How can we improve our mental health after the stress of a pandemic


Chronic stress can also change the prefrontal cortex, the executive control center of the brain and amygdala, the center of fear and anxiety. Too many glucocorticoids can disrupt connections within the prefrontal cortex and between it and the amygdala for too long. As a result, the prefrontal cortex loses its ability to control the amygdala, leaving the center for fear and anxiety unattended. This pattern of brain activity (too much action in the amygdala and insufficient communication with the prefrontal cortex) is common in people who have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), another condition that has risen sharply during a pandemic. especially among first-line health workers.

The social isolation brought about by the pandemic was also detrimental to the structure and function of the brain. Loneliness is associated with reduced volume in the hippocampus and amygdala, as well as reduced connectivity in the prefrontal cortex. It may come as no surprise that people who lived alone during the pandemic experienced higher rates of depression and anxiety.

Finally, damage to these areas of the brain affects people not only emotionally but also cognitively. Many psychologists attribute the pandemic brain fog to the impact of chronic stress on the prefrontal cortex, where it can impair concentration and working memory.

Turnaround time

That’s bad news. The pandemic hit our brains hard. These negative changes eventually boil down to a reduction in stress-induced neuroplasticity – cell loss and synapses instead of new ones. But don’t despair; there is good news. For many people, the brain can spontaneously recover its plasticity when the stress goes away. If life starts to return to normal, so could our brains.

“In many cases, the changes that occur with chronic stress actually recede over time,” says James Herman, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Cincinnati. “At the brain level, you can see a reversal of many of these negative effects.”

“If you create for yourself a richer environment in which you have more possible inputs and interactions and stimuli, then [your brain] will answer that. “

Rebecca Price, associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh

In other words, as your routine returns to its pre-pandemic state, so should your brain. Stress hormones will recede as vaccination continues, and anxiety about dying from a new virus (or killing someone else) subsides. And as you re-enter the world, all the little things that once made you happy or challenged you in a good way will repeat it, helping your brain repair the lost connections that these behaviors once built. For example, just as social isolation is bad for the brain, social interaction is especially good for it. People with larger social networks have a larger volume and connections u prefrontal cortex,, amygdalaand other regions of the brain.

Even if you still don’t like hanging out, you might still push yourself a little. You don’t do anything that feels insecure, but there is an aspect of “cheating until you arrive” in treating some mental illness. In clinical speech it is called behavioral activation, which emphasizes going out and doing things even if you don’t want to. At first, you may not experience the same feelings of joy or fun you’ve had since going to a bar or backyard barbecue, but if you stick to it, these activities will often start to feel easier and can help you remove your feeling of depression.

Rebecca Price, an associate professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, says activating behavior could succeed by enriching your environment, which scientists know leads growth of new brain cells, at least in animal models. “Your brain will react to the environment you present to it, so if you’re in a backward, non-enriched environment because you’re left stuck alone at home, it’s likely to cause some reductions in available pathways,” she says. “If you create a richer environment for yourself. you have more possible inputs and interactions and stimuli, then [your brain] will answer that. “So get off the couch and visit a museum, a botanical garden or an open-air concert. Your brain will thank you.

Practice it can help you too. Chronic stress exhausts levels an important chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which helps promote neuroplasticity. Without BDNF, the brain is less able to repair or replace cells and connections lost due to chronic stress. Exercise increases the level BDNF, especially in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, which at least partially explains why exercise can enhance cognition and mood.

BDNF not only helps the growth of new synapses, but can also help create new neurons in the hippocampus. For decades, scientists thought that neurogenesis in humans stopped after adolescence, but recent researchshowed signs of neuronal growth well into old age (although the problem is still at stake hotly contested). Whether it works through neurogenesis or not, exercise has been shown time and time again to improve people’s mood, attention, and cognition; some therapists even prescribe it to treat depression and anxiety. It’s time to go outside and start sweating.

Turn to treatment

There is a lot of variation in how people’s brains recover from stress and trauma and not everyone will recover so easily from a pandemic.

“Some people just seem to be more vulnerable to getting into a chronic state where they get stuck in something like depression or anxiety,” Price says. In these situations, therapy or medication may be needed.

Some scientists now think that psychotherapy for depression and anxiety works at least in part change in brain activity, and that starting the brain in new patterns is the first step towards connecting new patterns. A review paper who evaluated psychotherapy for various anxiety disorders found that treatment was most effective in people who showed more activity in the prefrontal cortex after a few weeks of therapy than they had before – especially when the area controlled the fear center of the brain.

Other researchers are trying to change people’s brain activity using video games. Adam Gazzaley, a professor of neurology at the University of California, San Francisco, developed the first brain training game to receive FDA approval for the ability to treat ADHD in children. The game is also shown improve attention range in adults. Moreover, EEG studies have revealed a greater functional association involving the prefrontal cortex, suggesting a strengthening of neuroplasticity in the region.

Now Gazzaley wants to use this game to treat people with a pandemic brain fog. “We think there is an incredible opportunity here in terms of apparent recovery,” he says. “I believe that attention as a system can help widely [mental health] conditions and symptoms that people suffer from, especially due to illness. “

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