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  • Writer's pictureDr. Jenna Renfroe

Why you are so depressed during COVID-19: The “sad” nucleus accumbens

It’s no secret that the public health and national emergency of COVID-19 over the last (gasp) year has caused a lot of angst and exacerbation of mental health issues. Besides the sickness, death, grief, job loss, economic catastrophe, racial injustices, mounting societal tensions, and more, there is the cold hard fact that we are extremely, ridiculously socially and environmentally isolated these days. Most people, if possible, are working from home, and those that do leave their home for work, certainly aren’t venturing out much more than between work and home. Forget about those post-work happy hours, Friday nights with friends, group exercise classes, play dates, or senior center visits.

No big deal, right? We can compensate and adjust to some “alone” time. Wrong. We are social beings. We have literally been programmed to be social and enjoy enriched environments. This was incredibly important for evolution (think about the importance of a community or tribe during times with limited resources for food or shelter, heightened environmental threats, or the strong need for a “village” in raising children.)

As a result, our brains are programmed to not only enjoy but require social and environmental stimulation. Lack of social engagement or environmental complexity is a significant risk factor in the development of dementia.

There is a reward center in your brain that feeds off these pleasurable inputs of socializing and good times. It’s called the nucleus accumbens and it is the epicenter of your brain’s reward system. It thrives on input from the neurochemical called dopamine, which is a feel-good/pleasure signaler. Nucleus accumbens gets a rush of dopamine whenever you eat that piece of chocolate, earn that promotion, or engage in a pleasant social interaction. Suffice to say, your nucleus accumbens may not be getting a lot of stimulation lately (well, okay, maybe the chocolate) and has been slowly starving for almost a year of relative isolation and immense hardship.

This lack of “juice” to the nucleus accumbens makes it extra thirsty and may even result in some maladaptive behaviors that perhaps have increased in 2020. You see, that same reward center that is so involved in the experience of pleasure is also involved in addiction and negative habit formation, such as smoking, video game addiction, and recreational drug use (and we referenced the chocolate already – emotional or binge eating behaviors can fall into this category as well.) So, many people have fallen into increased patterns of these unhealthy behaviors in the midst of the stressful and isolated time of this past year, which to some extent can be understood as the brain’s attempt to satiate its quench for that feel-good dopamine molecule, albeit in ways that may be counterproductive or unhealthy in the long run.

So, I guess you could say it’s no wonder that your brain is pretty depressed during this time. You have a sad nucleus accumbens. It misses its dopamine. So - what can you do about it?

Well, your nucleus accumbens should start to naturally recover (knock on wood) as society begins to regain some sense of normalcy. But, as we know, that could still be a while. In the meantime, working with a therapist during this time may be extra important given our brain's vulnerabilities to the current circumstances. I would also recommend finding as many healthy ways as possible to activate that reward system, even in quarantine. Utilize your technology to maintain social interactions, get outside regularly, intentionally initiate socially distanced hangouts or interactions. Physical exercise and meditation can also get the dopamine flowing. And when you feel low, please know that you are not alone (many others are feeling similarly) and try not to make it worse with added layers of shame or self-loathing. A little self-compassion goes a long way.

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