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COVID-19 and brain styles, a catalyst for poor mental health

Lara Williams explains how our underlying brain circuitry may shape our mental health response during the COVID-19 pandemic

COVID-19 is not only a threat to our physical well being, our mental health is also in jeopardy. Whilst most are now familiar with the physical symptoms of the novel coronavirus, the mental burden associated with the disease is less understood. However, research published in Brain, Behavior, & Immunity - Health earlier this year suggests that recognising brain styles, how the reflective and logical parts of the brain work together to process emotional, and cognitive data may allow us to understand why certain individuals are predisposed to mental health dysfunction as a result of the pandemic.

The brain is the most important organ of the nervous system. The different sections of the brain act like a circuit to work together via the communication of neurons. When under chronic stress, such as stress caused by the pandemic, the default circuit mode is impacted, altering the way in which the brain functions. For example, those with a ruminative brain style often suffer with repetitive and intrusive thoughts that cause them to compulsively focus on feelings of anxiety, sadness, and distress. A ruthless cycle of questioning what might happen can lead to low and even depressed moods: ‘What will happen if I catch the virus? What if someone vulnerable catches it because of me? I should probably just stay home’ and so on. An individual with a ruminative brain style is said to have an overactivation within the rumination-related network, causing increased activity within the default mode network (DMN). The DMN involves a group of brain regions that become active when we have any thoughts which are not connected to our immediate external environment. In other words, the DMN is responsible for our introspectiveness and mind wanderings. This plays a significant role in obsessive thoughts and overthinking, such as those expressed by individuals experiencing various forms of OCD.

COVID-19 poses a very real threat to our health; ruminators are susceptible to heightened states of ‘threat seeking’. During a health crisis, ruminators are likely to hone-in on threats surrounding a person’s physical health, this may cause increased symptom checking and body scanning. Remaining on high alert for perceived threats, both internally and externally, leaves individuals more vulnerable to experiencing health-related anxieties and to developing various anxiety disorders. With the daily influx of negative news surrounding the pandemic, these thoughts only become further compounded.

The introduction of social distancing measures and, in extreme cases, social isolation—has greatly stinted access to one of our core human needs, social engagement. Confined to our homes and kept apart from support networks, the consequences of social isolation have undoubtedly been detrimental to mental health, particularly for those living alone or shielding. Anhedonia, or the inability to experience pleasure, is caused by an under engagement of the brain’s reward network. The brain’s reward network is a circuit that controls and regulates our ability to feel pleasure. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter, is released from the ventral tegmental area (VTA) within the midbrain when pleasure is experienced. The VTA then sends this dopamine to various other regions of the brain, including the amygdala (controls emotions), the nucleus accumbens (for motor function), the hippocampus (for memory formation), and the prefrontal cortex (for attention and planning). This tells the body to engage with the positive stimulus over and over again, creating a ‘reward circuit’. Anhedonia is one of the core characteristics of clinical depression and is also found to be related to other mental health disorders.

As individuals with an anhedonia brain style already experience some degree of blunted anticipatory reward, the removal of social engagement is likely to have negative mental health consequences. A social anhedonia cycle is formed, or further fuelled, when an individual does not (or cannot, due to local lockdown measures) engage in any activities that promote pleasure, rendering them unable to experience the needed ‘reward’. Consequently, they lose the motivation required to participate in experiences and activities that once brought them joy. Due to the lonely nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals may find themselves stuck in this cycle more effortlessly. The cycle likely culminates in social withdrawal, as research shows that these individuals become increasingly less likely to reach out to others or seek any help and support that may be needed.

It is clear that the implications of falling ill to the virus, and the restrictions put in place to limit its spread, are two major sources of mental health concern. However, research suggests that some individuals are more predisposed to negative mental health dysfunction than others thanks to their underlying brain style. Future studies will be needed to understand the changes the pandemic has had on mental health at the population level. However, in the meantime it’s important that we bear these differences in mind, and try our best to be kind to those around us.

For more information, see:

Hagerty, S.L. and Williams, L.M., 2020. The impact of COVID-19 on mental health: The interactive roles of brain biotypes and human connection. Brain, Behavior, & Immunity-Health, p.100078.

From COVID-19 mini issue, 2020

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