How lockdown led our overstressed gray matter go haywire!

When it comes to vices during the pandemic, simply put, it’s been difficult to say “no.” Drinking an extra glass of wine here, eating half a birthday cake in one sitting there — whatever it takes to escape the constant strain of life under lockdown. That seemed reasonable in March 2020, anyway.

But nine months on, when experience has demonstrated that chain-smoking a pack of cigarettes doesn’t compensate for human interaction, why do bad habits continue to compel us?

The prolonged traumatic, or “chronic toxic,” stress that most people have been experiencing throughout the pandemic makes it more difficult to keep desires in check, and it in turn promotes illogical pleasure-seeking, said Dr. Robert Lustig, a professor emeritus of pediatric endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of “Metabolical.” In scientific terms: When brains are flooded with the stress hormone cortisol on a long-term basis, it inhibits the function of the prefrontal cortex, leading to excessive activation of the “reward center” of the brain — triggering the excessive baking, drinking, smoking and shopping that filled the idle hours of 2020.

“Dopamine is the reward neurotransmitter. It is held in check by the prefrontal cortex. When that inhibition is released, the reward center looks for hedonic stimuli,” Lustig said. “Those can be chemical — cocaine, heroin, nicotine, alcohol, sugar — or behavioral — shopping, gambling, internet gaming, social media, pornography.”

Take the beloved carbohydrate sugar. Early in the pandemic, a baking frenzy swept the country, offering both a relatively accessible quarantine hobby and a constant supply of carbs. Like hand sanitizer and toilet paper, flour and yeast went from lowly supermarket staples to hot-ticket items quickly nabbed from store shelves.

But what exactly about baking makes it so suited for quarantine? Was it the diversion of dough-kneading or something more hedonistic? While total cookbook sales in the U.S. grew by 15 percent in the first nine months of the year, sales of bread-specific books grew by 145 percent according to NPD Group data. That’s 200,000 more bread cookbooks than were sold in 2019. IL 

One thing that was widely wanted during the pandemic: alcohol. Women, in particular, were more susceptible to stress drinking in quarantine. As a group, they experienced decreased job security and increased social isolation — factors that historically have driven alcohol consumption.

In April, with nearly all Americans under stay-at-home orders, online alcohol sales increased by more than 500 percent over the previous year. . 22, 2

A more counterintuitive habit that made a comeback was smoking. Given the coronavirus’s effects on the respiratory system, lighting up a cigarette this year may have seemed unfathomable to some, but sales indicate that the chemical incentive of nicotine remained a draw for many. Overall declining U.S. tobacco sales were curbed slightly in March through October. And it’s not just stress that’s fueling consumption. Companies attribute higher sales to a hike in disposable income for Americans who got a boost from stimulus payments and spent less money on social activities like dining out.

As Americans coped with pandemic-fueled discretionary spending, it wasn’t just Big Tobacco that benefited: Cyber Monday, Nov. 30, the first Monday after Thanksgiving, became the biggest online shopping day in U.S. history, with a grand total of $10.7 billion in purchases — a number as indicative of the collective brain’s search for gratification as any other. And one category that surged notably was self-care. (Source:

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