The COVID-19 pandemic is taking its toll on all of us. If you’ve been feeling anxious, stressed, depressed, confused and unable to concentrate or sleep well, you wouldn’t be alone.
As a cognitive neuropsychologist and researcher at Swinburne University of Technology’s Centre for Mental Health, I have been researching the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on our mental health.
But you don’t need to be an expert to see that the constant disruptions to our everyday routines are taking their toll on our natural reserves and our bodies – especially our brains.
Long-term stress and anxiety cause our brains to release stress hormones – like adrenaline and cortisol – regularly.
This can increase symptoms such as headaches, confusion, poor concentration and insomnia. Eventually more significant long-term mental health problems can emerge, like depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
So, let’s pause to think about how to reverse the negative effects of pandemic stresses and anxieties. Even if you’re in lockdown at the moment, there are things you can do to produce different brain chemicals to siphon some happiness.
Take it from this Melbourne-based neuropsychologist – these are the things we should all be focusing on right now.
You might have heard of oxytocin – the love drug. It is produced in the hypothalamus and it helps us in social situations, allowing us to bond with and trust other people. Oxytocin gives us that warm, fuzzy feeling.
Increasing your oxytocin will have a positive impact on your mood and emotions. Some things you can do to boost oxytocin are patting the dog or another pet (the fluffy ones are great for this), playing with children, giving or receiving a hug, telling someone how much you care or going to a yoga class.
Actually, yoga is also great for your endorphins – which are produced in the pituitary gland and help us deal with stress and anxiety. They can block pain signals, so they are our bodies’ natural painkillers. In fact, endorphins work similarly to opioids in the body.
Endorphins vary between individuals, but other ways you can increase them include engaging in regular exercise, laughing (whether you turn to your favourite comedy, have a chat with friends or even laugh at nothing – since fake laughing works too), dancing, meditation or tapping into your creative side (perhaps it’s time for a lockdown hobby that has you creating art or music?).
Perhaps the most-favoured tip for boosting your endorphins is eating dark chocolate.
Another feel-good chemical is dopamine, which makes it the perfect target for a pick-me-up during a COVID-19 lockdown. Dopamine is an important chemical messenger in the brain that has many functions. It is involved in our motivation, learning and memory – and it helps with pleasure and reward.
There are some important ways we can give it boost, including celebrate the wins no matter how small (got out of bed today? That’s a win!), cooking and eating good food, drinking green tea, getting a good night’s sleep and perhaps some more meditation.
Lastly, let’s not forget about serotonin. This chemical impacts our whole body and helps stabilise our mood and happiness. Serotonin also plays a role in our sleeping, eating, and digestion.
Our serotonin needs all the help it can get during this continuing COVID-19 pandemic. An important way to boost your serotonin is to eat a healthy diet – that means avoiding junk food and eating tryptophan-rich foods (e.g. salmon or nuts).
You should also aim to spend time in the sunshine, which has the added benefit of increasing the vitamin D many of us may be lacking during winter.
You can also listen to your favourite music (and if dancing is involved to get those endorphins up at the same time, all the better), get a massage and, of course, do more exercise. Walking, running and cycling are good activities to get you outside and moving.
Whatever you choose to do, I hope you siphon a little extra happiness this lockdown weekend.
This article is republished from The Age. Read the original article.