How to keep your mental health and brain “healthy” during this stressful Coronavirus time

Aline Iannone, Neuropsychologist, PhD in Neuroscience
(Reviewed by Simon McDonough)

Since this pandemic began and our online English classes were cancelled, I suppose you have had the same every day routine. Maybe you miss sharing experiences and having fun moments with friends. You might sometimes feel exhausted by the onslaught of news from social media. Watching, listening and reading the news about the Coronavirus has been exhausting, especially when we don’t have parents and family living in the United States; to share this moment with us. We are probably familiar with questions like these: “When will this pandemic finish?”, “Will I be able to fly to my country to meet my family and friends when this is over?”.

You have been cleaning your house, washing your hands, using hand sanitizer more than usual recently. So probably you have been asking yourself: “Will I be safe doing these things?”, “How is my mental health going to be after this hard time?”. Also, if you have been feeling anxious, blue or even a little depressed, or someone close to you has suffered from fear about the future, it`s absolutely normal to ask questions like: “Even if I do my best, can I still get this Coronavirus?”, and “Who will take care of me if I get it?”, etc. If you are reading this essay right now, and you identify with a few of these questions or feelings, please keep reading it.

I have been studying and working as a neuropsychologist and neuroscientist, researching different kinds of treatments to help people reduce or minimize their anxiety in life crises. For example, study for an exam, getting married or divorced, being a mother or losing a close relative, or even having to be “tough”, struggling in a situation like this one that we have been exposed to very recently, and we don’t have all of the answers yet. If you ask me about all the questions above, considering the little experience I have in this field, I am always optimistic about the future, even about difficult circumstances in life as phenomena of nature (e.g. earthquakes, hurricanes) and wars around the world. I have a few “motivational phrases” in my mind like this Bob Marley`s song: “Everything`s Gonna Be Alright”, and that British slogan: “Keep Calm and Carry On”. Additionally, at the end at the day I tell myself “I know you have had a bad day, but every cloud has a silver lining”.

However, what I am describing here is about emotions. Have you ever had the experience of listening to some advice or to a motivational phrase from someone you care about, and it works? It makes you feel comfortable and relaxed. You start feeling good. For example, “Hold on! Be calm and try to relax”, and “Take a deep breath, and you will feel better” work for a while, since you are feeling sadness, anxiety, anger, frustration, due to stressful situations. There are few scientific theories about emotions that explain it.

In 1872, the pioneer of the study of emotions, the biologist Charles Darwin researched about “The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals”, and argued that all humans and even animals show emotion through remarkably similar behaviors. Even Darwin had researched emotions a long time ago, he believed emotion had an evolutionary history that could be traced across cultures and species – an unpopular view at the time. Additionally, in 1884 the American psychologist William James proposed that physiological changes actually precede emotions, which are equivalent to our subjective experience of physiological changes, and are experienced as feelings. In his words, “our feeling of the same changes as they occur is the emotion.” In contrast, in 1885 Physician Carl Lange developed similar ideas independently. Both theorists defined emotion as a feeling of physiological changes due to a stimulus, but the theorists focused on different aspects of emotion. However, both agreed that if physiological sensations could be removed, there would be no emotional experience. In other words, physiological arousal causes emotion. Basically what they searched was that there is a correlation between emotions and physiology symptoms. Their two theories were later combined into what is presently known as the “James Lange Theory of Emotion”.

For example, you are walking in a dark alley in the middle of the night. Suddenly you hear some strange noises, and your heart rate increases. According to James-Lange Theory of Emotion, you will conclude that you’re scared because your heart is beating really fast. When the cortex of our brain receives stimuli that can induce emotions, our autonomic nervous system and somatic nervous system trigger our visceral organs and skeletal muscles respectively. These systems will then stimulate our brain, which will interpret the response as an experience of emotion.

Nowadays, in this Coronavirus time, suddenly when we buy toilet paper and hear people saying it makes us safer, we start feeling the same way. Despite the fact that we have been feeling anxious, as soon we have proactive, effective and rational behavior we immediately feel better. So, why has this information been really important for us recently? To let us know how important it is being involved in healthy relationships with positive and friendly people, especially for our mental health. In the same way, we need “healthy thoughts for our brain” to keep our minds healthy. Our brains demand a lot of energy. Otherwise, “thinking a lot” about something or “in an obsessive way” or even spending time with “negative or pessimistic people” in these times of crisis could make people go crazy.

Overthinking could have a negative effect on your mental health

Although not understanding all the mysteries of our brains, and how powerful it is, we realize how much power we have to “control” some “bad feelings”. If we don’t have control of many stressful situations, especially those that seem so distant from our current reality, we really need to take care of ourselves, and be careful with our mental health! For this situation, I like to remind myself of the security procedures we always hear on all flights: “In case of accident, put the mask on yourself first”. This advice is not in vain… Have you ever thought about it? Why should we put the mask on us first? Because, once you put your mask on and protect yourself, you will be able to help other passengers to be safe too. Otherwise, if you feel so anxious, instead of having proactive, effective and rational behavior, probably you will have a “freezing behavior” (or “freezing response” which is a reaction of fear, initially studied in mice, and extended to humans). Basically, it means that when we are exposed to fearful situations, some parts of our brains respond with different reactions, the most common behavior being “freezing”. This process is very common in people that developed Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), known as an Anxiety Disorder where veterans come back from War or people that were robbed, had a gun to their heads, or watched someone robbed or in a car accident, etc. The “scene” stays in their minds for many years, sometimes forever, if they don’t have an effective and specific treatment. The physiological reason is because the parts of the brain that were active in these traumatic situations, specifically hippocampus and amygdala, “record and keep the information safe”. This is why we revive those scenes for a long time and sometimes they will stay forever, like a nightmare.

