What 2 Years of Uncertainty Has Done to Our Brains

Sometimes I half joke that the only people I know who are somewhat stable and happy-ish after the last two years are medicated, in therapy or both. (For me, both!)

What 2 Years of Uncertainty Has Done to Our Brains
Photo by Gaspar Uhas / Unsplash

Sometimes I half joke that the only people I know who are somewhat stable and happy-ish after the last two years are medicated, in therapy or both. (For me, both!) The facts of “why” seem pretty obvious, but today I’ll share an interview with a stress researcher about what all of this tumult does to our brains. Unsurprisingly, financial precarity is a huge driver of stress, and my latest op-ed for Romper argues that we should think about the fleeting Child Tax Credit not as just a successful economic stimulus program (that we should bring back, STAT!)  but as an impactful solution to the multigenerational mental health crisis this country is facing. Lots of birds hit with these monthly cash payments, folks! You can read the whole piece here. 

I spoke with Dr. Darby Saxbe, associate professor of psychology at UCLA and director of the Center for the Changing Family. She told me for the Romper piece:

“One thing we know from stress research is that the kinds of situations that stimulate the biological stress response are situations that are unstable, unpredictable, and uncontrollable. Poverty is sort of like a perfect storm of all of those situations at once. The brain and body's response is to be hypervigilant. If you don't have that sort of buffer of extra dollars in your savings account in case something breaks or a childcare situation pops up, those experiences create repeated hits to the stress response system and cause us to need to work harder to regulate back to baseline.”

While the Romper article focuses mostly on people living with serious financial precarity, the pandemic has thrown lots of “unstable, uncontrollable and unpredictable” situations at people across the income spectrum -- though of course, those with resources are much better off when unexpected catastrophes hit. 

Unsurprisingly, Dr. Saxbe confirms that this kind of repeated stress so many of us are living through isn’t great for us, and isn’t great for our kids. I know this part of the background noise of worry many of us have in our heads. Some of the moments that have been hardest on my mental health had to do with navigating precarity around childcare, career stability, the health and safety of our family, not knowing when vaccines were coming (still waiting for the toddlers!) and of course the massive social and political upheaval that is blaring through everything. 

For me, it was a bit of an “aha moment” to learn from Dr. Saxbe that it’s not just the concrete trauma of the last two years that have been harmful, but all of the uncertainty we’ve experienced legitimately takes a very real psychological toll. As a person with anxiety I find this somehow validating. Dr. Saxbe and I discuss how to think beyond our pandemic stress as something we’ve “inflicted” on our kids, what good public policy can do to your brain, and how to get people in power to take these ideas seriously.


Katherine Goldstein: When I talk to moms, and they hear something like “all the stress we’ve been living under causes stress in our kids and can have long term impacts.......” I think a lot of people hear that as something that they’ve done something wrong or that they’ve somehow harmed their children because we're all stressed. Certainly the pandemic is not our fault, but a lot of times people internalize these things, and we feel a sense of personal responsibility for global failures.

What would you say to parents who have been stressed, who feel like “maybe I've damaged my children by my stress?” Do you have words of encouragement for them?

Dr. Saxbe: First I would just say I think you're totally right. We frame parenting as an individual choice and an individual responsibility when in fact, it's a public good and these are public health problems.

These aren't full problems that individual parents should be fixing or are capable of fixing. But we've also seen generations go through sort of tremendous instability and adversity in the past, right?  So I think what's most important is that adversity happens within the context of a stable, supportive family environment. So we can suffer the slings and arrows of life if we do so with a stable base -- a secure attachment relationship. And I think that's where parents can put their focus is on, is helping their kids feel safe and cared for.

Katherine Goldstein:  I think that the idea that we cannot protect ourselves or our family from catastrophe and crisis, but we can invest in bonds and work to create a safe, secure environment for our families – I think that that's a really powerful message. 

