How the Pandemic Is Changing Your Brain
Chronic stress can physically impact neural connections
To say that people are stressed out during the pandemic would be a gross understatement. What people are feeling isn’t acute stress — the kind that can motivate you in the best of times or force you to slow down in the worst of times — it’s chronic stress, the kind that weighs on you for weeks and months, opening the door to psychiatric disorders like anxiety and depression. As senior staff writer and former brain scientist Dana G Smith writes in a terrific feature for Elemental, chronic stress can also change the brain itself.
Chronic stress causes the continuous release of the “stress hormone” cortisol into the blood, where it seeps into the brain. There, it has many downstream effects, one of which is clearing out connections in the brain known as synapses. Under normal circumstances, this process helps clean up unused or damaged synapses. But under periods of prolonged stress, it may destroy healthy or useful synapses as well.
This process can impair memory, cognitive processing, and the ability of the brain to control its own stress response. “So, in many ways,” says one expert interviewed by Smith, “these types of cellular responses can actually even make the stress worse, almost like in a positive feedback loop.”
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