This is your brain on pandemic: What chronic stress is doing to us

Stephanie Hogan · CBC News · Posted: Apr 01

More than half of Canadians report increased stress during the pandemic — and it’s the kind of chronic and unpredictable stress that tends to leave people unfocussed and unproductive. (Shutterstock)

[Excerpt] April 1 Back in the 1980s, there was a public service announcement on TV that you may remember — or may have seen on YouTube.

A guy in a kitchen held up an egg and said, “This is your brain.” Then he cracked the egg into a hot frying pan, and said, “This is your brain on drugs.”

One year into this pandemic, your brain might be feeling a bit like that egg: Fried.

“Everything is so much harder,” said Stephanie Johnson, a client relationship executive who lives in Toronto. “I don’t have the motivation that I used to have. I don’t have the efficiency that I used to have.”

“Defeated” is how Vas Smountas, a freelance graphic designer, describes it. Also living in Toronto, she describes herself these days as “tired, defeated, foggy, unmotivated.”

And research suggests those feelings are not uncommon right now, as the chronic stress of the pandemic has both affected our brains — and robbed us of normal, healthy ways to cope.

Reduced cognition due to stress

Just shy of one year into the pandemic, a national survey of Canadians suggested that more than half of all respondents — 56 per cent — said they were feeling increased stress or anxiety as a result of COVID-19.  Among those aged 18-34, it was even higher, at 63 per cent.

You don’t have to be lonely or depressed — you’re just living through a pandemic. Or as Dr. Roger McIntyre describes it, “daily, unpredictable, malignant stress.”

Brains can heal

“The brain is incredibly plastic and incredibly modifiable and incredibly able to regenerate,” McIntyre said. And once the source of stress is removed, the brain circuits begin to normalize again. 

“You see a correction of brain circuit function, and you also see a rejuvenation of brain tissue because our brains, our neurons, our brain cells, continue to grow.”

And in the case of the pandemic, once most people are fully vaccinated, once life returns to what is commonly thought of as “normal” — with kids in school, and people at work, and restaurants full of people hanging out together without masks on — McIntyre says brain recoverability should follow in short order.

To read more, click on: This is your brain on pandemic: What chronic stress is doing to us

Read more from CBC News’ Stephanie Hogan on why a year of ‘daily, unpredictable, malignant stress’ can actually affect our brain tissue.