Stress is an inevitable side-effect of this Covid pandemic.
Since it’s not going away any time soon, we need to find ways to support our stress resilience because living in this challenging time is affecting our brains.
Whether we are concerned about getting or spreading the virus, our own or loved ones’ emotional well-being, our work or financial status, or the state of the country, we’ve got a lot to keep us anxious or stressed.
Some reports have suggested that the pandemic has increased feelings of depression, anxiety and distress worldwide.
Stress and brain functioning
By now, most of us know that longterm stress can be harmful to our health. It can depress our immune system, making us more susceptible to anything from a cold to chronic disease.
But research also shows it can affect our brains in profound ways and relatedly, our mental health, cognitive functioning, and behavior.
Specifically, chemicals that get released due to stress can affect the prefrontal cortex (PFC) functioning and over time can actually damage PFC nerves.
The PFC is like the CEO of the brain. It connects with many other areas of the brain and helps to control our thoughts, emotions and behavior. The PFC is also involved in decision making and correcting error so that we can shift strategies as needed – clearly something we need to do often in the pandemic!
Unfortunately, research (such as that by Yale neuroscience and psychology professor Amy Arnsten) shows that we lose capacity for these important abilities under stress because the PFC networks are sensitive to the stress-related neurochemicals that inhibit their functioning.
In addition to inhibiting important PFC functions, studies show stress can also over-activate the amygdala, an area of the limbic brain associated with emotions. Highly charged emotions (in the amygdala) and a loss of self-regulation (in the PFC), result in high emotional reactivity.
It’s not you, it’s your brain
The bottom line is that if you’re finding yourself more quick to anger, fear or emotional reactivity, feeling exhausted, unmotivated or stressed, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or have some fatal flaw. It means your body and brain are responding as they’re built to respond to the challenging conditions in your life.
As Professor Amy Arnsten recently told the Hartford Courant, there is no difference between a mental health issue and a neurological issue.
So rather than beat yourself up, it’s time to start supporting your body and brain. Now more than ever, we need our PFC for resilience and wise thinking in this challenging time.
The good news is that the brain is plastic, so if we support it properly, we can get back to stronger PFC connections. Below are just 2 ways to do this, backed by research.
I know, I know – you’ve heard it before: mindfulness is good for you.
Perhaps you’ve resisted because… well, who has time? It can seem a bit self-indulgent when you’ve got so much to do or problems to solve. Or maybe thinking about nothing seems silly.
But these are myths.
First, mindfulness isn’t just about getting calm or feeling better. It’s also about supporting the health of your brain in important areas relating to emotional and cognitive control, which can clearly can help the people around you.
A significant amount of research to date has shown that regular mindfulness practice not only improves emotional regulation and reduces stress, anxiety and depression, but also has the ability to improve the structure of the PFC and brain functions relating to attention and cognitive control, learning and memory processes, emotion regulation and perspective taking.
Second, mindfulness is not about thinking nothing. If that were the case, I don’t know if anyone could actually do it. It’s simply about noticing your thoughts (or feelings or sensations) without judging or following them.
If you’ve tried it and felt like a failure, I get it. When I first tried to meditate as a stressed-out lawyer, my thoughts seemed to be stuck in high gear. I thought I was failing, and I gave up. But noticing the state of my mind was in fact the practice.
For some, it can be very helpful to regularly relax the body before trying to practice mindfulness. (In the beginning, I had too much chronic physical tension for my mind to settle much.)
Yoga, which is a form of mindful movement, was my gateway to mindfulness. Studies show that yoga and other mind-body practices including Qi gong and Tai Chi appear to suppress genes that give rise to inflammation in the body that can result from chronic stress.
But you can also try massage or even a hot bath, and then see if mindfulness feels more accessible with a relaxed body.
Lack of sleep affects our stress resilience and brain capacities.
Why? The brain’s #1 job is to assess and control the body’s energy levels. So if we’re tired, the brain will control our limited energy and some functions become inhibited.
Lack of sleep can affect cognitive processes to the same extent as drinking too much.
Poor sleep also affects our emotions. Not only can sleep problems be caused by anxiety, but they can also help to create it – it sets up a vicious cycle. Studies show that sleep-deprived people have a harder time accessing the PFC and controlling their emotions.
A bad night’s sleep can also result in a greater negative emotional response to stress the next day and can hamper our experience of positive emotions.
So sleep is essential for a better response to stress, and for our ability to feel joy – both of which are so needed in this pandemic!
Mindfulness and Sleep Resources
To get started with mindfulness, it’s helpful to have guidance and a regular practice. If you start small – say 5 minutes a day – then it’s more do-able and you’re more likely to stick with it. You can increase the duration over time.
Some experienced and highly regarded mindfulness mediation teachers include: Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach and Sharon Salzberg. There are many more of course, and it’s key to find someone who resonates with you. Many teachers have free online guided practices as well. Keep experimenting until you find one that is right for you.
Yoga classes are available online now as well. Glo (formerly YogaGlo) is one that is full of many great teachers and classes. Yoga with Adrienne is available for free on YouTube (I have not tried this one but a client of mine is enjoying it.)
For better sleep, check out the Sleep Foundation’s tips for supportive sleep habits here.
Lastly, click here for a 10-minute body scan I recorded at the beginning of the pandemic. The body scan is a mindfulness practice and can also help induce sleep.
This pandemic is looking like a marathon, not a sprint. So we need to be building our capacity for stress resilience.
As I like to say, self-care is brain care. And brain care benefits not only you, but also those you love, support and work with each day.