The Pandemic Changes Your Brain Even if You Don't Have It

COVID-19 likely has altered our brains, but we can reverse it.

Posted Sep 12, 2020

Photo by Ali Marel on Unsplash
Neuroscientists report that whether or not you contract COVID-19, the pandemic can still change your brain.
Source: Photo by Ali Marel on Unsplash

A 2020 report in Neuropsychopharmacology Reviews, suggests that whether you have contracted COVID-19 or not, the pandemic has likely changed your brain. The Coronavirus can cause several significant neurological disorders, but aside from that, pandemic isolation and worry can alter brain chemistry and cause mood disorders such as anxiety, depression, and even suicidal thoughts.

Physiological Changes

Researchers studying the impact of the Coronavirus report that damage goes beyond respiratory problems, causing serious neurological problems. The virus can gain access to the brain via the forebrain’s olfactory bulb which shows up as a loss of smell in some patients with COVID-19. The scientists contend that other brain changes, such as delirium, fatigue, headache, memory loss, inattention, brain damage, and even stroke are caused by inflammation and disruption of blood and oxygen supply to the brain. The authors of the report speculate that the virus alters dopamine and serotonin levels in the olfactory bulb—the chemicals responsible for pleasure, motivation, and action. According to lead author Deniz Vatansever, these changes are probably responsible for mood, fatigue, and cognitive changes reported by patients. And these symptoms underlie the presence of stress, anxiety, and depression that many experience.

Psychological Changes

Aside from the physiological symptoms, another layer of increased anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation has emerged. Grief (and in some cases postponed grief) for the loss of loved ones, helplessness, and excessive worry over contracting or spreading the virus to other family members or colleagues are all stressors that may collectively contribute to an imminent rise in symptoms of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation.

Social distancing measures for combating the viral outbreak also may have unintended consequences, such as social isolation, loneliness, abrupt changes to daily habits, and unemployment or financial insecurity, which have all been characterized as risk factors for major depressive and post-traumatic stress disorders with potentially long-lasting effects on brain physiology and function. Neuroimaging techniques show that chronic worries and fears diminish prefrontal cortex activity and damage neurons, shrink areas of the brain, and impair thinking. In addition, neurological and psychiatric symptoms, including psychosis and neurocognitive dementia-like symptoms, have been observed in some COVID-19 patients

How to Buffer Pandemic Brain Changes

The good news is that neuroscientists have shown through fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging) the human brain is plastic. And each of us has the agency to override our brain’s hard-wired, automatic fear reactions. An innate ability called neuroplasticity allows you to use your “thinking mind” to rewire the structure and functioning of your brain. Neuroplasticity guarantees that the architecture of your mind is never set in stone. You don’t have to stay trapped by the pandemic storms of your body such as frustration, anxiety, and worry. It’s possible for you to re-engineer your brain and self-calm the knee-jerk worries and fears because your brain has the ability to change its own structure.

Here are a few tips to bring your mind into the present moment, instead of worrying about “what if’s,” and improve your brain health.

1. Do Something Different. Take a different action in response to circumstances in the heat of the moment. For example, if I consistently calm myself when I’m listening to horrific pandemic news reports (when I might ordinarily freak out), this calming practice can rewire my neural pathways, widen my resilient zone, and eventually I’ll be able to listen without automatically freaking out. Better yet, it’s important to limit how often we listen to constant negative news but to listen only enough so we get the facts. Or if a loved one catches the virus, focus on what you can control and fix it, no matter how insignificant, instead of ruminating about something you can’t control—the pandemic itself.

2. Stay in the Present Moment. Introduce new calming practices that help you to stay in the present moment. Practices such as mindful meditation, yoga, deep breathing, tai chi, and massage activate your parasympathetic nervous system (your rest and digest response) which offsets your sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight response) with the potential to reshape nerve cells and change the way your brain works. Brain scans from Harvard and UCLA show that regular practice of mindfulness meditation minimizes brain shrinkage and cognitive decline and builds thicker neural tissue in the prefrontal cortex. Once beefed up, your gray matter sharpens attention, amps up your immune system, neutralizes the pandemic hotheaded reaction, and heightens compassion, automatically shifting you into calm, clarity, and centeredness. The more mindfully you can stay in the present moment, the more automatic balance you bring between your sympathetic nervous and parasympathetic nervous systems. 

