It’s been a month, and your brain has been challenged.
There’s a reason why you feel more tired than usual at the end of your days during this time of quarantine and shelter in place. You might think you have less to do and fewer decisions to make, but in reality, your brain has been going through more changes than it has had to potentially in a very long time. Sure, you don’t have to consider what to wear, or when to be someplace, or making plans for an upcoming event, but the very lack of these things is harder on your brain than you know. In fact, you might have begun to sense it.
Our brain manifests changes in some direct ways.
Feeling more weary, anxious or alone are emotions, and we sometimes forget that our thinking mind has control over these feelings. These emotions are actually very logical outcomes connected to psychological and physiological input from our environment. While these facts are always real and true, during this past month, you have likely more opportunities to practice some of the realities of science. So let’s take a look at just three of the ways your brain’s chemical reactions to our environmental and emotional changes impact us. Perhaps we can consider these and keep them at the top of our awareness after we are released back into our regular routines.
Connection: It’s a natural anti-anxiety cure.
Our brains have a helpful chemical response when we see someone we care about. Have you ever felt a little anxious or uncomfortable at a conference or party while making small talk with acquaintances and strangers? Then, someone you know well and care about enters the room, and you suddenly feel more at ease? Studies have shown that at the moment your eyes alight upon a “known and felt” person, your brain releases a shot of oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone that reduces fear and anxiety and increases both your eye contact and your feelings of trust and generosity.
During this time of isolation, while you have been around your immediate family, you have not had direct eye contact with many close friends and family. Also, there is a lack of contact with those who are like you, and understand what you are going through at home with a special needs individual. You have been starving your brain for that oxytocin fix, and that means anxiety and loneliness are left to grow.
What can you do? It’s time to put more time and energy into finding ways to have a visual connection with others. Not texting or email or even telephone calls. Set up a Zoom or Facetime with your group of pals or close family. Need some support and understanding? Check out one of our online Zoom Parent Support Group meetings.
You can find a listing of them here on our Facebook page.
Find a way to get your oxytocin in, and let the good feelings flow through your brain.
The most significant highs and lows in life are not caused by individual achievements and failures.
We get a great deal of personal immediate satisfaction and emotional charge to our confidence levels through our personal achievements. Promotions, goals met, degrees achieved - they all feel really great for a moment. That’s an adrenaline boost, and we crave these shots. But, they are usually short-lived and we are again looking for the next big thing.
During this time of our jobs possibly being lost or dramatically changed, or personal goals being challenged, we are missing those adrenaline rushes, and that can leave us feeling down or depressed. So how can we find more healthy and lasting sources of hormones?
When we enjoy time with our closest personal relationships, even just sitting together, our brains release a hormone called Serotonin. Serotonin makes us feel calm and safe. We may not feel exuberant or hyper, but we are filled with a sense of joy. The effects don’t disappear rapidly, and can actually be recreated through our memories, unlike an adrenaline rush. These feelings of joy support resilience and hope.
What does this mean? We should place less value on career and financial failures and successes, and acknowledge what really matters: the people in our lives.
Comfort food has a backlash of discomfort.
When we find ourselves in crisis, we have a difficult time understanding how we are really feeling. It’s difficult to put our finger on the actual emotion. We likely would rather not deal with it, so we consume our feelings, with either food or drink. We can also view an excuse to ‘celebrate’ not having to go to work or live in our pajamas by baking and cooking and day drinking. There’s a reason why vacations only last a week or two. Over-indulgence catches up and literally weighs us down.
What is happening in our brains? Comfort foods increase the amount of a hormone called Cortisol into the bloodstream. This hormone actually does the exact opposite of comfort us. Cortisol is called the ‘stress hormone’. It works at making us more anxious, more lethargic and generally just tells us to give up.
How can you fight a cortisol overload? First, paying attention to what you feel and why you’re feeling it pays off. It’s a skill, and it can be learned. Name the feeling, acknowledge it. Talk about it with someone, and if they talk back, just listen. This may be one of the few times in your life that you can just sit with and be present with your emotions. Don’t miss it.
Also, don’t accept the ‘what the hell’ thought that comes through your mind when you see that bottle of wine. Feeling sad will not actually be made better by the smell of cinnamon rolls. Grab fancy seltzer water and put a lime in it. Buy a scented candle or infuser with those comforting smells. Feeling the relaxation associated with these behaviors will allow for the release of endorphins, and you will feel comforted. The difference is, you will not be left with the cortisol aftermath in your body. Stock up on frozen fruits and vegetables, and limit the sweets and alcohol. You’ll feel more in control and less enslaved to the impulses of feeding your feelings.
Stay anchored in hope.