The current pandemic has caused unprecedented changes in nearly every area of our lives. Ever since January, 2020, when the first laboratory-confirmed case of COVID-19 in the United States was reported to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, we have felt the drastic impact ripple throughout every home, community, and country.
With what we know about far-reaching social tragedies and neuroscience, it makes sense that this event not only affects the physical, tangible ways in which we live but also the health of our mind and soul.
Humans generally have resistance to drastic, unwanted change, such that fear of the unknown brought about by change is being examined as a distinct fear in and of itself. Changes that we feel little control over can cause anxiety and during a period of our history such as this, the effects of this uncertainty on our mental states is a big concern.
The neurobiology of uncertainty
Our brains deal with uncertainty in very systematic ways; for example, statistical learning refers to the cognitive processes underlying our ability to extract patterns out of visual and linguistic information. In order to make sense of the world, the brain looks for patterns and rules that allow for quicker sensory and perceptual processing.
Uncertainty in many domains at once, however, can produce a stress response. Researchers have demonstrated that uncertain conditions produce statistically significant physiological stress responses during a computerized task.
This type of acute stress brought on by uncertain conditions is thought to result in the reinforcement of a negativity response bias, a phenomenon where negative experiences attract more frequent negative and detrimental responses. Basically our brain is a magnet for negativity. A lot of this has to do with the variable reinforcement schedule inherent in uncertain conditions: if negative events occur only sometimes, yet other times they do not, we vacillate quickly between “safe” and “not safe” perceptions of our environment, causing stress.
Much of this processing of aversion and uncertainty has to do with the network comprising the lateral prefrontal cortex (lPFC) and the amygdala; risk vs. reward and our direct aversion to ambiguity. Disliking uncertainty is tied to the same system responsible for executive functioning. Likely, this system exerts a global regulatory response that assesses risk and induces caution.
These outcomes are even more dire if you have experience with adverse events; there is overwhelming evidence supporting how early life adverse experiences determine adult adjustment strategies during high-stress scenarios. This magnified hyper-vigilance is thought to be the result of early childhood experiences necessitating more caution and fear due to uncertain, stressful situations. As adults, this vigilance is preserved and maintained and often becomes an unconscious habit. The current pandemic is affecting us psychologically and biologically even if we don’t get sick with the virus itself.
Isolation is detrimental to our psychological states
Isolation is an unnatural state for our minds & brains; we are wired for social engagement, and social isolation is an underlying cause of psychological and physical illness. There is emerging evidence that continued, prolonged periods of social isolation directly affects mortality.
Within an evolutionary framework, feelings of isolation are theorized to have been a response to motivate early humans to seek social connectedness in a manner that would improve fitness. With more individuals in a social network, you improved your chances of attaining more resources, and improving your chances of survival. There is emerging evidence that our default learning system is ingrained within our fear response; systems that allow for rapid learning from novel, negative experiences are underwritten by a variety of interconnected activity spanning hippocampal, limbic and frontal areas of the brain.
In our current unsettled climate, we’re faced with a new circumstance where isolation is paired with a variable model of reinforcement. Many states have strict stay-at-home orders, followed by relaxation, and then rollbacks to more lockdowns. For many already suffering from feelings of loneliness, depression, fear & anxiety, this schedule of reinforcement increases feelings of uncertainty.
The social contagion persists during lockdown
Perhaps paradoxically, social isolation and confinement to one’s home have had an unprecedented effect on the dissemination of information, such that individuals are sharing opinions, thoughts, and views between each other faster than ever before. This is primarily a natural result of a more connected world by way of the Internet but amplified by increased web usage among people staying home. While social networking is typically thought of as a generally positive thing, there is a tendency for misinformation to spread rapidly.
This phenomenon is best explained by social contagion theory, the idea that like diseases, ideas can spread among the population in a similar fashion.
The fact that this contagion of information is spreading so rapidly can have a lot to do with how we seek to reduce feelings of uncertainty. As we struggle with an uncertain environment, our need to seek information grows; however, this type of information seeking may in fact augment these feelings of stress associated with uncertainty.
There are, luckily, many strategies available to individuals struggling with this challenge posed during the pandemic and at other times as well, including:
Taking advantage of telehealth visits for mental health, which are demonstrably effective when in-person is not an option.
Prioritizing and developing mindful habits that benefit you during this high-stress period, such as practicing mindfulness.
Enforcing stricter social media breaks, shown to benefit the mental health of people who choose to take a vacation from social media channels.
We are all in this together; the pandemic has highlighted the urgent need for widespread self-care and stress management education. Developing habits that strengthen us in the face of uncertainty will allow us all to live with more confidence, and feeling empowered.
Creating predictability one deep breath at a time is sometimes the best way to start.
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