With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxing mask-wearing restrictions and many companies like Google and Goldman Sachs asking employees to return to the office after working remotely since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, some people are nervous to re-enter society.
According to Alicia Walf, a neuroscientist and senior lecturer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the most effective way to overcome fears about re-engaging with the world may simply be to get back out into it. “Positive human connections are the most powerful tool for reducing stress,” she said in a recent Reader’s Digest article.
To control anxiety and improve the health of our brains, Walf also suggests some basic steps like getting sufficient sleep, eating a good diet, and removing distractions to improve focus.
Ultimately, a return to normalcy after such a long period of constant stress will be an important step toward restoring brain health.
“There can be lasting effects of intense stress on the brain,” Walf said. “Social isolation is an incredibly stressful event associated with increased stress hormone levels and many other long-term negative health consequences. Clinicians are rightfully concerned about the long-term effects of this pandemic on mental health, which may involve these changes in the stress response and brain circuits.”
And while feeling anxious may be unpleasant, stressful experiences can be learning experiences. According to Walf, adaptability is an important part of resiliency to stress, and a useful trait to work on us we adjust to our changing world.
“Although not wearing masks and returning to work are now major changes in many of our routines, producing feelings of anxiety,” Walf said, “the benefits of social interaction will likely help us return to our routines yet again and reduce the potential for long-lasting negative consequences of stress.”
Walf studies the brain mechanisms of stress and reproductive hormones as they relate to behavior and cognition, brain plasticity, and brain health over the lifespan. Specific areas of her expertise are memory, emotions, and social interactions and how these functions not only arise from the brain but change the brain itself.