The Pandemic Brain: No Tests Mean More Stress - Dean Burnett

Brain Yapping by Dr Dean Burnett

The Pandemic Brain is a new miniseries of articles by Dean Burnett on the neuroscientific and mental health consequences of the Coronavirus pandemic. Ideally it will be a short-lived series, but it almost certainly won’t be.

The search for the UK government’s Coronavirus strategy justification continues.

This series of articles, ‘The Pandemic Brain’, concerns the potential neuropsychological consequences of the things that the Coronavirus pandemic currently sweeping the planet has heaped upon us, and how and why they affect the human brain (i.e. us) the way they do.

Firstly, probably the most obvious and common question people are asking right now is, “Do I have Coronavirus?” Because, well, they would, wouldn’t they?

The problem is, answering this incredibly important question is currently a lot harder than it should be. Particularly if you live in the UK or USA, countries where the government response to the matter hasn’t exactly been met with widespread praise. One recurring criticism of both the UK and USA has been the woeful lack of provision for testing for Coronavirus. Outside of some very specific or extreme circumstances, most people aren’t being tested at all. Not even frontline medical staff!

The lack of Coronavirus testing is bad. Very bad. It makes tracking and tackling the virus significantly harder, and that’s the last thing anyone needs during a pandemic. But there are more subtle consequences too, that can and will take a toll on someone’s health, mental and physical.

You’ve probably seen the memes and helpful posts online which highlight the differences between Coronavirus, Flu, and the common cold. These are useful and undoubtedly entirely well meant, but they highlight the fact that Coronavirus, this new and scary pathogen, shares a lot of features with other far more common illnesses. So, if you’re coughing and spluttering and fatigued, how can you know if you’ve got this new super virus, or one of the more classic ailments?

Or, as A-list celebrity Idris Elba has confirmed today, you can have no symptoms, be totally fine, and still have the Coronavirus. Overall, it seems the symptoms, or lack thereof, don’t confirm anything either way. So, how can you find out if you’ve got it or not?

At present, it seems that… you can’t. There is no testing to be had. So, you just have to accept not knowing.

This is NOT something your average human is good at dealing with. Ever heard the phrase ‘The waiting is the worst part’, or ‘It’s better to just get it over with’? These are, in many ways, scientifically correct. Because if there’s one thing the human brain really doesn’t like, it’s uncertainty.

Uncertainty is a serious source of stress for the human brain. A clear and visible threat causes fear, which is very intense but typically short lived (because you either get away from it, or it injures or kills you; either way, the threat is ‘gone’).

But an uncertain, unpredictable concern? Which may be a threat, or not, but we’ve no way of being sure? We have no defence against such things, and no way to ‘get rid’ of them. They just remain lodged in our psyche, stimulating the powerful and delicate threat-detecting processes of our brains, and causing persistent low-level activity in the sympathetic nervous system, aka stress.

So, uncertainty about a possible danger can stress us out. The thing is, the human brain is very, very good at finding threats and hazards to be uncertain about.

Is the person I asked out going to say yes?

Will anyone turn up to the first night of the play I wrote?

Is anyone going to actually read my ham-fisted effort at a topical article?

None of these things pose any ‘real’ danger to the concerned individual; even a worst-case scenario won’t impact them much in the grand scheme of things. But uncertainty around them causes copious stress all the same.

So, if it’s uncertainty about something which genuinely is dangerous, like “Do I have this potentially fatal virus or not?”, the stress can be amplified considerably.

The thing is, stress causes countless health problems, both mental and physical. So even if the people who want testing don’t have Coronavirus and aren’t ill, the lack of testing, or a conclusive answer, could make them ill.

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That’s an extreme outcome maybe, but even the more subtle impacts shouldn’t be ignored. Particularly if they’re occurring everywhere in the wider population. Many have stated that what people need is clarity, guidance, and certainty. Sadly, governments of the UK, US and others, haven’t provided it. While this may provide short-term political gain, it has real potential to cause more problems in the long run. Because, again, it causes uncertainty.

If you tell a massive population that there’s a serious hazard spreading through the country, the workings of the human brain mean they’ll want to know as much about it as possible. There are some good articles going around about how to look after your mental health during the Coronavirus pandemic, and most of them advise disengaging from the news and social media, in order to reduce anxiety and alarm at all the distressing updates and claims. This is reasonable advice, but unfortunately, sometimes not knowing what’s going on can be more stressful and anxiety inducing, than facing up to the grim reality.

A typical working from home scenario. Probably.

I have no obvious solution to this, it’s probably just a judgement call. Like, check the news and feeds as often as you feel comfortable with, but stop if it gets too much. Find your own balance. Nobody knows your mental health better than you do.

But the further knock-on problem is, if people experience severe uncertainty about a very important issue, they’ll be instinctively driven to alleviate this. Our brains don’t like it, so they’re compelled to fix it. This may help explain why so many false claims, fake cures and other misinformation regarding Coronavirus has spread far and wide online.

Sure, some unscrupulous character cooked up the bogus information to begin with, but it can gain traction because so many people want information or reassurance about Coronavirus and how to deal with it. Misinformation provides reassurance for the uncertainty caused by a lack of valid information from relevant authorities. A lack that really shouldn’t have existed in the first place.

A pandemic is a difficult enough thing for a largely unprepared modern society to deal with as it is. Throwing copious uncertainty and confusion into the mix just has the potential to make things a lot worse, given how the brain works.

These are very testing times, but they wouldn’t be so testing, if there was a lot more testing going on. If that makes sense.

Dean Burnett has a wide selection of things to offer the socially isolated, from his podcasts Smart Welsh People and Brain Yapping, to his various books, all available online in some form.

Dr Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist, author and stand up comedian. He is the author of the international best -sellers The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain. His former column Brain Flapping for The Guardian was the most popular blog on their platform with millions of readers worldwide. He is a former tutor and lecturer for  the Cardiff University Centre for Medical Education. He is @garwboy on Twitter.

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