COVID-19 has brought daily life to a halt, revealed fault lines of socioeconomic inequality and created a deep sense of uncertainty about the future. It is not unexpected, then, that some individuals are at risk of developing long-term reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Two experts — Susan Stone, a professor and associate dean in the UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare, and Joyce Dorado, a clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at UCSF-Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital — examined the issue in a live Berkeley Conversations: COVID-19 discussion.
“Trauma wears a groove in the brain,” Dorado said.
Stone has long partnered with Bay Area public school districts to support the academic progress and emotional well-being of vulnerable youth. Dorado is the co-founder and director of UCSF Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools (HEARTS).
Both have studied the neurobiology of stress and the long-term effects of stress on the brain, and they outlined practical strategies to lessen the impacts of pandemic-related stress.
Because neural pathways are reinforced every time they are activated, a person who spends a lot of time in “fight, flight, or freeze” mode can experience fear-based responses in everyday situations, Dorado said.
Students who disconnect or act out in school — or employees who treat a broken Zoom link like the end of the world — may simply be experiencing a trauma-reactive response.
To help prevent the stress of the pandemic from rising to unhealthy levels, Dorado offered some simple tips.
Exercise has been proven to help dissipate stress neurochemicals, and “small bursts of happiness” — even just a silly cartoon — help neutralize stress, as well. She also recommended limiting exposure to the news and seeking sources of hope, like the Bay Area’s relative success in flattening the curve of the coronavirus’s spread.
Dorado also emphasized the importance of connection and relationships in defusing chronic stress.
“It’s interpersonal neurobiology,” she said. “We are hardwired for connection to heal us and to help us be calm when we’re stressed out.”
Whether it’s waving to the neighbors or thanking the supermarket checker, she said, compassion and connection are vital. Leaders can alleviate organizational stress by listening carefully and creating connections.
Understanding the neurological mechanisms of trauma and resilience can help us become more aware of our strengths, Dorado explained, and gradually reinforce them.
“Staying positive doesn’t mean you have to be happy all the time,” she said. “It just means that, even on the hard days, you know that there are better ones coming.”
Berkeley Conversations: COVID-19 is a live, online series featuring faculty experts from across the UC Berkeley campus who are sharing what they know, and what they are learning, about the pandemic. All conversations are recorded and available for viewing at any time on the Berkeley Conversations website.