Now that I have your attention, I want to share a bit of information on how we experience feelings of wellbeing and happiness. Due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, more people are experiencing feeling depressed and anxious than ever. Long periods of isolation, coupled with chronic stress and worry are certainly a factor in this ongoing crisis in mental health and there is a reason for that.
Humans are a social species and isolation has a major impact on our emotional state. The human brain contains pathways that without much stimulation and physical connection cause a depression (or decrease) in neural activity that overall contribute to emotional and mental states.
Feelings of wellbeing and happiness are largely driven by four brain neurotransmitters and hormones - endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin. These four neurotransmitters and hormones specifically have complex effects on our brain, body, and overall lifestyles (e.g. what we eat, who we spend time with, what we do). And the effects can be for better or for worse.
The brain contains numerous receptors that have a basic primary function of receiving, interpreting, and channeling data to produce a chemical response. When you are in significant pain, the brain's receptors receive that data and in response, release morphine. Endorphins have a similar effect on the receptors in the brain and can often relieve pain, creating a feeling of bliss as a side-effect.
Exercise is often recommended as a coping mechanism because exercise is known to release endorphins. After an intense workout is completed, any physical discomfort is alleviated and a person can feel a sense of euphoria. Euphoria can feel like a post-workout boost in mood, or a "runner's high". Despite having a positive impact on mood and overall functioning post-workout, it is important to not overdo it with exercise because over-exertion can cause the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which can negatively impact mood.
A key component in creating endorphins in the body is to go slightly out of your comfort zone. This is not limited intense physical exercise as the only option. I often suggest to my clients who are struggling with anxiety disorders to consider using cold water exposure as coping mechanisms. The initial shock of cold water exposure (e.g. ice packs on the back of the neck, ice cold spoon or ice pack underneath the eyes, jumping in a cold body of water such as the ocean, cold shower) is certainly uncomfortable at first but that is the point! The body will release endorphins to counteract the intense discomfort. This method also helps train and condition the brain to become familiar coping with stress as the brain learns that suffering is temporary.
Oxytocin is known as the love hormone, but it is involved in almost all forms of human bonding. Hugging, or any close physical contact with people you love - such as holding hands or cuddling your pet will deliver oxytocin and boost your mood. Of course, with Covid-19 there are greater restrictions in place creating numerous barriers to experiencing close physical contact with people and many people are being denied the physical touch that humans naturally crave. While in-person interactions can produce greater oxytocin, connecting with others online is still better than nothing. A weighted blanket and perhaps a warm bath could be useful tools to utilize as a supplement for feeling isolated during the pandemic.
Dopamine is the reward neurotransmitter in the brain. Dopamine is released when you do things that give you immediate pleasure, like getting a snap from someone on Snapchat, or eating. This neurotransmitter is linked to the anticipation of reward and will drive you to seek out things you enjoy. If we did not have Dopamine, we would have the ability to possibly enjoy something one time and never be motivated to do it again.
Since the Covid-19 lockdown and pandemic began in March of 2020, I have noticed a significant decrease in motivation from my clients in their everyday lives. I tend to normalize this as a possible disruption in the dopamine pathways of his/her/their brains. What is the correlation? Since March of last year, many of us have lost the routines of our daily lives (e.g. going to a specific exercise class at a specific time as our self-care outlet, not being able to go out to dinner with friends on Friday nights, practices and games being cancelled). A way to work with this feeling is to try and rewire the reward circuits in your brain with a technique called behavioral activation.
Behavioral activation is a technique often used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Basically, this skill involves intentionally scheduling rewarding activities throughout the day or week. Behavioral activation can help someone out of a period of feeling low on motivation by intentionally scheduling and challenging the person to take on small and manageable tasks. As the person completes the tasks, they can begin to feel satisfaction that gradually restores the drive that fuels motivation. Want to give it a try? Think about practicing a new or old hobby you enjoy, like playing an instrument, painting, or playing lacrosse. At first, you will want to practice just a little bit each day so the task does not feel overwhelming. Over time, this will build up the feeling of having energy and motivation.
It is truly about training yourself to seek out a reward.
This neurotransmitter can affect not only mood, but your digestion and it plays an important role in sleep. Serotonin does not cause happiness but it can help a person shift out of a bad mood and into a better one.
The takeaway here is that when you are able to demonstrate control over different aspects of your life, you are better able to experience happiness, particularly when there is little to no control over other things in life.
Amy Pope-Latham, LCSW is a board certified mental health professional in Ponte Vedra Beach, FL.