Back in July of last year, I wrote a column on "Covid brain." You weren't just imagining that fuzzy, emotionally fragile feeling, experts explained in the piece. Your troubled state of mind was expected given the pandemic and the way our brains respond to stress.
Eight months have passed since then, and things, I'm sorry to remind you, only got worse. Vaccines are giving us hope now, but for the past year we've all been constantly bombarded by stress and uncertainty to some extent or another.
So what does Covid brain look like at this stage in the game? Are the effects of a handful of months of lockdown and illness the same as a whole year's worth? And with our much-longed-for return to some semblance of normality will our brains go back to normal too?
These questions are at the heart of a fascinating new Elemental article from Dana Smith. Speaking with psychologists and neuroscientists, Smith digs into what the pandemic has done to our brains. It makes for grim -- but also strangely reassuring -- reading.
This is your brain on chronic stress
Smith kicks things off with a disclaimer. Science takes time and this is very much a developing field of study. What we understand about Covid's effects on our brains is bound to shift as more research results come in. But what we already know suggests the results aren't pretty.
Short-term stress isn't necessarily bad for you. In fact, it can drive you to improve your performance in high-stakes situations. But when stress is sustained for months on end, the consequences for our brain are worrying, Smith writes:
One change that occurs is mediated by the brain's immune system -- a family of cells called microglia that are located throughout the brain. Under normal circumstances, one role of microglia is to chop up and clear out damaged or unused synapses -- the connections between neurons that enable brain cells to communicate. In small doses, this is a normal part of healthy brain maintenance. During periods of severe stress, however, many more microglia are produced and become activated by the cortisol circulating in the brain. The excess, over-activated microglia can then start to prune out synapses that are still necessary and functional.
Chronic stress, in other words, acts like a hatchet chopping through valuable connections between neurons. That can result in a variety of issues, including memory problems and foggy thinking, but the most common outcome is greater susceptibility to anxiety. Thanks to "pruning" of the connections between the brain's anxiety center, the amygdala, and other parts tasked with more rational processing, it becomes hard for us to think our way out of irrational stress.
"There's nothing holding the amygdala back from constantly sounding the alarm, so you get more stressed out over more things," Smith sums up. Similarly, stress can make depression more likely by pruning the connections that help us regulate our moods.
You are not weird
Well, that's depressing then. Is there any positive takeaway here? Smith's long, detailed article (don't miss the whole thing if you're interested in brain science) isn't cheerful reading, but it should at least reassure you that if you're glum, short-tempered, and prone to anxiety after a year of Covid, you're neither alone nor imagining things.
Covid brain continues to be real, and it's probably even worse after so many months. As Smith concludes, "My hope is that by laying out some of the very real changes that can take place in the brain, the very real toll that a year of stress and loneliness and loss can take, people may feel a little less abnormal or like they're failing."
Take comfort in the fact that the end is in sight and that experience from previous pandemics suggests our collective mental health will improve once we tame the virus. Seek help if your Covid blues develop into full-blown depression or an anxiety disorder -- effective treatments are available. But the biggest message of hope here is that your struggles are to be expected given the situation. So if you've been beating yourself up, please stop.