As a mental health professional I’m particularly focused on how all this is affecting our thoughts, fears and habits. Don’t for a minute imagine that the consequences will be over soon. In fact, I’ve heard some of my colleagues speculate that the mental health pandemic, in the wake of COVID-19, may be more destructive than the virus itself. But, that’s another topic. Right now, I want to consider a particular aspect of this ordeal I will term, Pandemic Trauma. Not to be nerdy, but I will abbreviate it for this article as PT. I’m going to argue, based on a neurological principle called Associative Learning, that the long term consequences of this global pandemic will be felt for a generation, regardless of how or if a COVID vaccine is forthcoming.
Let’s first of all make sure we understand Associative Learning. Back in the 1960s, a scientist named Donald Hebb rocked the neurological world with a simple but thought-shifting statement: “neurons that fire together, wire together.” By neurons, he was describing those tiny brain cells that we never see but are always involved in everything we do. The simple version of what is called Hebbian Theory was that if two or more brain cells are activated at or about the same time, a neural connection is actually established between the two cells and so, in the future, when one fires, the other fires as well. Hence, “neurons that fire together, wire together.” I don’t want to get lost in the weeds here, so let me just summarize the significance of Hebbian Theory. It’s the neurological basis for all learning, but also for habit formation. We’ve all experienced it every day of our lives. The clock chimes twelve noon. The neurons in the ear are activated. We hear the clock. But, “mysteriously”, some other neurons are activated at the same time: those in the stomach that make us hungry! “I’m starving. It must be time for lunch.” Neurons that fire together, wire together. This is what Associative Learning is.
That’s just a simple example but I could repeat them for hours! Now, there are some neural activations that are stronger than others. Again, the scientific explanations for all that would get ponderous, so let me just talk about one type of neural activation pattern that happens to be very strong: fear. When particular brain cells fire in a fearful or traumatic experience in our lives, those associations are typically stronger than ever. What that means practically is, we can relive a particular trauma based on Hebbian Theory, even though we’re not dealing with it right now.
For me, that explains why, for so many years of my life, I had a paralyzing fear of hospitals. As a little boy of three, I had hernia surgery and, though I have very little conscious memory of the event itself, my mother tells the story of my emotional state through the ordeal and how traumatic it was, particularly since, in those days, I had to be left alone for much of the time (with my own “Nurse Ratchet”, but that’s another story too!).
What is important to understand is that in those confusing and terrorizing events neural activation patterns were formed that included not only the feelings of fear but the location and sensory data that was stored away in some dark scary cellar of my childish imagination. For years thereafter, when I would go into a hospital to visit someone, those old patterns were reactivated and I essentially relived the hernia surgery and Nurse Ratchet herself. And this noteworthy, I had very little conscious awareness of why.
I remember vividly when this all came into my conscious awareness. I was now a young pastor in my first church. I was making a hospital call to a family with a young boy on life support. The experience activated those old Hebbian patterns in a paralyzing, mind-spinning assault. I nearly fainted.
Now, let me make the connection of Hebbian Theory to PT—Pandemic Trauma. Tens of thousands of us have been touched by the physical consequences of the virus, either through the death of a loved one or the impact of the disease itself. But I would say that number pails in comparison to the hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—who have been emotionally traumatized by the nonstop assault of fear and confusion to which we have been subjected through the months. Even those who had no direct experience with the disease were exposed to the fears and anxieties that have attended the pandemic. I say this, not in any political way, but when the entire world (not an exaggeration) is being subjected to this daily fear assault, imagine the Associative Learning and Hebbian patterns that are being hardwired into our very brains? And to make it even more serious, remember that most Associative Learning is nonconscious. It’s real. But we don’t even realize it’s going on.
I could say more about how this kind of trauma scars us. In fact, I could even argue that the biological impact on entire populations is likely to be generational. I can’t take time to explore the science. But you’ve heard of the human genome—the system of genes that determines our physical traits. We inherit this from our parents. Did you know, however that recently scientists have discovered another system called the “epigenome?” It explains why, even within genetic systems (like a family, where all children inherit the same genetic material) there are differences between individual members. In fact, some studies suggest that epigenetics involve the emotional control systems as well, and may explain why some people in a family have a mental illness but others do not. Indeed, there is evidence from trauma survivors (such as Jews in WWII concentration camps) that epigenetic changes in the camp were passed along to their ancestors even though they were never in one!
Let’s consider what that might mean for our current pandemic. It won’t impact everyone the same way, but we can certainly say that the combination of Associative Learning and epigenetic transmission, will leave scars for many years to come.
I have no doubt painted a very bleak picture! It is indeed the “bad news” of COVID-19. However, as a biblical neuroscientist and Christian counselor, I am always delighted to follow up the bad news with the good news! And there is good news. The good news is not that masks or social distancing or even a vaccine will save us all. Even those developments would probably be insufficient to undo the traumatic activation patterns in those hardest hit. No, the good news is that Hebbian Theory can also be applied to renewed thoughts and transformed emotions. Inserting new ones on a regular basis means new neural activation patterns can be established. New thoughts and feelings that “fire together wire together” also. What this means for us is that we can change the way we think and feel about COVID. We can even change the way we think and feel about the fears and anxieties that have traumatized us. It won’t happen by itself. But there are practical ways to do it. It’s what I do in my counseling practice with others; it’s why I’ve written so many resources to share on my website; and perhaps most importantly for me, it’s what I myself have learned to do with my own pandemic trauma.