3. Call Upon Your "Thinking Brain." In addition to mindful relaxing techniques, when you’re frazzled and start to sizzle, it’s possible to develop the habit of calling on the executive function of your prefrontal cortex to cool down hotheaded pandemic fears and make better decisions. The prefrontal cortex helps you realize that things are usually not as bad as your survival brain registers them to be, so you can take a breath, step back from the worry, and calm down. You don’t have to look through rose-colored glasses, but by intentionally bringing your prefrontal cortex back online when hijacked by Coronavirus worry and fear, you have the capacity to take an impartial, bird’s-eye perspective on the threatening situation.

4. Talk to Your Worry. Worry and fear are nature’s protectors, but they overestimate threats and underestimate our ability to handle them—all in an effort to keep us out of harm’s way. The pattern gets grooved into the brain. But as you start to notice the worry, take a few deep breaths and even talk to it with something like, “Okay, worry, I see you’re here trying to protect me. Thank you, but I’m okay right now,” the worry will usually calm down. With these relaxing practices, you introduce a new neural pathway and can change the whole pattern of anxious pandemic thinking to one in which you have a larger perspective and much more stillness, calm, and positivity.

5. Contemplate Nature. If you’re stumped for a solution at work, stressed out or overwhelmed with pandemic worries, spending time with Mother Nature gives you a creativity surge or a-ha moments for a workable problem. Be mindful of the breeze, notice the colors and smells of leaves and flowers, pay attention to the sounds of insects in the bushes, rushing water, or warbling birds. Look up at the clouds, watch the grass grow, or admire a sunset. A minimum of two hours a week in nature (such as parks, woodlands, mountains or beaches) promotes physical and mental health and well-being and gives you a bigger perspective of your life circumstances. Spending time in greener areas is linked to lower incidences of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, asthma, mental distress, and mortality rates. The decades-old Japanese practice of forest bathing, or shinrin-yoku (which means “taking in the forest”), is believed to provide stress reduction, relaxation, and deeper insights into life. Forest bathing lowers cortisol and depression and boosts the activity of killer cells that fight off infection and cancer.

6. Exercise. Taking a brisk 10-minute walk raises and sustains your energy level and re-calibrates a fatigued brain. And you are calmer and perform better after a walk in the woods than after a walk along a noisy, city street. Brisk exercise reduces anxiety and rumination and improves depression. If you can’t get outside, exercise at your desk for five or 10 minutes, stretching and moving around. Try chair yoga or walk up and down a flight of stairs for a few moments. If you have time on a break, take a jog around the block or a stroll in a green space, and you will go back to your desk with batteries recharged, energy renewed and head cleared.

7. Capitalize on Technology. Wearable devices, digital platforms, and technologies like smartphones and tablets can provide viable routes for the delivery of mental healthcare, especially under isolation measures and during limited access to health services. Activity trackers personalize interventions by monitoring a patient’s cognition, heart rate, sleep patterns and mood in real-time, indicating when the wearer may benefit from activities such as meditation, exercise, or extra sleep. Guided meditation apps also can help patients reduce stress levels themselves. Computer technology designed for fun is being used to reverse the extent of harm the pandemic is doing to offset brain stress. Gamified cognitive training, for example, has been shown to improve attention and memory function and increase motivation. Research on cognitive behavior therapy-based computer games—multi-level games designed to challenge users to confront challenges, progress through milestones, and collect rewards and points, have shown positive results.

Conclusion

Until more is known about the pandemic, we won’t know the full story of its long-term consequences. Currently, finding ways to remain as calm as possible is the best brain health option available. Patients with persistent or severe mental health symptoms, however, may require clinical evaluation by a psychologist or psychiatrist. In these cases, pharmacological and psychological treatments are accessible, such as antidepressants or CBT.

References

Vatansever, D., Wang, S. & Sahakian, B.J. (2020). Covid-19 and promising solutions to combat symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression. Neuropsychopharmacology Reviews. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41386-020-00791-9