Our stress brain and COVID-19

The global pandemic of COVID-19 means that we are living in unprecedented times. It looks like something we will have to keep dealing with over the next weeks. As we are aware, chronic stress has adverse effects on the brain.  Receptors for stress hormones are found in the hippocampus, amygdala and frontal cortex. These structures are involved in processing memory, and emotional regulation and constant exposure to stress hormones can have damaging effects. We must recognise chronic stress and act to alleviate the symptoms. 

Why do our brains find this situation particularly stressful?

Research shows that the brain finds it more challenging to deal with uncertainty than it would even if the worst-case situation happened. In the study, the participants were shown two rocks, under one there was a snake, and if they picked that rock, they would receive an electric shock. It was found that participants were more anxious when it was uncertain if they would receive the electric shock than when they knew an electric shock was coming.  The participants experienced psychological stress, but also physiological changes too. The pupils of the participants’ eyes became more dilated, and they started to sweat (skin conductance increased).  The response was highest when there was peak uncertainty and unpredictability as participants couldn’t tell one way or another if they were going to receive a shock. 

When we are confident of an outcome, we can prepare ourselves for it, mentally and physically.  However, when a result is uncertain, it leads to a peak in our stress levels.

The Amygdala

The part of our brain that processes fear is called the amygdala (almond-shaped mass of grey matter located inside each central hemisphere). The amygdala can also be activated by new information.  An fMRI study, which measures blood flow to specific brain regions, found that there was increased activation in the amygdala when participants were shown pictures of both snakes and flowers if the images were new whereas once they became familiar the activation reduced.

COVID-19 is both new and generates a large amount of uncertainty for the future. Therefore, normal to feel a range of emotions during this time- such as stress, fear, anxiety, these are all perfectly valid emotions in the current climate.   

How can we deal with stress- 

Practice breathing techniques

People may hyperventilate when panicking or hold their breath when they are stressed and breathe shallower.  Stop and take a few deep breaths- count to 3 when you inhale and 4 as you exhale. Slowing breathing has been shown to activate the vagus nerve, (this is a long nerve that supplies organs, such as the heart, the brain and the digestive system).  The vagus nerve is a crucial part of the parasympathetic nervous, which function is to help the body to relax and take a rest and digest. This is the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system that governs the “the fight or flight” response.  Slowing breathing modulates the nervous system by increasing parasympathetic activation, while decreasing sympathetic activation, therefore, reducing stress.

Be mindful

Limit your exposure to news and social media and make sure that you get your facts through a credible source.  Recognise signs that you are overexposing yourself if the news has become particularly triggering.

Focus instead or a few credible sources, such as the World Health Organization or the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) globally plus local ones like the NHS in the U.K. and set specific times and limits when to check them and for how long.

Stay connected with people

Use Zoom or video calling to engage with people.  As humans, we are made to be social. Set up quiz nights, or a read along. 

Stay Positive

It is essential to keep in mind that most people will only have mild symptoms. Plus, the increased news coverage or the use of the word pandemic does not make the virus more of a threat.

Scientists are working hard to establish if any of our existing drugs have an effect and are trying to develop a vaccine for COVID-19.  According to the World Health Organisation, there are 392 trials registered in the International Clinical Trials Registry Platform.

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