Understanding your brain in the time of COVID-19

Anatomical model of brain

Gaya Karthik and Emily Han both graduated from ANU with Honours in neuroscience and are now both doing PhDs in neuroscience: Gaya is at Duke-NUS in Singapore and Emily is at Johns Hopkins University in the US.

They say they have been experiencing “a flood of emotions” over the last few months, as COVID-19 has brought the world to the standstill. “Often it feels like this stress has drained all the energy out of us. We feel exhausted without even having done anything.”

Gaya and Emily decided the best way to cope with this stress was “in the nerdiest way possible”: by reading about what is actually happening in our brains as we experience the different emotions of living through this pandemic.

In the process, they realised they had learnt so much about science, history, and themselves, that they decided to record it as a podcast series called Your Brain in the Time of COVID-19.

Here, Gaya and Emily share some insights from their first episode, “The Anxious Brain”.

Why do we feel stressed?

By Gaya Karthik and Emily Han

This pandemic has created a lot of uncertainties in our lives and, it turns out, uncertain situations make us extremely stressed. Surprisingly, researchers have shown that being in an uncertain situation can be even more stressful to us than knowing with surety that a negative outcome will occur. Why is that?

Evolutionary biologists think our fear of uncertainty is an evolutionary gift that was critical for the survival of our ancestors. In an uncertain situation, effort and intuitive decision-making is the difference between survival and obliteration. Acute stress primes all aspects of our senses by equipping us with heightened alertness and muscle power. Scientists have shown that moderate stress can increase our performance in a lot of tasks, in particular those that require a clear mind or body strength.

What happens in our bodies when we feel stressed?

The amygdala, an almond-shaped area deep inside the brain, processes stress and fear. When we encounter something scary, the amygdala sends a signal to the hypothalamus, one of the major command-centres, that relays this message to the rest of the body: time for a stress response!

The stress response happens in two waves: the first one is the adrenaline wave, which prepares the body for what is known as the fight or flight response. The hypothalamus signals to the adrenal glands in the kidney to produce adrenaline, which in turn causes the heart to beat faster, and makes sugar available for your muscles to be ready to either fight or take flight. This occurs within a matter of seconds. You can think of this response as how your body reacts to a ‘jump scare’ in a horror film.

Following shortly after this initial wave is the second wave that results in the release of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol prolongs the effect of adrenaline. It allows the heart to continue to beat fast. It also continues to stimulate glucose release, preparing for your muscles and organs to recover after the response. This response is how some of us might feel before taking an exam or giving a public speech.

In conjunction, adrenaline and cortisol prime the brain and body to be alert and ready to respond swiftly to anything that comes our way.

How does stress affect decision-making?

Decision-making is one of the most challenging things our brains do. It involves multiple brain areas communicating back and forth, and a lot of these brain areas listen to adrenaline and cortisol. The current thinking is that stress shifts our decision-making process from one that is more deliberative to one that is more intuitive. Under stressful conditions, we tend to focus on the here and now rather than taking a broader view, analysing our past experiences and deliberating on what the future might hold. Interestingly, the extent to which this shift happens varies from person to person. It has a lot to do with the coping style of each person and how their brain is wired.

How can we cope with stress?

While it is completely natural to be feeling stressed right now, it can get quite all-consuming and debilitating sometimes. We have compiled a few things that have helped us manage our stress:

  1. Video calls with people who we feel relaxed and comfortable around;
  2. To not force ourselves to try to be productive when we are stressed: do what relaxes or distracts us from the stress, and come back to work later when we feel better;
  3. Exercise: sometimes even just 10 minutes of sweating can do wonders to our mood;
  4. Regular bedtime: good sleep boosts our mood, memory and immune system. Taking a hot shower/bath before bed can help us relax;
  5. Journaling: sometimes we carry worries or thoughts that we didn’t want to share with family or friends. Putting our honest thoughts down on paper can be a good way to part with them;
  6. Lastly but most importantly, being kind to ourselves and others around us.
Gaya Karthik  and Emily Han

Gaya Karthik (left) graduated from ANU with a Bachelor of Science (Advanced) (Honours) and is currently studying senescence at Duke-NUS Medical School. She enjoys sports and learning about the science of things.

Emily Han (right) graduated from ANU with a Bachelor of Philosophy (Honours) and is currently studying the circadian clock and sleep at Johns Hopkins University. She's passionate about science writing, outreach, and advocating for gender equity in science.

Your Brain in the Time of COVID-19 is available to stream on Apple, Spotify, and most podcasting platforms.  

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