Whether you’ve contracted the coronavirus or not, here are some ways the virus is indirectly affecting your brain, emotions and mental health.
One year and eight months into the global Covid-19 pandemic, there’s no denying that extended lockdowns, working from home, and adjusting to the new world has had deep effects on everyone you know, including yourself.
Quickly becoming the subject of memes and banter with our loved ones and friends, everyone has dealt and struggled with the pandemic in their own way. That doesn’t take away from the seriousness of its effects, whether you’ve contracted the coronavirus or not. The pandemic has affected everyone around the world, and researchers are beginning to take note of some of the long term effects it's having on society. Some of which are less than obvious.
Covid-19 has already been linked to serious side-effects located in the brain. The virus can cause severe to mild fatigue, memory loss, brain-damage and stroke-like symptoms. One paper published in the Neuropsychopharmacology Review suggests that whether or not you’ve contracted covid-19, it’s likely the pandemic has already affected your brain. Common cases include anxiety, depression and mood-disorders that have their root in altered brain functions.
If you’ve struggled with a loss of smell due to covid-19, you may have already experienced this. Unknown to most, the olfactory bulb responsible for smell and also a prime target for the coronavirus is also deeply linked to the brain, and carries significant amounts of dopamine. Dopamine is responsible for motivation, enjoyment and action, with an impact on attention, memory, learning and your general mood.
But even if you haven’t contracted covid-19, it’s likely your dopamine levels have been impacted in other ways. Stress, anxiety and depression over family, infection, and isolation all play a major role in determining your brain chemistry and function.
For instance, constant stress causes high levels of inflammation in the body, which not only weakens your immune system or puts you at long-term risk of heart disease and diabetes, but also reduces serotonin, an important hormone responsible for stabilizing your mood, providing you with feelings of well-being and happiness, and aiding you in sleep, digestion and eating.
As if that weren’t enough, stress can also shrink your brain’s hippocampus, which is responsible for learning and memory. Stress also brings up levels of cortisol, with impacts on your mood. All these put together can cause symptoms of depression and anxiety. It’s worth noting that if you feel any of these symptoms, you should contact a licensed professional mental health expert who can provide you with the insight or care you may need. Self-therapizing can be harmful.
Grief is also a key culprit, especially in the case of loss of loved ones. Helplessness and worry about spreading the disease, also play an equally major role in shaping behavior and impacting your brain. Social distancing, as necessary as it is, has also lead to higher levels of isolation, major changes to habits, financial insecurity, and even unemployment, all considered major factors that can contribute to depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Chronic fear and worry has been proven to damage your brain’s prefrontal cortex, responsible for executive and strategic thinking. Brain scans of victims of severe trauma also show similar neuronal damage, with the effect of poor emotional control and reactivity.
Digital dopamine addiction
In addition to the effects of isolation and loneliness, digital addictions are also on the rise. Most smartphones provide useful measurements of how much time you spend on your phone. It’s useful to remember that by design, notifications provide you with a little boost of dopamine, making it a potential source of addiction. Mental health professionals avoid terms like ‘internet addiction’, they instead focus on the medium of delivery (your phone, laptop, television) and its impact on your life.
By definition, an addiction occurs when you can’t do without the source of feel-good chemicals or the counter-anxiety relief it provides.
‘Dopamine fasts’ are increasingly becoming alternative ways of coping with the pandemic.
“Towards the beginning of the pandemic I had a healthy lifestyle and a solid routine. Now I spend hours a day on my phone before bedtime and in the morning, I watch way more TV than I ever have on binges, and play too much video games,” says Khalid Taha, a student of political science in Istanbul Bilgi university.
“When I try to cut down on my screen time, I end up feeling super-bored and empty. Walks, socializing, and making food don’t give me the same pleasure they used to. I’m trying to cut all my screen use for a month and let my brain reset,” he adds.
Khalid doesn’t struggle with unemployment, poverty, or poor health. Instead, it’s too much dopamine.
“It’s bad,” remarks another student, Tamir Haymour, a student of computer science in Bilgi University.
“It’s impacting my motivation and productivity and I’m not the only one who’s facing this,” adds Haymour.
Dopamine is closely linked to pleasure and reward. If your brain is used to high levels of stimulation, normal activities can seem less enjoyable. With lower rewards, or addiction to immediate gratification through television, social media or games, other activities that require effort to reach long-term gratification like school, work or education can seem less attractive, more difficult to carry out, or less motivating overall.
When your brain experiences the release of dopamine, it ‘downregulates’, meaning it reduces the amount of dopamine receptors that can be stimulated. This is why intense long periods of enjoyment can leave you feeling tired, empty or distinctly less happy afterwards. Given enough time, the brain restores its balance.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to resist going back for more before the brain restores its hormonal balance. Over weeks, months or years, your baseline for feeling good changes towards a much higher bar of stimulation. For many who struggle with dopamine addiction in the pandemic, quitting leaves them with normal signs of addictive withdrawal including irritation, anxiety, and cravings.
At the heart of the issue are our behaviours, not our brains. In a world with easy access and connectivity to much of what we enjoy in large quantities, new addictions are rising to the front including online shopping, gaming, binge-watching a series when it's released, social media and the like.
These are all the more dangerous given that digital products are carefully designed to reward you with carefully thought out colours, notification noises, seamless ‘use-me-more’ features, likes, and algorithms that provide your brain with more of the thing that makes you happy.
The World Happiness Report indicates that overall feelings of well-being, satisfaction with life, and happiness have seen a decline during the covid-19 pandemic. Higher income countries seem to be more at risk.
Changing social behaviour
Societies around the world reacted differently to covid-19 and the ongoing pandemic. For some, it meant binging on our favourite things. For others, it was a chance to save, reconnect with family and themselves, and focus on what matters most in their life.
That doesn’t mean that all decisions made during the pandemic were necessarily the right ones. Online social media content has increasingly extolled the virtues of ‘disappearing’ and taking advantage of the pandemic to ‘build yourself’.
While that may hold true for some, it does not necessarily apply to everyone. For parents who have had to contend with young children studying from home while balancing their jobs, sleep may be more of a priority. This also applies to young adults who are balancing between study and work, or even work and the chronic stress of the pandemic.
Less interaction with fellow human beings is also changing the way we interact with each other. As necessary as they are, masks also limit emotional engagement and empathy with others. Brains understand emotions through the use of mirror-neurons, which mimic the facial muscles of someone we speak to understand what they’re feeling. In other words, social distancing measures makes it difficult to physically connect with others, or enjoy normal levels of empathy and trust.
At the heart of this all, is the impact the pandemic has had on our basic ideas of what constitutes a need versus a luxury. Not too long ago, home fitness equipment was considered a luxury. Now it’s a need for many people.
Spending too much on food? You’re also supporting local businesses. Decision-making itself has changed, and it’ll be some time before we can figure out what works and what’s best. Whether you go down the path of self-control and monk-like discipline or allow yourself to enjoy life because you deserve it, it’s useful to remember that actions in and of themselves are rarely a problem so long as they don’t pose a risk to an individual or public health and mental health.
Perhaps, it’s better to ask how this behaviour affects your brain and body in the short and long-term, and what you need most even if cravings tell you otherwise.