Wow, what a year we have been through so far! For most of us, it has been a year filled with an unprecedented amount of additional stress and concerns. Facing a pandemic, although new to many of us is not a first of its kind global phenomenon. Currently, the world is facing the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic, that originated in the city of Wuhan, Hubei province of the People’s Republic of China in late 2019. Coronavirus is an infectious disease which causes acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and can develop severe clinical manifestations, even leading to death.
Due to the high contagion effect of the virus and the fact that many carriers are asymptomatic, we have had to adopt stringent hygiene and self-distancing practices. These methods, although useful in slowing the spread of the virus, have had unintended negative consequences on our mental health.
Based on the experience of past epidemics and pandemics, research shows how isolation results in us experiencing feelings of loneliness, sadness, irritability, and fear of death (Huarcaya, 2020). Many of us are now a living testament to this. It is no wonder many of us will be feeling at least some level of negative impact if not a complete burn out by now.
Overnight our world changed, our routines adapted to fit in homeschooling, and remote work. Feelings of fear and uncertainty not only about the virus itself but the growing economic uncertainty we all face have at times overwhelmed us and cut off from our social support systems these negative thoughts threaten to become pervasive.
Increased stress, especially at this level threatens our mental wellbeing to a greater or lesser extent. Some of us, turn this negative situation into a period of deep introspection resulting in a positive personal transformation, whilst others may feel a sense of overwhelm, develop psychological disorders, or even engage in a disproportionate amount of behaviours that put our health at risk. A study conducted in Brazil confirms this increase in health risk behaviours. Brazilians began to practice less physical activity; they increased the time dedicated to screens (TV, tablet or computer). They reduced their consumption of healthy foods, preferring instead to turn towards increased consumption of ultra-processed foods, alcohol and cigarettes (Carvalho, 2020).
Stress is an adaptive response of the different systems of the body to internal and external stimuli.
From a medical point of view, stress is an adaptive response of the different systems of the body to internal and external stimuli. Any form of stress affects our systematic homeostasis, the process by which an organism maintains balance through its vital physiological components (Monroy, 2011). One of the best methods to combat the adverse effects of stress on a system is to undertake some form of physical activity. Thus, physical activity is our ally and not the burdensome practice we all too often label it to be. Movement at any level of intensity and any age has significant positive benefits this holds true far beyond just managing the impact of the pandemic, and we should all be incorporating some physical activity into our daily routines. (Gondim, 2020).
Another ally in learning to manage our stress appropriately is to spend time in nature. A recent study has again confirmed this. This study found that contact with nature is related to improving wellbeing and health in humans. Exposure to green areas decreases stress, increases the feeling of happiness, and helps improve overall mental health, amongst other benefits. You can achieve the health benefits of nature through contact, contemplation or even just visualisation of a simulation of nature, such as a photograph of a natural landscape. Therefore, it is advisable to do activities that keep you in touch with nature, such as gardening, taking a walk in a nearby park, watching a wildlife-based documentary, or even merely looking through some old travel photos with beautiful scenery (Reis, 2020).
Contact with nature is related to improving wellbeing and health in humans
Besides these two well known and documented ways of improving mental wellbeing, there are other ways to influence and manage our emotional state. Our brains control our thoughts, feelings, ability to learn and our capacity to love. Numerous studies indicate that our moods are affected by our brain chemistry, amongst other things, including genetics. The circuitry for managing emotions in the brain is complex, involving several brain structures which work together in the generation of and processing of emotions.
These structures include the amygdala, hippocampus, anterior cingulated cortex, insular cortex, and the prefrontal cortex. Happiness hormones are those endogenous chemicals or neurotransmitters that the brain produces naturally, which influences our mood states (Dfarhud, 2014).
Research points to several essential neurotransmitters involved in managing our mood:
Dopamine is known as the hormone of reward, as it produces feelings of satisfaction by motivating people to carry out their activities proactively.
Serotonin helps with feelings of satisfaction, happiness, and optimism.
Oxytocin facilitates relationships with others and is associated with positive social behaviours.
Melatonin helps prepare our bodies for sleep. The pineal gland produces it at night, and several studies have shown its relationship with happiness and its essential role in depression.
Other neurotransmitters associated with happiness level are adrenaline and endorphins (Dfarhud, 2014)
Stimulating the production of these hormones safely and naturally can have a positive impact on elevating your mood. In addition to physical activity and spending time in nature which we have already discussed, other ways to boost the production of these neurotransmitters include:
Exposure to sunlight. A short period of exposure to direct sunlight daily helps your body synthesise Vitamin-D, which is essential in the production of many brain chemicals.
Opting for a balanced diet instead of reaching for the processed, nutrient-devoid ready meals or snacks, this includes making the right choices when it comes to carbohydrates. The best carbohydrates to boost serotonin include those that have a low glycaemic index (Low GI), bananas, wholewheat pasta or bread and oats,
Decrease your consumption of alcohol, caffeine, and sugar
Listening to your favourite songs or even taking the time to listen to your favourite album,
Snuggle up to your dogs or cats, animal interactions even for just 15 minutes boost our production of serotonin, oxytocin, and prolactin, while lowering cortisol the hormone associated with stress.
Communicate with your loved ones, albeit virtually for a while.
Meditative practice, when we meditate or engage in mindfulness practice, we trigger the hypothalamus, which in turn stimulates the Pituitary gland to release a flood of endorphins. The regular practice of meditation has also shown to reduce anxiety and depression and manage our stress response.
Increase your B-vitamins, B-vitamins are an essential ingredient in the production of many of our neurotransmitters, including dopamine, serotonin. Leafy greens of all types contain B-vitamins and if you are vegetarian or vegan, consider supplementing with B-12 or cyanocobalamin, which is an essential brain-boosting vitamin.
Eat chocolate, and this is not a typo. High-quality dark chocolate is a known endorphin booster, it also protects your arteries, lowers blood pressure, and can reduce inflammation. 2 or 3 servings a week keeps your consumption in moderation and provides the optimal health benefit.
Try to include some of these practices into your daily routine. Make them part of your mental health toolkit which you can use to help you maintain a better mood, which is especially important given our current circumstances in which fear, anxiety and negativity seem to be par for the course. During this time, it is essential to keep in mind that although you may not be in control of the external circumstances right now, you are still in full control of your response to these circumstances. My challenge to you is to seek the healthy way, make the active pursual of mental wellbeing activities your main priority – your body and mind will thank you.