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Covid-19: What It Has Done to Our Brain



Introduction


We’re all familiar with how the COVID-19 pandemic is life-threatening to our physical health. We’re constantly bombarded with news of rising cases, extended lockdowns, and frankly, a variety of depressing, never-ending issues. While staying safe and taking care of our physical health are manifestly important especially during times like these, it is crucial that we also pay attention to our state of mind. It’s not easy having to bear bad news almost every day while also managing studies or work. One of the biggest implications of the pandemic on people is the increase in mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. This article focuses on how the pandemic has affected our mental health and cognitive function, magnifying specifically into suicide in Malaysia, as well as ways to cope with bad times during this pandemic.


The effect of the pandemic on our mental health


A recent study on mental health disorders during the COVID-19 pandemic showed that throughout the progression of the pandemic, there has been a prevalent increase in mental health symptoms within the Malaysian population. More specifically, there has been a persistent increase in the percentage of people demonstrating depressive, anxiety and stress symptoms.[1] Generally, the strongest predictor for depressive and anxiety symptoms was poor health status.[2] Aside from that, it was also found that students, females and people with poor financial conditions showed more vulnerability to mental health symptoms.[3]


The imposition of restrictive measures such as lockdowns and closure of schools and workplaces has confined people to their houses in isolation. This undoubtedly has adverse effects on our mental health – the accumulation of separation from our loved ones, boredom, lack of social interaction, loss of freedom and uncertainty are all reasons to explain the deterioration of mental health among people.[4] Although we’re well aware that the implementation of restrictive measures is to prevent the transmission of the virus, the feeling of helplessness is often difficult to escape. Unfortunately, due to financial, emotional and mental adversities faced, this has led to an increase in suicides within the country. In the first five months of 2021, the Malaysian police recorded 468 suicides, compared to 631 in the whole of 2020.[5] The three main causes cited were finances, emotional pressure and family problems.[6]


Besides all the negative effects on mental health mentioned above, students, in particular, are burdened with the heavy task of managing their studies while coping with the stress of the pandemic. Many students struggle with online learning due to the lack of conducive work environments at home, lack of motivation and lack of social interaction. There is no doubt that students have it tough trying to stay on top of their responsibilities in spite of the many obstacles they have to face. All these factors can contribute to the deterioration of one’s mental health.


Effects of the pandemic on our brain & cognitive function


Speaking of mental health deterioration, emerging studies have come to address a somewhat modern phenomenon called “pandemic brain.” You know, the subtle feeling of being constantly overwhelmed and a form of brain fog we can’t seem to explain. Students and working adults most likely have experienced having this “pandemic brain” at one point or another while trying to concentrate on our work, thereby hindering our productivity and attention spans. This cognitive fogginess is a direct result of trying to maintain productivity amidst high stress situations, such as – you guessed it – our friend, the pandemic. It is said that prolonged exposure to the body’s primary stress hormone, cortisol, can increase the risk of anxiety, depression and sleep disruption.[7] Furthermore, it has also been found that chronic stress can kill brain cells and even shrink the size of your prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain which controls our memory, learning and focus.[8] This can only prove as further evidence that the pandemic truly has adverse effects on our mental health and cognitive function. The important thing to note, though, is that if you’re experiencing this, you’re definitely not alone.


Ways to cope and take care of your mental health


Assess the current situation and avoid speculation: Anxiety is fuelled by rumours and speculation. Try to expose yourself to more reputable sources and accessing more reliable information vis-à-vis the virus as this would help you feel more in control.[9]


Get moving and be active: Exercise can promote the release of “happy” chemicals like serotonin and endorphins in the brain, which in turn can improve your mood. Doing exercise regularly can help reduce stress and depressive or anxiety symptoms.[10]


Connect with your loved ones: One way to combat loneliness at home is by connecting with your loved ones. Even though travel restrictions and health risks may not allow physical meet-ups, you can explore other ways of reaching out to your friends and family.

Be kind to yourself: We are all struggling in ways we could not have foreseen. Understand that much like the world around you has changed, you have too. Be gentle with your progress and don't put yourself down for “not being pre–pandemic self” or for feeling unmotivated and stuck. It is ok if all you did today was survive.


References


[1] Wong LP, Alias H, Md Fuzi AA, Omar IS, Mohamad Nor A, Tan MP, et al. (2021) Escalating progression of mental health disorders during the COVID-19 pandemic: Evidence from a nationwide survey. PLoS ONE 16(3): e0248916. https://doi. org/10.1371/journal.pone.0248916

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7361582/

[5] https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/malaysia-sees-rise-in-suicides-and-calls-to-helplines-amid-covid-19-pandemic

[6] ibid.

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/jun/24/pandemic-brain-covid-coronavirus-fog-concentrate

[8] ibid.

[9] https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/coronavirus/mental-health-tips

[10] https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/exercise-and-mental-health



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