Mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond: The importance of the vagus nerve for biopsychosocial resilience

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2021 Jun;125:1-10. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2021.02.010. Epub 2021 Feb 11.


The COVID-19 pandemic has led to widespread increases in mental health problems, including anxiety and depression. The development of these and other psychiatric disorders may be related to changes in immune, endocrine, autonomic, cognitive, and affective processes induced by a SARS-CoV-2 infection. Interestingly, many of these same changes can be triggered by psychosocial stressors such as social isolation and rejection, which have become increasingly common due to public policies aimed at reducing the spread of SARS-CoV-2. The present review aims to shed light on these issues by describing how viral infections and stress affect mental health. First, we describe the multi-level mechanisms linking viral infection and life stress exposure with risk for psychopathology. Then, we summarize how resilience can be enhanced by targeting vagus nerve function by, for example, applying transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation and targeting lifestyle factors, such as exercise. With these biopsychosocial insights in mind, researchers and healthcare professionals will be better equipped to reduce risk for psychopathology and increase resilience during this challenging pandemic period and beyond.

Keywords: COVID-19; Coronavirus disease; Lifestyle interventions; Psychiatric disorders; Social stress; Transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anxiety
  • COVID-19*
  • Depression
  • Humans
  • Mental Health
  • Pandemics*
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Vagus Nerve