YOUR POOR PANDEMIC BRAIN

How to Build a More Resilient Brain

Your executive control center has helped your mental health survive the pandemic thus far. Here’s how to strengthen it for the future.

Dana G Smith
Elemental
Published in
14 min readMar 24, 2021

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Illustration: Carolyn Figel

A lot has been written (including by this reporter) about the mental health toll of the pandemic, and for good reason. The latest numbers from the National Pulse Survey, a weekly mental health screen conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau, estimate that nearly 40% of Americans are currently experiencing symptoms of either anxiety or depression, a 50% increase over pre-pandemic times.

In some ways, though, it’s surprising that this number isn’t even higher given the stress, trauma, loss, and loneliness of the past year. The vast majority of people have spent the last 12 months locked inside their homes, terrified of catching a deadly virus, and trying not to kill their spouse, children, or roommates — in more ways than one. People living alone have marked births, deaths, graduations, and layoffs with no one to hug but our pillows. And yet the majority of Americans seem to have made it through with their mental health still intact. How?

If the root of much of the mental illness that’s emerged during the pandemic is unrelenting chronic stress, the opposite is also true: Resilience to trauma lies in the ability to adapt positively to stress.

“Resilience is really this ability to bounce back in the face of adversity,” says Steven Southwick, MD, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at Yale University. “From a biological standpoint, it’s the ability to modulate and hopefully constructively harness the stress response.”

In the brain, resilience means protecting against many stress-induced changes, particularly in regard to the size, activity, and connectivity of the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex — the brain’s fear, memory and mood, and executive control centers, respectively.

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Dana G Smith
Elemental

Health and science writer • PhD in 🧠 • Words in Scientific American, STAT, The Atlantic, The Guardian • Award-winning Covid-19 coverage for Elemental