Coping with COVID stress: From pandemic brain fog to resilience

With the COVID-19 pandemic comes a barrage of daily health anxieties, rising death tolls, increasing unemployment numbers, and physical isolation—on top of strong feelings of frustration and anger as people protest against injustice across the country. 

person holding their head feeling overwhelmed while wearing a face mask.

While feelings of anxiety and concern are normal during a crisis like this, this stress can impact people in a variety of ways. Overall, feelings of depression and anxiety are higher than ever before. There are also smaller manifestations and symptoms of stress, including headaches, inability to focus, physical aches and pains, and lack of sleep.

Research suggests that the part of the brain called the limbic system is hyperactive during times of negative emotions and stress, explains Lily Brown, an assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at the Perelman School of Medicine and director at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety. The limbic system acts as a control center for feelings and reactions. For example, the well-known fight or flight response begins in the limbic system, triggering feelings of anxiety and fear.

Having trouble thinking and planning could be related to stress from the pandemic. Mindfulness can pull on the prefrontal cortex—the region of the brain in charge of executive functioning—which can reduce emotional activation in the limbic system and help you stay calm and in the moment.

“One of the beautiful things about mindfulness practice is that you can use it through a lot of different strategies. For some, that means taking a meditation practice, or it can be helpful to practice mindful walking or running. You can even make a cup of tea or a pot of coffee in a mindful way—something to slow down all of the ruminative thinking or worrying ahead,” Brown says. 

Resilience can improve coping abilities and mitigate negative emotions.The Lifespan Brain Institute—a collaboration of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and Penn Medicine scientists under the guidance of Raquel Gur, a professor of psychiatry neurology, and radiology—developed an online survey with CHOP’s Ran Barzilay, and Brown to investigate resilience during this unprecedented time.

“COVID-19 has created enormous stress in people’s lives around the world, but it provided a unique opportunity to study how people remain resilient through such adversity,” Gur says.

Read more at Penn Medicine News.