Pandemic stress can lead to impaired decision-making, breaking of health orders: expert

The chronic stress of life during a pandemic can make it tougher to make good decisions, such as following the province’s rules to avoid socializing with anyone outside your household or keeping yourself healthy, says a University of Victoria neuroscientist.

Living with the risk of COVID-19 and related restrictions to reduce transmission of the virus inflicts prolonged stress on our brains that can impair decision-making, ramping up emotional responses and inhibiting a logical response, said neuroscientist Olav Krigolson.

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The heightened emotional response could be a factor in pandemic decision-making, he said, likening the effect of chronic stress on the brain to alcohol impairment.

“You’re more likely to say yes to hanging out with a friend than you were in the early days,” he said. “And if you apply that across the population, then you’re going to get more people that make those choices.”

British Columbians are headed into another month of restrictions on socializing with people outside your own household in an effort to reduce transmission of the virus. The restrictions, in effect for nearly two months, were set to expire Thursday but have been extended to Feb. 5 following a recent uptick in daily case numbers.

In her update Thursday, Henry said the province is in its riskiest time of the pandemic, and if many people make exceptions to the rules for themselves it increases the risk of transmission in the province exponentially.

Everyone is experiencing different levels of stress as a result of the pandemic, but what’s universal is that stress is bad for the brain and it gets worse the longer it goes on, Krigolson said. The idea that people are adapting to this new normal isn’t supported by neuroscience research, he said, because it takes a long time to adapt to a stressful environment, although some will adjust more quickly than others.

“People might be reporting they’re adjusting, but I suspect that the data would show that people are just slowly getting worse and worse and worse,” he said.

The effects of chronic stress can show up as disrupted sleep, increased irritability, headaches, lethargy and digestive issues, among other symptoms, Krigolson said.

The good news is that although removing the stressor isn’t possible right now, the best way to handle it is pretty simple. “You want to do stuff that’s good for the brain, which is just the basics, you know, sleep, exercise, eat healthy, maintain social contact, keep your brain active,” he said.

Prolonged stress is linked to mental-health issues such as depression, which is reflected in increased demand for the Canadian Mental Health Association’s anxiety and depression program BounceBack.

Demand for the online program is up 40 to 60 per cent from the previous year, said Jonny Morris, CEO of the association’s B.C. division.

“And for our partners who operate crisis-line services, I mean the volume has skyrocketed, and that has been maintained throughout. We’re not seeing an ebb across our services right now,” he said.

Frederick Grouzet, an associate professor at the University of Victoria, said while many are suffering under the province’s restrictions, there are some who are flourishing.

Grouzet, who is also the director of the Centre for Youth and Society, is studying why some people are thriving during the pandemic and has found that for some people who were living extremely busy lives, the pandemic has been an “aha” moment, giving them time to examine their lives and refocus their priorities.

“Almost like the pandemic was a good thing for them,” Grouzet said.

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