Brain Chemistry: The Importance of Self-Care

Due to the current pandemic many of us are feeling isolated and helpless. This situation presents unique challenges that bring with them the risk of depression, anxiety, physical health issues, financial stress and further social isolation. To stay well in these trying times it is important we focus on our own mental health and that of our families. Our brains are the key to do this, by maintaining and increasing our “feel-good” brain chemicals. The Brain’s Emergency Signal Before talking about the brains “feel-good” chemicals, it is important to discuss stress and its trigger. When threatened, the brain releases a chemical named cortisol. This chemical acts like an alarm for the body to warn us that we are being threatened. Evolutionary speaking, this chemical ensured our survival as it triggered the body to act quickly when in danger. These dangers include external threats such as predators, and internal threats like hunger or injury. Importantly, this chemical can be triggered in times of social isolation and in the anticipation of pain. The brain creates pathways for chemicals to flow through, to ensure the body can act quickly in every situation. This means that cortisol flows and is released faster when the brain registers anything associated with previous pain. Today, many people will be experiencing an increase in cortisol as they worry about the future and have less contact with family and friends. It is vital that we now turn on, and build new pathways to turn on, our “feel good” chemicals. “Feel-Good” Chemicals We can control the pathways in the brain. We can use our determination to build new pathways, and turn on existing pathways, as we adjust our behaviours. We have four main chemicals that result in good feelings. Dopamine Dopamine leads to feelings of excitement and joy. It is a chemical that is released in anticipation of happiness, when we are working towards achieving goals. Our ancestors experienced this chemical when they found sources of food as their need for survival was met. We can experience the effects of dopamine when we achieve any goal in our day to day lives. For instance, when we save our money and finally get to take our dream holiday, or when we complete an assignment at work or school. Currently, our dopamine pathways are not readily being activated as we don’t know what to expect each day. For instance, we don’t know if we will be working, or if we will easily get the food and supplies that we need. Today it is important to take steps toward a goal. What can we do?

  • Schedule daily activities to look forward to
  • Plan timed activities with a goal to beat the clock
  • Have family competitions and games (e.g., board games, races, sports in the backyard)
  • Eat foods rich in tyrosine such as: eggs, chicken, almonds and bananas
  • Make use of checklists to have a sense of achievement when items are completed
  • Plan a fun day/activity to do if chores and jobs are all completed
  • Plan future events and holidays to take during calmer times

 Oxytocin Humans are social creatures, as such, our brain releases oxytocin to help us feel close to others. It encourages us to form strong bonds with the people around us in order to have social support. This is a love hormone that encourages trust and physical affection. From an evolution standpoint, oxytocin was necessary as people are stronger in, and protected by, groups. In other words, there is safety in numbers. Due to the present pandemic our oxytocin pathways are not being regularly activated as we are experiencing social isolation. Small steps to remain social need to be taken as often as possible. This is particularly important as we are tempted to bond with threats when there are no other options. For instance, people may experience trust and closeness towards those who could threaten them, e.g. in cases of family violence as they have limited choice. What can we do?

  • Increase physical affection (e.g., more cuddles, massages, snuggling on the couch)
  • Contact friends and family online using platforms such as FaceTime, Skype and Zoom.
  • Record videos to send to family and friends of various activities (e.g., dances, playing musical instruments, telling jokes or just giving a loving message)
  • Write letters and make cards to give to friends and family
  • Play virtual games with friends (e.g., Fortnite, Roblox, Minecraft)
  • Plan activities to benefit the community, such as helping the homeless or supporting neighbours.

Endorphins The brain releases endorphins in response to actual or anticipated pain. This ensured survival as it masks pain and allows us to run for our lives. Endorphins are responsible for the rush and “high” we feel after exercise. What can we do?

  • Laughter triggers the joy of endorphin
  • Sweat at least once a day
  • Go for a walk, run, or bike ride once a day
  • Make use of at home workout equipment such as treadmills and stationary bikes
  • Play sport in the backyard or in isolated areas (e.g., cricket, football, tennis)
  • Use apps and online videos of yoga, cardio and other classes (e.g., YouTube, Sweat, Centr)
  • Complete Go Noodle movement videos online

Serotonin Our brain releases serotonin when we feel respected and appreciated. Our brain releases this chemical as a reward for strength and assertive behaviours. People feel happy when they are able to compare themselves to others and feel that they have an advantage. This chemical is related to natural selection as early humans competed for resources. Serotonin was released as a reward for surviving and gaining those resources. This chemical is also released in response to preferential treatment, as that too ensures survival. At the moment it is difficult to compare ourselves to others as we are in isolation. It is also difficult to be assertive in these uncertain times as we do not know what to expect day-to-day. What can we do?

  • Eat foods with tryptophan which aids in the production of serotonin. This includes poultry, spinach, nuts/seeds, salmon, soy, milk.
  • Spend one-on-one time with each child
  • Give family members leadership roles (e.g., being in charge of what game to play, choosing movies or where to go for a walk, arranging a chore to complete)
  • Acknowledge what family members are doing well or right
  • Provide praise and complements
  • Talk about positive things people saw other family members doing
  • Ensure meals and snacks are provided on a regular schedule

Overall, we should try to stop what we are doing when cortisol is activated as it changes our outlook on the world as we search for threats. Remind yourself that we have some control over our brain and participate in activities that stimulate these “feel-good” chemicals.

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