Dr Shawn M. Carney
Post-Pandemic Anxiety On & In the Brain of Adolescents: the lasting effects of adversity
Updated: Mar 25
The COVID-19 pandemic brought worse mental health and accelerated brain development in adolescents. It actually triggered a 25% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide, with young people and women the most affected. As the ripple effect continues, learn about how brain development has been adversely impacted among adolescents!
Okay, at this writing the pandemic isn't exactly over yet. But we are close.
The leader of the World Health Organization (WHO) said Friday that he expects the organization to declare an end to the COVID-19 pandemic later this year because statistics on the virus keep declining. (1) For the first time, the weekly number of reported COVID deaths over a four-week period was lower than when WHO declared COVID a global pandemic three years ago.
So it is appropriate that our global community continues to shift from acute management and survival to longterm and routine behavior. And though we survived, some 'mindful' researchers are looking at what that cost us, by way of accelerated brain development and aging.
COVID-19 Era Anxiety and Depression: Young People and Women Worst Impacted
Reports from one year ago by the WHO, March 2022, found in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by a massive 25%! (2) Researchers identified multiple stress factors including government-enforced quarantine, social isolation, inability to work and procure income, as well as health concerns for self and loved ones. Women were shown to have been more impacted than men. (2) And though people with pre-existing mental health disorders were not disproportionately vulnerable to COVID-19 infection, if they became infected, they were more likely to suffer hospitalization, severe illness and death compared to people without mental disorders. "People with more severe mental disorders, such as psychoses, and young people with mental disorders, are particularly at risk". (2)
They also cited a Global Burden of Disease study which explored how the pandemic has affected the mental health of young people and found that they were "disproportionally at risk of suicidal and self-harming behaviors". (2)
Americans Anticipate Higher Stress and Worse Mental Health
The pandemic continues to wind down, but who's celebrating? The American Psychiatric Association published results from their Healthy Minds Monthly Poll three months ago, which surveyed Americans' outlook for 2023. (3) It wasn't good. They found nearly two out of five (37%) Americans rated their mental health as only 'fair or poor'. Going up on this statistic, however, was not an improvement, as it had been 31% a year before. And when asked about possible topics and sources of anxiety, nearly all categories reported on had increased, from personal finances, to physical health, mental health, relationships with friends and family, romantic relations, really, just about everything but travelling. Well, at least Americans are slightly less anxious about travelling.
The Ripple Effect - Biological Impacts on Brain Development
"The higher incidence and exacerbation of social anxiety due to the pandemic underscores the need for psychological interventions that can address problematic social anxiety in the post-COVID-19 recovery period. ... Moreover, ... social anxiety commonly co-occurs with depression and other conditions such as anxiety disorders and substance abuse". (4) This is pretty intuitive. That if a person is anxious, and it is affecting their quality of life, that depression may ensue; likewise, people may seek panaceas that bring their own set of distinct or compounded problems.
So anxiety-driven depression and drug use may have increased for some during the pandemic, and remain elevated in this post-pandemic climate. Those are usually more obvious sequelae. But let's go deeper. Subcranial deeper that is.
Findings from a new study involving adolescents and MRI brain scans showed associations between not just the COVID-19 pandemic and impaired mental health, but also maladaptive and abnormal brain development. (5) This insightful study from December 2022 examined how adolescents living through the COVID-19 pandemic and its accompanying shutdowns compare, both psychologically and biologically, to their peers before the pandemic. "[It] is one of the first to examine the effects of the pandemic not only on adolescents’ mental health but also on their brain structure, reflecting more lasting effects of adversity". (6)
The study included 163 participants aged 13-17 year and had assessments done either before the pandemic or after quarantine orders were being enforced. The MRIs provided data on the brains' cortical thickness and volume in subcortical areas, and these results were further used with a machine-learning program to calculate participants' overall brain age.
"The two groups differed significantly in both their mental health and brain development. Compared to the pre-pandemic group, adolescents assessed after the pandemic shutdowns reported more symptoms of anxiety and depression and greater internalizing problems. Their brains showed thinning of the cortex, which helps execute mental processes like planning and self-control, and reduced volume in the hippocampus and amygdala, which are involved in accessing memories and regulating responses to fear and stress, respectively". (6)
When the changes were reviewed for biological 'brain aging', the post-shutdown group had morphological changes consistent with the brains of older people whom had experienced chronic stress or adversity in childhood!
Cortical Thinning Doesn't Have to be Forever!
Like footprints in the sand, the stress and anxiety we endured through years of pandemic angst may well have left biologic imprints in our brain, influencing how we behave, think, and react. The good news here though, is three-fold:
The COVID-19 pandemic's days are numbered.
Detrimental brain development can be reversed! A study from 2021 among patients with anorexia nervosa who had documented changes in brain structure cited that "[a]fter weight gain, this cortical thinning can be reversed to a normal level". (7)
Awareness as to the severity of these anxieties and fears may be just what people need to prompt them into constructively doing something about it.
Check our next blog for natural medicine based information on how to treat anxiety and potentially heal the brain maladjusted COVID-19 pandemic hardships.
Visit our newly published, anxiety & depression landing page:
for information on how to recognize anxiety and depression as well as the role of integrative medicine in mental health, laboratory values, natural therapies, and more!
1. World Health Organization. WHO Director - General's opening remarks at the media briefing - 17 March 2023. https://www.who.int/director-general/speeches/detail/who-director-general-s-opening-remarks-at-the-media-briefing---17-march-2023.
2. World Health Organization. COVID-19 pandemic triggers 25% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide. 2 March 2022 News release. https://www.who.int/news/item/02-03-2022-covid-19-pandemic-triggers-25-increase-in-prevalence-of-anxiety-and-depression-worldwide.
3. American Psychiatric Association. Americans Anticipate Higher Stress at the Start of 2023 and Grade Their Mental Health Worse. https://www.psychiatry.org/news-room/news-releases/americans-anticipate-higher-stress-at-the-start-of.
4. Kindred, Reuben, and Glen W Bates. “The Influence of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Social Anxiety: A Systematic Review.” International journal of environmental research and public health vol. 20,3 2362. 29 Jan. 2023, doi:10.3390/ijerph20032362.
5. Gotlib, Ian H et al. “Effects of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Mental Health and Brain Maturation in Adolescents: Implications for Analyzing Longitudinal Data.” Biological psychiatry global open science, 10.1016/j.bpsgos.2022.11.002. 1 Dec. 2022, doi:10.1016/j.bpsgos.2022.11.002.
6. National Institute of Mental Health. COVID-19 Pandemic Associated With Worse Mental Health and Accelerated Brain Development in Adolescents. 26 January 2023 News release. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/news/science-news/2023/covid-19-pandemic-associated-with-worse-mental-health-and-accelerated-brain-development-in-adolescents.
7. de la Cruz, Feliberto et al. “Cortical thinning and associated connectivity changes in patients with anorexia nervosa.” Translational psychiatry vol. 11,1 95. 4 Feb. 2021, doi:10.1038/s41398-021-01237-6.
The content and any recommendations in this article are for informational purposes only. They are not intended to replace the advice of the reader's own licensed healthcare professional or physician and are not intended to be taken as direct diagnostic or treatment directives. Any treatments described in this article may have known and unknown side effects and/or health hazards. Each reader is solely responsible for his or her own healthcare choices and decisions. The author advises the reader to discuss these ideas with a licensed naturopathic physician.