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Health and science writer • PhD in 🧠 • Words in Scientific American, STAT, The Atlantic, The Guardian • Award-winning Covid-19 coverage for Elemental

Dear Brainiacs,

Today is my last day at Elemental, which means this is the final edition of Inside Your Head in its current form. (You can read more about the transition taking place at Medium here.)

Thank you so much for reading these past six months. Knowledge and time are precious commodities; I hope that I contributed in some small way to the former and wasn’t too great of a drain on the latter. I also want to thank everyone who wrote to me in response to my prompts each week. …


‘Right now I’m scared’

Photo: Erin Clark-Pool/Getty Images

In the race between Covid-19 vaccines and variants, in some parts of the country, the variants appear to be winning. In a stark message issued at the White House press briefing on Monday, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, warned that the U.S. was on the verge of a fourth wave of the pandemic, driven by more transmissible variants of the coronavirus and states’ premature lifting of protective measures.

The seven-day average for new cases is slightly less than 60,000 per day, a 10% increase from the previous week. Hospitalizations are also increasing, up 4.2% in the past week. Deaths, which…


YOUR POOR PANDEMIC BRAIN

Your executive control center has helped your mental health survive the pandemic thus far. Here’s how to strengthen it for the future.

Illustration: Carolyn Figel

A lot has been written (including by this reporter) about the mental health toll of the pandemic, and for good reason. The latest numbers from the National Pulse Survey, a weekly mental health screen conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau, estimate that nearly 40% of Americans are currently experiencing symptoms of either anxiety or depression, a 50% increase over pre-pandemic times.

In some ways, though, it’s surprising that this number isn’t even higher given the stress, trauma, loss, and loneliness of the past year. The vast majority of people have spent the last…


It’s not b.s. — the practice really can strengthen your mind like a muscle

Credit: Martin Puddy / Getty Images

This is a modified excerpt from Inside Your Head 🧠, a weekly newsletter exploring why your brain makes you think, feel, and act the way you do, written by me, Elemental’s senior writer and a former brain scientist. Subscribe here so you won’t miss the next one.

One of the oft-repeated pieces of advice on how to deal with pandemic stress is to meditate. This is not a new or groundbreaking tip — meditation practices such as mindfulness have been recommended for years to combat stress, burnout, anxiety, and depression. But now that many of our normal coping mechanisms have…


Pandemic Reflections

I’ve made mistakes. We all have.

Photo: Emma Figuero/EyeEm/Getty Images

I’m a bit of a know-it-all. It comes with the territory of the job — I literally find out interesting things and then explain them to other people for a living. Depending on your view, I’m either the most fun at parties or the least fun at parties. At one event a few years ago, a good friend made the rule that if anyone had a fact-based question, they had to ask me first because I invariably (thought I) had the answer. It was the best night of my life.

With Covid-19, all of that came crashing down. I knew…


Your Poor Pandemic Brain

The toll a year of loneliness, stress, fear, trauma, and loss takes on the structure and function of the brain

Animation: Carolyn Figel for Elemental

Sandro Galea, MD, is a physician and epidemiologist who knows trauma: He has studied people’s mental health in the aftermath of, among other earth-shattering events, 9/11, hurricanes, and civil unrest. In March and April 2020, the Boston University School of Public Health dean conducted one of the first mental health surveys of Americans during the Covid-19 pandemic. Galea found that in those early months, depression rates in the United States had more than tripled compared to the years prior, up from 8.5% to 27.8%.

“We were anticipating to find elevated rates, because we know that [depression increases in prevalence] from…


Vaccinated and unvaccinated individual households can also gather safely, as long as no one is at high risk for severe Covid-19

Photo: Education Images/Getty Images

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has released highly anticipated, more lenient guidelines for people who have been fully vaccinated for Covid-19.

In a statement during a White House press briefing Monday morning, CDC director Rochelle Walensky, MD, said that fully vaccinated people can safely gather indoors in private settings without masks with other fully vaccinated people, although the gatherings should remain small. In other words, the CDC has finally given the green light for fully vaccinated people from different households to have dinner together inside the home. …


Your brain responds to stress differently when you’re by yourself

Credit: Justin Paget / Getty Images

This is a modified excerpt from Inside Your Head 🧠, a weekly newsletter exploring why your brain makes you think, feel, and act the way you do, written by me, Elemental’s senior writer and a former brain scientist. Subscribe here so you won’t miss the next one.

This week’s issue is a preview from a series of stories I’m working on called “Your Poor Pandemic Brain” to mark the one-year anniversary of the U.S. going into lockdown and what it’s done to our mental health. …


If you knew and loved one of the 500,000-plus people lost to the pandemic, here’s what might be going on in your brain right now.

Credit: sdominick / Getty Images

This is a modified excerpt from Inside Your Head 🧠, a weekly newsletter exploring why your brain makes you think, feel, and act the way you do, written by me, Elemental’s senior writer and a former brain scientist. Subscribe here so you won’t miss the next one.

Yesterday, the official U.S. death toll from the pandemic reached 500,000 people. Half a million husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, friends, lovers. Covid-19 is now the leading cause of death in the U.S., …


The viral strain causes a longer period of infection, which could explain its increased transmissibility

Buddy Hield of the Sacramento Kings attempts a three in front of his masked teammates on January 13, 2021. Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

For this science-writing basketball fan, one of the few good things to come out of the pandemic has been the collaboration between the NBA and epidemiologists. Last summer, the league had the money and motivation to enshrine players, coaches, and staff in a “bubble” for four months — a fascinating premise for any science experiment.

The NBA tested its players and staff every day, at a time when there wasn’t a lot of testing going on in the United States. This setup enabled scientists at Yale University to pilot a new type of diagnostic test that relied on spit instead…

Dana G Smith

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