Written by Karyn Noel, MA, AMFT, APCC, a member of the Liminal Church of Ventura community.
Skip down to the *** for those of you in the TL;DR boat. No shame.
Working in mental health, one of the most common concerns I hear voiced by my peers these days is the impact of isolation on our mental wellbeing. As we get more information, we’re getting a good handle on how to stay safe from the virus; but like any treatment, there’s bound to be side effects, right? And what about the long-term impact?
Lack of mental and physical stimulation is not good for us. Even people without a history of mental health concerns are experiencing challenges right now. And just like someone with asthma or diabetes is at higher risk for a severe case of COVID, people who have a history of anxiety, depression, or other mental health concerns may be more severely impacted by isolation.
(Mini soap-box moment. Here is my argument for why mental health conditions should be viewed with no more embarrassment or shame than any physical health condition: mental health conditions ARE physical. Compare depression to diabetes, for example. To put it super simply, the body of a person with diabetes has trouble producing and/or using insulin. Similarly, the body (which includes the brain) of a person with depression has trouble producing and/or using neurotransmitters like serotonin, norepinephrine, or dopamine. Did you know that there is a huge cluster of neurons, aka brain cells, in each of our guts which is involved in this process? So it’s a body thing, friends. Now, explain to me why we think people with mental health conditions are choosing to be that way any more than someone with diabetes is choosing to have that disease. It’s not just a matter of “being more cheerful”. Let’s all agree to be more nuanced when talking about mental health, yeah? Lovely. Rant over.)
Here are a few clues that you may be experiencing depression or anxiety. I’d be willing to bet that everyone reading this could say they’ve experienced at least one of the following things over the past few months:
- loss of interest or enjoyment in activities
- difficulty concentrating
- persistent sadness or hopelessness
- sleeping way more or less than “normal” or trouble staying asleep
- unwanted changes in eating patterns
- crying a bunch
- becoming tired easily
- headaches or muscle tension
Ok, so let’s talk about what to do with this now. If you read my parenthetical rant (I love you), you may notice that a big key is finding ways to connect the “two brains” in our head and our gut. In other words, look for activities that get your mind thinking and your body moving at the same time. Here are a few to try, and the reasons why these things are so good for you. You have probably thought of some of these already. That’s an awesome first step. Now let’s get out and try some stuff!
What: Go for a walk.
Why: Ok, I know this one feels basic. But seriously, go for a walk. Go for all the walks. When you’re walking, a TON of the muscles in your body are engaged. Probably more than you think. If you don’t believe me, try walking while keeping your upper body perfect still. Robot much? Your brain is also engaged because it’s getting a chance to focus on balance and coordination, look around at your environment, and all kinds of other fun stuff. Even better, invite a friend to walk with you at a safe distance to add a conversational element to your brain activity. I have a feeling you can find someone who isn’t too busy right now.
What else: Give this a boost by walking quickly enough to get your heart rate up. Studies show that aerobic activity (any exercise at 50-70% of your maximum heart rate) dramatically increases the growth of new neurons in the brain; especially in the hippocampus which helps us with stress regulation and memory.
What: Practice tapping (or other bilateral stimulation).
Why: Bilateral what now? Bilateral stimulation is a fancy name for giving your body something to do on the right side and the left side, alternating back and forth. Tapping helps us deepen experiences by clueing in both the left and right hemispheres of the brain that it’s time to pay attention. It can help reduce anxiety and is even used in working through trauma when guided by a therapist. Try crossing your arms in front of your chest and resting each hand on the opposite shoulder. Now tap gently and firmly in a slow rhythm.
What else: Deepen the relaxing effects of this even more by meditating, doing a visualization exercise (like imagining yourself in a peaceful place), or listening to calming music. Anybody else miss hugs?! You can also use this technique and imaging holding someone you love. If you’re in a public setting and don’t feel comfortable tapping on your shoulders, you can even tap your toes/heels back and forth. This is a great one to do under the conference room table in stressful staff meetings.
What: Keep an eye on your alcohol consumption.
Why: I know. I don’t want to either. The harsh reality is that alcohol is a depressant. It slows down brain functioning and neural activity. In a time when many of us are struggling with depressive symptoms, adding in a depressant substance isn’t going to make it any easier to get motivated. I’m not saying don’t drink. Just know that if you’re feeling sad or helpless, the martini isn’t exactly going to help.
What else: Swap out the yummy beverage for something that is actually scientifically shown to lift your mood. Healthy fats, fermented foods (think kimchi and kombucha rather than beer, friends), berries, bananas, oats, avocado, dark chocolate… Give your brain a fun field trip by doing a bit of research on this one. There’s a ton of info out there.
What: Get creative about connecting with others safely.
Why: Because, good Lord, do we need each other right now. We are all grieving and struggling and feeling lonely. Human connection is absolutely the best remedy. Call a friend instead of texting them. Set up a zoom date with a buddy. Group zoom hangs are great, but one-on-ones are even better for those of us who live alone because we are more likely to interact and not get lost in the group.
What else: Take the technology out of the equation and meet safely in person. Face-to-face interaction triggers a different part of the brain and, again, engages more senses which is what we are looking for here. Arrange a walk with a friend. Sit at a safe distance from friends in a yard or park and have coffee together. Or even just go sit on their front porch while they are inside.
What: Find a therapist.
Why: When we are all going through a similar experience, it can feel tough to share your frustrations with friends. It’s really common for us to think things like, “Ok, so isolation is tough, but since everyone is experiencing this no one wants to hear me complain about it.” Enter the therapist. These rad people (I’m not biased at all) are trained to hear you and make space for you even when they are going through their own stuff. It is absolutely what they love to do. So let them do it! It is particularly easy to find therapists right now because so many of them are seeing people online.
What else: if you need help finding a therapist, check out https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists or give me a call. I’d be happy to help you find someone locally.
If you’d like to learn more or are interested in my sources, feel free to reach out!
Stay healthy friends,
As this is an informal article, proper citations have not been used. The content is not original and has been gathered from a number of sources. Please contact the author for detailed citation information.
- Tapping In: A Step-by-Step Guide to Activating Your Healing Resources Through Bilateral Stimulation by Laurel Parnell
- Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John Ratey
- The Influence of Aerobic Exercise on Hippocampal Integrity and Function: Preliminary Findings of a Multi-Modal Imaging Analysis: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6311350/
- 9 Healthy Foods That Lift Your Mood: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/mood-food
- The Brain-Gut Connection: https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/the-brain-gut-connection%3Famp%3Dtrue