Chronic stress and the brain- Tools to cope

Photo credit: Steve Buissinne / Pixabay

Who remembers the anti-drug commercial where they stated: “This is your brain”, showing us an egg, then “This is your brain on drugs” and dropped the egg in a frying pan?

I used to think this was so powerful an image!

I came across an article by Stephanie Hogan on cbc news about the effect of pandemic caused chronic stress on our brain and thought I would share these findings and also give tips on how to mitigate its effects.

It has been over a year of unpredictability and fear for many. Most of us are suffering from chronic stress because of it and I found out it is affecting our brain tissue, which leaves us feeling unfocussed and unproductive. 

Even if the vaccine is getting rolled out at a pretty good pace, the fact remains that we are entering a third wave and cases are mounting again.

It is not only older people that get sick anymore, the variants are attacking younger people and they suffer. We live in fear of catching the virus, of infecting someone else, of getting caught doing something un-allowed, with restrictions and rules changing regularly, leaving us confused.

Then there is Google photos that remind us everyday about our travels of past years, about our carefree days when we celebrated birthdays and happy events with friends and family. Sadness at what we are missing overwhelms sometimes.

We don’t feel as efficient, motivated or as productive as we used to be. We find things a lot harder to deal with.

According to the article, research suggests these feelings are pretty common right now due to of the chronic stress of the pandemic and it is affecting our brains as well as taking away normal, healthy ways to cope. According to this study, 56% of respondents are feeling increased stress and anxiety and the number jumps to 63% for younger adults 18-34.

Dr Roger McIntyre, professor of psychiatry and pharmacology, stated that living through a pandemic brings daily, unpredictable stress that affects our cognitive response. It is not because we are lonely or depressed that we feel lethargic or disengaged from life.

He talks about two kinds of stress: “Normal” stress that is predictable, short lived and finite while the other is long in duration, unpredictable and seems never-ending. It is this second kind of stress that is affecting us during this pandemic.

They found that even among the most positive people, the chronic pandemic stress is having an impact, sapping our motivation and energy as well as our sense of well-being. It also causes a loss of brain tissue and reduces brain interconnectivity, specifically key brain areas responsible for what we think and feel.

The pandemic has brought uncertainty about our lives everyday. We are feeling tired, foggy, unmotivated. But it is not only about mood. A lot of us feel like we are not operating at full capacity, we forget simple things, get sidetracked. These would usually be signs of boredom, caused by a lack of meaning and attention.

But the only way out of this type of boredom is to find our way out of the pandemic, something mostly out of our control. There is no relief in sight right now. In addition to this, the systems we would normally turn to in stressful times for comfort and healing have also been taken away: You can’t hang out with friends, work out at the gym, go to a restaurant, a theatre… In red zones these are mostly closed, we are not allowed to get together with friends inside or even outside except if we are walking. That made for a long winter. A lot of us are working from home cutting the real in-person interaction with colleagues.

Fortunately our brain is incredibly plastic and able to regenerate,” according to Dr McIntyre. So when the source of stress is removed, the brain circuits begin to normalize, correcting their function, and rejuvenating brain tissue.  

With this pandemic, once most people are fully vaccinated, and life returns to what we think as “normal”, brain recoverability should rapidly follow.

In the meantime, here are a few tips that might help you manage with day to day life. I published these before when I talked about temporary funk but they also help as a longer term way to cope.

First and foremost

Show yourself some compassion, kindness and understanding, just like you would do with a friend. Don’t be hard on yourself and do sit with your feelings.

Connect with someone

We are social animals, we need some degree of interaction with others in order to feel our best. Make an effort to stay connected even when you are in a rut. Listen to what others have to say. It can be a neighbour, a phone call to a friend, a spouse.

Move your body

Moving our bodies is important for our physical health and our mental health. No need to run a marathon, a walk, some stretching, moving around with music while cleaning are all good options.

Eat healthy foods

Our mood and digestive system are connected, so it is important to eat whole foods and limit sugar intake, including alcohol since it is a depressant and can still affect your mood days after consumption.

Prioritize good sleep

Sleep is a necessity and a priority. Lack of sleep is responsible for low energy, forgetfulness and weight gain.

Limit exposure to social media and news

Limit your media consumption to 15-30 minutes twice a day. There is just too much going on, too much information, most of it useless, too much negativity, all of it very distracting from any project you care about and that will get you out of the mental slump.

I hope you found these useful! 

Thank you for reading and take care of yourself!

With Love


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