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Researchers studying the impact of the Coronavirus report that the damage goes beyond respiratory problems, causing severe neurological problems. The virus can enter the brain via the olfactory bulb of the forebrain which manifests as a loss of smell in some patients with COVID-19. Scientists claim that other brain changes such as delirium, fatigue, headaches, memory loss, inattention, brain damage, and even strokes are caused by inflammation and disruption of the 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, Dr. Deniz Vatansever, these changes are likely responsible for the mood, fatigue, and cognitive changes reported by patients. And that these symptoms underlie the stress, anxiety and depression that many experience.
In addition to the physiological symptoms, another layer of increased anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation also emerged. The pain (and in some cases the postponed pain due to COVID-19) from losing loved ones, impotence, and excessive worry about contracting or spreading the virus to other family members or colleagues are all stressors that may collectively contribute to an impending increase in symptoms of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. Social distancing measures to combat the viral epidemic can also have unintended consequences, such as social isolation, loneliness, abrupt changes in daily habits, unemployment and financial insecurity, all of which have been characterized as risk factors for major depressive disorder and from post-traumatic stress with potentially long-lasting effects on physiology and brain function. Neuroimaging techniques show that chronic worries and fears reduce the activity of the prefrontal cortex and damage neurons, constrict areas of the brain and impair thinking. Additionally, neurological and psychiatric symptoms, including psychosis and neurocognitive symptoms similar to dementia, have been observed in some COVID-19 patients.
How to buffer pandemic brain changes
But the good news is that neuroscientists have shown through fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) that the human brain is plastic. And each of us has the ability to ignore our brains’ automatic, wired fear reactions. An innate skill called neuroplasticity it allows you to use your “thinking mind” to rewire the structure and functioning of your brain. Neuroplasticity ensures that the architecture of your mind is never set in stone. You don’t have to get trapped by your body’s pandemic storms (frustration, anxiety, worry). It is possible to redesign your brain and calm impulsive worries and fears because your brain has the ability to change its own structure. Here are some tips for bringing your mind into the present moment instead of worrying about “what if” and improving your brain health.
- Do something different. Take different action in response to circumstances in the heat of the moment, such as the pandemic. For example, if I constantly calm down when listening to horrible pandemic news (when I normally might freak out), this calming practice can rewire my neural pathways, broaden my resilient zone, and I’m eventually able to hear without automatically freaking out. . Better yet, it’s important to limit how often we constantly hear negative news, but only listen to enough of it so you 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 mulling over something you can’t control: the pandemic.
- Stay in the present moment. Introduce new calming practices that help you stay in the present moment – such as mindful meditation, yoga, deep breathing, tai chi, massage – to activate your parasympathetic nervous system (your rest and digestive response) which compensates for your nervous system sympathetic (fight-flight response) with the potential to remodel nerve cells and change the way the brain works. Brain scans at Harvard and UCLA show that regular practice of mindful meditation minimizes brain shrinkage and cognitive decline and builds thicker neural tissues in the prefrontal cortex. Once reinforced, your gray matter sharpens attention, boosts your immune system, neutralizes the pandemic hothead reaction, and heightens compassion, automatically shifting you into calm, clarity and centrality. The more consciously you can stay in the present moment, the more automatic balance you bring between your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
- Invoke your “thinking brain”. In addition to mindful relaxation techniques, when you are exhausted and start to sizzle, it is possible to develop the habit of resorting to the executive function of your prefrontal cortex to calm pandemic fears and make better decisions. The prefrontal cortex helps you understand that things are usually not as bad as your survival brain registers them, you can take a breath, step back from worry, and calm down. You don’t have to look through rose-colored glasses. But by intentionally bringing your prefrontal cortex back online when it is being hijacked by the worry and fear of the Coronavirus, you have the ability to take an impartial, top-down perspective on the threatening situation.
- Talk to your concern. 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 model is engraved in the brain. But when you start to notice the worry, take a few deep breaths and even talk to us something like, “Okay, worry, I see you’re here trying to protect me. Thanks, but I’m fine now,” usually the worry subsides. With these relaxing practices, you introduce a new neural pathway and can change the entire pandemic anxious thinking pattern into one where you have a broader perspective and a lot more calm, calm and positivity.
- Contemplate nature. If you’re stumped by a solution at work, stressed out, or overwhelmed with pandemic worries, spending time with Mother Nature gives you a rush of creativity or ah-ha moments for a workable problem. Be aware 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 gurgling birds. Watch the clouds, watch the grass grow, or watch a sunset. A minimum of two hours per week in nature (such as parks, woods, mountains or beaches) promotes physical and mental health and well-being and gives you a broader perspective on 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 ten-year Japanese practice of forest bathing shinrin-yoku (meaning “to take into the forest”) is believed to provide stress reduction, relaxation and insights into life. Bathing in the forest lowers cortisol and depression, and increases the activity of killer cells that fight infections and cancer.
- Exercise. Taking a brisk 10 minute walk increases and supports your energy level and recalibrates a fatigued brain. And you are calmer and perform better after a walk in the woods than after a walk down a noisy city street. Quick exercise reduces anxiety and rumination and improves depression. If you can’t go outside, exercise at your desk for five to 10 minutes, stretching and moving. Try chair yoga or walk up and down a flight of stairs for a few moments. If you have time for a break, take a jog around the block or a walk in a green space and you’ll be back at your desk with recharged batteries, renewed energy and a clean head.
- Capitalize on technology. Wearable devices, digital platforms and technologies such as smartphones and tablets can provide viable pathways for the delivery of mental health care, especially in the presence of isolation measures and during limited access to health services. Activity trackers personalize interventions by monitoring patient cognition, heart rate, sleep patterns and mood in real time, indicating when the wearer can benefit from activities such as meditation, exercise or sleep extra. Guided meditation apps can also help patients reduce their stress levels. Computer technology designed for fun is being used to reverse the extent of damage the pandemic is doing to offset brain stress. Gamified cognitive training, for example, has been shown to improve attention, memory function, and increase motivation. Research into computer games based on cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) – multi-level games designed to challenge users to face challenges, progress through milestones and collect rewards and points – has shown positive results.
Until more research is done and more is known about the pandemic, we will not know the full history of the long-term consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Currently, finding ways to stay as calm as possible is the best brain health 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 such as antidepressants or CBT are available.
Vatansever, D., Wang, S. & Sahakian, B.J. (2020). Covid-19 and promising solutions to combat the symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression. Reviews of neuropsychopharmacology. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41386-020-00791-9