Stay Mentally Fit During Covid Times
What about getting mentally fit now?
As restrictions ease, we can and have to get back with our body and mind. There are ways to get fit after being on lockdown. What about getting fit mentally? The key to open the door of well being is a fit mind in a happy body.
During this pandemic, we all encountered fear. It is a natural and healthy feeling. Fear was built to make us survive and be prepared for danger. But fear can stock up as we are still living in an uncertain time. It might be the first time in human history, that we have to face the same crisis for all of us, at the same time, worldwide. Yet no pink rabbits are running under rainbows to be seen, but there are some healthy habits to have a fit mind. I am going to explain here how our biology is playing with our mind and how to outsmart it. Let’s keep fit mentally!
Post-traumatic stress is a real thing even if we are not involved in a traumatic event; 11,2% of New York population was under stress a year after the sad 9/11 attacks.
It all starts in our nervous system; we have an autonomous system that controls and connects all our vital organs and even our mood. This nervous system is divided into two entities, the parasympathetic and sympathetic. They interact with each other permanently, controlling our bodies without us thinking about it.
The sympathetic is an upper, the gas pedal of our body. It’s involved in the fight or flee defence system, the one we used when animals chased us in the forest. It releases sugar in the bloodstream via the liver to give us the boost to run. It increases our heart rate to pump fresh blood in muscles. It makes us sweat to cool down and our breathing to accelerate fueling our body with oxygen. It releases adrenaline to be focused and aware. The downside is that cortisol is released as well, and it is a major factor for inflammation. Does it ring bells? How many patients I have complaining about pain ‘because of stress’ as they say? This great system is useful in a dangerous situation, but we are not built to sustain a chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system for long. It is exhausting for the body and mind couple. This system is triggered by physical and emotional threats. As the current situation is extraordinary, we are all focusing on the weird lockdown we experienced, the fear of getting sick, anxiety and so on. As you understand the role of the sympathetic system now, you understand the link between the constant activation of this system and the current situation.
The parasympathetic system is the second system of this autonomous nervous system. It’s the downer, the brake pedal. It works as the total opposite of the sympathetic. It makes us sleep, rest, cool down, slows down heartbeat and breathing. It lowers our vigilance and adrenaline levels.
In normal everyday life, these two systems are balancing each other. And we know when to relax and when to be active.
To get that to be fit mentally, we need to beat the sympathetic as it is on all the time. To suppress its action, just breathe! The brain is physiologically designed to decide to stress or not. Deep breathing is a powerful way to overpass the action of the brain. The techniques are pretty simple. Breathe in five seconds and breathe out for five seconds. On average, we breathe 20 times per minute. Try then to go down to six per minute. It is medically proven that deep breathing is activating the parasympathetic system and shuts down the sympathetic. So try it from time to time, especially during these anxious moments. You may have noticed recently, falling asleep is difficult. Our sympathetic system is the cause, it tells us to stay aware, our adrenaline level is high, and creativity runs away. Try the breathing technique to beat the sympathetic system and fall asleep.
Okay, I can hear you! ‘Breathing is breathing; I am not gonna deep breathe all day long!’.
You are right; it’s a temporary relief to cool down, what about the long term?
The long term way to shut down the sympathetic is to train your brain using the limbic reward system.
For millions of years, we humans know that danger is better dealt in a group with others that alone. During these weird times, it’s really important to find a way to reconnect with others. It gives the ancient feeling of security. So call your friends again, browse your contacts, get involved in local events, organize safe picnics outside, seek company and avoid staying emotionally isolated.
Helping triggers the brain reward system and lower cortisol level (inflammation). Psychologists call it the helper high. Helping others makes feel good on a long run. You can give time, skills, action, support, be inventive! Empathy is adaptive, like fear. The chemical involved in this feeling is oxytocin. Oxytocin production is a tremendous sympathetic fighter, it makes us feel good, and it makes others feel good. Oxytocin is released in colossal proportion when a woman gives birth; it creates the baby mother bond. Reconnect with others and work on helping others. An American study reveals that after 55 years of age, the mortality rate is reduced by 44% when people were volunteering every week, 49% when not smoking, 30% exercising four times a week. Stay fit mentally help each other.
On my side, I m stranded in France, and I created a Facebook group support page for people in my case. The group is a huge success with nearly 2000 members all over the globe, and there is always someone online to give support to a fellow member. It feels so good to read comments of people caring for each other. Find your own way to help. Caring shift the focus out of us and gives a break to a stressful situation.
Sing! It is quite unknown to science and biologists, but group singing triggers the following process in our brain: brain waves synchronized within the group, oxytocin is released, it lowers the stress level, it lowers cortisol level. It is documented, and the physiological process is totally unknown. We all have seen on television people singing together at their windows during the hard lockdown in Europe. A mother is instinctively singing to her baby. Singing doesn’t arm so why not giving it a go?
Reconnect with others makes us feel good, and it has long term effects: after the SARS epidemic in Hong Kong, a poll revealed that 64,7% of people cared more for others and 65,8% paid more attention to mental health. If you feel too weak, get help.
In my field (manual therapy), I have some tools to shut down the sympathetic system. Do you ever remember feeling so sleepy after a session with a therapist? It might be a good idea to book an appointment with a professional.
We are experiencing stress as the present time is uncertain, and we all feel that we don’t have control over our lives. The sympathetic nervous system puts us on alert as we have to be prepared for danger. To beat that feeling, you have to have control back on your life. How to have this feeling of control?
Avoid drinking, during the lockdown in Europe alcohol sales skyrocketed. Being drunk obliterates our feelings, numbness isn’t nothingness, and it’s a depressing way to escape when we are overwhelmed by feelings. Drinking makes us out of control, and it’s a fake refuge.
Avoid constant news flow; being informed is good staying glued to the news that will play with your emotions is wrong. I personally check the news one time a day. Try to stick to once a day news check policy and choose a reliable media.
To reclaim the feeling of control of your life impose yourself a discipline. Create purposes in your everyday life, knowing that you have things to do during your day will make you feel back in control of yourself. You operate your day instead of waiting for a hypothetic event. Prepare a little list, take care of something, whatever it is. Make something, go back to DIY that gives goals.
I wanted to explain how our biology is playing with us and give tips on rationally beat what makes us weak. Let’s get mentally fit now! With these guidelines, we can find our own solutions. The more important is awareness and understanding. Add physical exercise on top of that routine, and you are ready to go. Stress helps us survive; coping makes us live.