What are the Effects of Stress on the Brain During a Pandemic?

If it has been said before, it bears repeating: these are stressful times. The social and economic upheaval brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic is a perfect storm of extraordinary stressors thrust upon an unprepared global population.

As bleak as it sounds, the situation as described above offers clues for how we can cope with an otherwise bleak sounding circumstance. When we understand the triggers to stress, we can learn how to better cope with its effects on our physical and mental well-being.

Let’s examine the effect of stress on the brain.

Your Brain on Stress

Psychology Today describes two facets of stress: our psychological perception of “pressure” and our body’s response to it. These physiological responses impact multiple systems “from metabolism to muscles to memory.”

Physical symptoms of stress on the brain include disrupted sleep and eating patterns, neck pain and headaches, and incessant fatigue.

Psychologically this manifests as feelings of isolation (exacerbated by the social distancing obliged by the pandemic), inability to stop or control excessive worry, feelings of sadness, anger, discouragement, a sense of overwhelm or powerlessness, and “self-verbalization that does not always reflect reality”.

Research shows how these compound effects cause “trauma (that) is profoundly disruptive of integration”. This disruption “leads to challenges in the brain communicating effectively,” writes Danielle Render Turmaud, M.S., NCC, in another Psychology Today article. “This disintegration can lead to increased difficulties in processing experiences and coping with distress,” Turmaud says.

For students and teachers suddenly forced into a remote learning environment, for instance, the added baggage from COVID-19 can disrupt healthy cognitive processes involved in education.

Whatever our situation, we can begin avoiding disintegrated thinking by practicing active self-care techniques while considering the physiological reaction of our brain and body from stress are effective strategies.

Some effective coping strategies include:

Stay active: Even in a pandemic, stay as active as possible. Taking a walk outside, if you can, makes a big difference.

Keep a routine: Flexibility is important but maintaining a sense of routine helps ground us in the present moment, instead of worrying about the future or ruminating on the past.

Eat well: Good nutrition is fundamental to our physical and mental well-being.

Stay connected: Social distancing doesn’t mean staying distant emotionally. Digital connections to friends and loved ones aren’t the same physical ones, but long-distance friendships are hardly new. We just have more long-distance friends for now. Stay connected.

What’s Your Baggage?

Any traumatic event can induce stress and impact our mental health. Especially a global health crisis and its trailing consequences. Though the source of stress may be common to us all, our individual reactions vary.

From the moment we are born, we begin a life of collecting baggage. It is part of the human condition. An “appropriate” amount of baggage is a good thing. Common feelings of anxiety, betrayal, loneliness. It’s life. It keeps us grounded. If we’re lucky, it imbues us with empathy and wisdom without unbearable trauma.

But we do not live in a perfect world. As such, there are many whose load of baggage becomes unwieldy, excessive, oppressive. It may be due to extreme traumatic experiences, a physiological marker, or both. Whatever its source, it is a burden beyond the boundaries of typical human well-being.

Social isolation, economic uncertainty, health concerns, and the sudden and drastic change to daily life leave none untouched to some degree. Nobody gets beyond a pandemic without an extra load of baggage. How much we’re carrying around already informs how we react to this added baggage.

Though it often may not feel as such, we’re in it together. From this, we can acquire empathy for the weight of our shared baggage and take steps to address its implications.

Removing the Stigma

An article in Healthline reports a “significant and sustained” increase in symptoms of anxiety and depression as a consequence of the COVID-19 health crisis. The number of persons reporting these symptoms is, according to the article, “well above historic norms.” This has forced a conversation about mental health that in “normal times” is too often ignored. The shared stress brought from the pandemic helps us to confront mental health for what it is: a constituent part of our overall well-being.

During “normal” times, the distractions of daily life may allow us to push concerns of our mental health into the background. COVID-19 not only forces us to sit with our feelings of depression and anxiety, but it also helps us understand how attending to our mental and emotional well-being is vital to our overall health.

Helping Others

Being of service to others is proven to alleviate our own sense of malaise. “The really good news,” writes Dr. Seth J. Gillihan in Psychology Today, “is that by turning our attention toward helping others, we make everyone feel better—ourselves included. We find not only relief from our depression and anxiety, but also improvements in our relationships.”

Simple acts of outward compassion is a tonic available to each one of us. For some, it becomes a life’s work. For people ready to make that kind of commitment Touro University Worldwide offers its online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology degree program. The program gives students an advanced understanding of human psychology, including developmental, experimental, social, and abnormal psychology.

Students can further their education and career with TUW’s online Marriage and Family Counseling Graduate degree program. The MFT program features an accelerated admissions process, affordable tuition, and no GRE or residency requirement.

Most importantly, becoming an MFT-licensed counselor from TUW prepares dedicated practitioners to help us weather the storms of life. In crisis and in living every day.


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