Another question: Before the pandemic, many people lacked trust in our civic institutions, especially communities of color. But it now seems like we're at an all-time low level of trust. After the last two years, I think many more people sense that they can’t count on things to function like the government or public schools. What do you think could be the psychological impact of this sort of lack of trust in institutions?

Dr. Saxbe: I've been thinking about this a lot. I actually think in some ways the lack of trust in institutions is more destabilizing than a lot of the acute effects of the pandemic itself. We can suffer a lot of adversity if we do so in a stable attachment relationship where there's a secure base and we feel protected by the bigger “moms and dads” of our society, our leaders. It feels like they have fallen down on the job. And if there's no one looking out for us that we think is going to be able to take care of us, then I think that takes away a lot of the sense of security and assurance that we would otherwise have in a crisis. And I also just think it has corrosive effects on society, and on our relationships with each other.

Katherine Goldstein: Yeah. I think a lot how for a lot of kids and families, public school is that stable attachment. And so I think a lot about the potential long-term damage to public schools as an institution. I was doing some tidying recently and putting some things away from our older son for our younger kids. And I came across all of the books that we independently purchased to teach our kindergartener how to read. I just put them away for our next kids because on some level I now don't trust that the public schools are going to be there to teach our younger kids how to read. So I don't want to let go of those books. And so that's like a very interesting, tiny effect of my lack of trust in institutions and how that's changed. If you had told me three years ago that public school would basically cease to effectively function for a year and we would be on our own to teach our child how to read, I wouldn't have believed that would be possible.

Dr. Saxbe: Yeah. It befuddles the mind. And it's very scary. Like schools are kind of the biggest public good we have as a society. And they're a huge source of community, right? Like there are all these sort of like psychosocial benefits of schools just beyond their educational mission. And I feel like a society that doesn't have functioning schools is a society that I worry a whole lot about.

Katherine Goldstein: Yep. I'm right there with you. Have you thought about how public policy can influence our brains and our transition to parenthood and the family stresses that go along with it?  Like how does public policy impact our brains?

Dr. Saxbe: Yes. Oh my gosh, I love this question because this is actually where I feel like a lot of the research really needs to go. It needs to look at specific policy interventions and evaluate their impact on the brain and body, because I think we need to break out of this super individualistic framing.

For our health and wellbeing, I like to think about what to publicly invest in to support people's thriving. And so there's actually a really cool study I just reviewed it for a journal that looked at kids' brain development when their mothers took paid parental leave in the US and found that infants actually showed healthier brain development. I think that's really powerful. And coupled with another study that just came out about supplementing mom's income and the effects on their kids' development....I think if we can sort of tie this research to policy choices too, like “[kids] will have a more robust, better functioning brain” [if we implement these things.] That maybe that can help convince the public that these policies are worth investing in. Like there's kind of this joke in psychology and neuroscience of just like “put a brain on it,” in your reports and people will believe it more than if it's just a bunch of statistics about people's behavior. And I sorta feel like we need to “put a brain on it” when it comes to evaluating how policy affects us. I'd love to see more research like that, getting funded and getting done.

Katherine Goldstein: I like putting a brain on it. I always think, “put a dollar sign on it.” Like if you say “this is going to create this much money or this is going to save you this much money”-- it's how you get people to pay attention to things. So we should just start a new public policy institute that has like dollar bills raining on a picture of a brain.

Dr. Saxbe: Yup! Like a brain with eyeballs and a lot of dollar bills. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


ICYMI: If you want to hear more of my reporting on the Child Tax Credit and it’s impact on people be sure you go back and listen to “The Check’s Not in the Mail,” on The Double Shift. Thank you to the Better Life Lab at New America for their support of this project.

What I’m reading: I appreciated this personal essay with some great context to the maternal mental health crisis, “It Feels Like Every Mom I Know is Medicated.” Hard relate: “Mom after brilliant, exhausted, self-aware mom called in their prescription, often obtained after sounding their own alarm bells.”


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