time to spend with friends and family can distract from the instability and isolation. Above all, be sure to find a balance based on how your body feels.
Although uncertainty, fear, and loneliness will continue to run through our daily lives for the duration of this pandemic, we can control how we adapt and coexist. By finding a purpose and working through our problems, we can counteract the effects of stress on our brains and improve our health.