What happens to your brain when you’re locked inside?

It’s become a regular topic of conversation with friends of mine as we navigate life in lockdown Melbourne: we’re more forgetful than normal, we can’t plan or make decisions, and our irritability has gone through the roof.

Sep 02, 2020, updated Sep 02, 2020
Forgetfulness, irritability and fatigue are all symptoms of a brain under chronic stress. (Photo: Unsplash CC: David Matos)

Forgetfulness, irritability and fatigue are all symptoms of a brain under chronic stress. (Photo: Unsplash CC: David Matos)

Basically, we’re a far cry from the competent, well-organised adults we used to be.

So is the problem with us or the pandemic?

“We’ve known for over 100 years that as soon as you become stressed, anxious, depressed, undergo any kind of trauma, your cognition becomes impaired,” says cognitive neuropsychologist, Professor Susan Rossell of Swinburne University, who’s been studying the mental health of Australians during this crisis.

And with Melbourne under stage 4 restrictions while we fight this second wave of coronavirus cases, the reason why many of us are doing worse in this lockdown has a lot to do with the long-term effects of stress on cognition,  Rossell says.

Let’s unpack some of what’s going on.

Your executive function skills are kaput

When we’re under prolonged stress and anxiety we basically go into a very rudimentary state of cognitive ability, Rossell says.

“All of the very routine things that you do every day are going to be absolutely fine because they’re biologically hardwired into you,” she says.

But as soon as we need to do anything that requires higher-order planning or thinking outside the box, we’re going to find this more difficult because we need to use our frontal lobes for these sorts of tasks.

A diagram showing the names of different sections of the human brain.

Lockdown is impacting many different parts of our brain. (Photo: Getty Images: Jobalou)

And in terms of these executive function skills, your brain is having a lot more difficulty accessing your prefrontal cortex, which is particularly important when we’re trying to make decisions, says neuroscientist Lila Landowski of the University of Tasmania,

“This means we have trouble making good decisions, we have trouble understanding other people’s perspectives,” Dr Landowski says, which could also explain why you might find yourself bickering with your family more during this lockdown.

It’s also really affecting our hippocampus, she says, which is our memory centre and helps us understand where we are in space and time.

One group that is finding things particularly difficult is people 25 and under,  Rossell says.

“The reason for that is because their brains are still not mature,” she says.

And, as you might have already guessed, the final bit of your brain that develops between the ages of 18 to 24 is your frontal lobes.

There’s a higher level of baseline activity in your brain

Being under chronic stress means that our brain is also constantly having to process this stress, so there’s a higher level of baseline activity going on.

And having stress hormones like cortisol flooding our blood directly affects our brain cells, Dr Landowski says.

“When we’re chronically stressed, cortisol causes these brain cells to die,” she says, as well as stopping the brain from making new brain cells.

Usually the brain makes new brain cells at a low level all the time, but high levels of cortisol stop this process.

“When we’re not making these new brain cells constantly, we’re less cognitively flexible. So we’re less able to adapt to new situations,” Dr Landowski says.

Usually, we have extra neural capacity to think and plan and be creative, Rossell says, but that’s not what we’re experiencing now.

Another feature of social isolation, she says, is we become a lot more sensitive to any kind of sensory information — be that sounds, lights or smells for example — because we not getting that stimulation from something else.

Which could explain why your neighbour’s whipper snipper, which has never bothered you before, is suddenly driving you crazy.

You could be sleeping more but worse

Research has shown we sleep longer but not necessarily better during lockdowns.

A lot of people are also reporting they’re experiencing more vivid and emotional dreams, which is of particular interest to researcher Dr Jennifer Windt of Monash University, who’s part of a multinational research project looking at the link between the coronavirus pandemic and vivid dreams.

“Dreams are known to reflect and continue concerns, but also experiences that we have in waking life,” Windt says.

The longer sleeps and the intense dreams may actually be linked. That’s because, while dreams occur throughout the night and in all stages of sleep, they’re most frequent and often most vivid and complex during REM sleep periods, which tend to get longer as the night goes on.

“Meaning that we would have the longest REM periods and hence presumably the longest and most complex dreams just before awakening,” she says.

And waking soon after a dream makes it more likely you’ll recall it.

Windt is also interested in the content of people’s dreams: “Are we dreaming of less people during lockdown or perhaps in some form of compensation mechanism of more?”

Our particularly vivid dreams could also be due to the types of hormones and chemicals our brains need to get rid of at night coming out in our dreams, Rossell says.

“We would normally not have those high levels of adrenaline in the day,” she says.

“The body’s protective mechanism is if we do need to kind of get rid of any excess adrenaline and cortisol and so on, we do it at night. We’re doing a lot of that at the moment.

“That does mean the brain is more active at night, and people are not sleeping as well.

Unfortunately, poor sleep quality or sleeplessness also impacts our brain, Dr Landowski says.

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One night of not sleeping makes us 30 per cent more anxious and our emotion-processing amygdala up to 60 per cent more reactive.

“When we haven’t slept enough, our amygdala connects to the locus coeruleus — the part of the brain involved in our panic response — instead of the prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain involved in decision making,” she says.

“So we’re going to be much more likely to be snappy or reactive or just be really visceral in our responses to things, rather than thinking it through.”

Fatigue can also affect our coordination, making us more clumsy, because it affects the balance centre of our brain, the cerebellum, Dr Landowski says.

And just to put it in perspective, one night’s missed sleep is equivalent to a blood alcohol concentration of 0.1.

Your life isn’t very rewarding at the moment

“We’ve got very little that’s rewarding us at the moment,” Rossell says.

“We would normally have very active social lives, very active employment, we’re a very busy race now. And so as we move through our everyday lives, that results in reward to us. And so that increases dopamine.”

That means we’re not getting our normal hits of dopamine from our everyday lives.

“We love dopamine, it is kind of our lovely reward chemical. And at the moment, there is nothing to reward us, apart from chocolate and wine.”

But that’s actually terrible for us, she says, because using these artificial rewards makes us crash.

So what can you do to keep your brain as healthy as possible?

Make sure you’re getting plenty of vitamin D, sunshine and exercise, Professor Rossell says, even if that means having to put up with the discomfort of a mask while exercising.

If you live alone, stay connected to people via phone calls or video chats rather than text messages, Dr Landowski says.

That’s because while texting someone activates the reward pathway of the brain, it doesn’t lead to our brain releasing stress-reducing oxytocin. A phone call does both.

Skipping the unhealthy treat for a piece of fruit also helps our brains in the long-term, she says.

And don’t expect to be back to normal straightaway when we’re out of lockdown.

“The best evidence says that the longer we’re stressed, the longer we’ll take to recover,” Dr Landowski says.

“We will bounce back to normal if we do all these good things like exercise and so forth [but] expect it to take weeks to months.”

So keeping perspective and having compassion for yourself and those around you is important right now.

Maybe we aren’t at our best at the moment, says Dr Landowski, but this is just our body’s way of trying to cope with the situation.

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