Understanding how powerful our brains are, makes it really important to help us to figure out which parts of the brain are involved in stressful situations, and what we effectively can do to decrease our symptoms of anxiety, fear and panic. When we suffer of anxiety, fear or uncertainty, the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC), which is responsible for controlling our emotions, especially anxiety, shuts down. PFC is triggered and it automatically shoots anxiety processes that involve neurotransmitters like adrenaline, noradrenaline, endorphin, etc. Those neurotransmitters provoke a lot of changes in our Central Nervous System (CNS). This mainly says to the brain that it needs to “control it faster”, otherwise our body will collapse. This process has been known as “General Adaptation Syndrome” (GAS), described by the doctor and researcher Hans Selye, known as “Father of Stress” from McGill University in Montreal, in 1907. Basically GAS suggests that when we are exposed to stressful events, our brains “read the signs of danger” in three different stages: 1) alarm stage, 2) resistance stage, and 3) exhaustion stage. The alarm reaction refers to the initial symptoms the body experiences when we are under stress. You may be familiar with the “fight-or-flight” response, which is a physiological response to stress. This reaction prepares us to either flee or protect us in dangerous situations. Your heart rate increases, your adrenal gland releases cortisol (a stress hormone), and you receive a boost of adrenaline, which increase energy. After the initial shock of a stressful event and having a fight-or-flight response, the body begins to repair itself. It releases a lower amount of cortisol, and your heart rate blood pressure begins to normalize. Although our body enters this recovery phase, it remains on high alert for a while. Some stressful situations continue for extended periods of time. This is called the resistance stage. The body attempts to resist or adapt to the stressor. If we don’t resolve the stress and our body remains on high alert, it eventually adapts and learns how to live with a higher stress level. The most common symptoms of this stage are irritation, frustration, sleepy, and cognitive dysfunction (e.g. poor concentration, loss of memory). The third and last stage, which is called exhaustion stage, is the result of prolonged or chronic stress. Struggling with stress for long periods can drain our physical, emotional, and mental resources to the point that our body no longer has strength to fight stress. Also, the physical effects of this stage weaken our immune system and put us at risk for stress-related illnesses. The most common symptoms of this stage are: fatigue, anxiety, depression and burnout.

In conclusion, in moments of crisis such as we have been experiencing, all effort is put to finding better ways to keep our minds and brains healthy. Once we understand a little about how our brains work in these stressful situations we will be more able to “control” our emotions and feelings (positive and also negative), to prevent us from collapsing and struggling with stress to where our bodies no longer have the strength to fight stress in the exhaustive stage (described as a physiological symptom of stress, by Selye).

Once you have already understood about brain mechanisms of emotions, and stress, I am going to share some topics below, that I consider important to help us, especially in this difficult time:

 Be rational and take care of yourself during this pandemic. That will prevent stress, anxiety, depression, and in the worse situation from a burnout. Also, the physical effects of this stage weaken our immune system and put us at risk for stress-related illnesses. The most common symptoms are fatigue, anxiety, depression and burnout. Your brain will need energy to stay healthy!

 In general, I suggest my patients make a list of individual things they consider important. If the more important thing for someone is spending time with family (if you have family and relatives in the U.S.A) enjoy this time in their company. Have meals and cook together. If you have children, reserve a few hours to play in the playground. Play some games. Build with Lego, or one hundred-piece puzzle. If you have a teenager at home, talk with them and listen to their experiences. They will probably enjoy having your all attention.

 Sleep, eat and maintain good relationships. Having pleasurable moments is really important for our brain to produce specific hormones, such as serotonin, endorphin, and dopamine, melatonin which help us to sleep well and keep our immune system protected. Eat healthy. Drink a lot of water (and why not a glass of wine?). If you like to cook, why don’t you try new recipes?. Search for new ones on the Internet. Try new tastes, flavors, smells, etc… Take a warm and smelling shower, eat a delicious breakfast, prepare your favorite coffee, listening good music, and don`t feel guilty if you have been eating a lot of “junking food” recently. It`s your “body asking for some pleasure” in this hard time. Don’t worry too much about gaining a little weight in this moment, either. You will be able to work out and exercising soon.

 Have a routine. Make your daily schedule, even spending your quarantine at home. Try to wake up early (it has been easier for the English students that have been having English classes in the morning). Make sure you put at least one recreational activity on your list because it will keep your mind busy for a few hours a day. Listen to calm and relaxing music. Pray. Take your dog for a walk. Chat with some friends, watch some movies or series on Netflix (with subtitles in English) that you didn’t have enough time for in the past.

 Organize your home and your mind. If you need to organize and clean your closet, or fix something at home “It`s now or never!” as Elvis Presley`s song. The same if you need to prepare for an exam (e.g. TOEFL, IELTS…). I`m sure you definitely didn’t have much time before. Learn new skills, new languages, or a musical instrument you haven’t had a chance to learn before. Don`t waste any more time, move forward!

Getting enough sleep will improve your mood

I really hope after reading this essay, you will “Keep going and Carry on”, guys! And even so, if you are still feeling anxious, look for online Psychotherapy. I want you know, you can count on me, no matter what!

I would like to make a toast to all of ASC staff, teachers for keeping us safe, connected, and for giving us their hands and put up with us in this stressful time. Congratulations!

Cheers!