Back in March 2020, who would have thought we’d still be waging the war against this microscopic enemy, five months later?
When the restrictions were first imposed, I (perhaps like much of the population) went into the whole experience with a sense of both awe and ignorance. It seemed such a novel experience to listen to the Prime Minister and the Chief Medical Officer almost on a daily basis, followed by respective ministers of the States and Territories. I felt then that the proposed stage 2 and stage 3 restrictions made little impact on my life – due, in part, to my living arrangements and personal habits.
Summer was gently giving way to autumn and I had plenty to do in the garden. I had moved into a new suburb a few months earlier and I was happy to stroll through the new streets and familiarise myself with the cafes and dog parks. I continued to maintain my structure for the day – exercise, work, creative pursuits… But as the days dragged on into weeks, and weeks into months, I began to feel lethargic. As the second wave hit us, I felt that my own personal sacrifices seemed to have served very little purpose.
As autumn ushered in the cold winter and long periods of being alone, increasing social restrictions and loss of freedom led to a decline in my motivation. I lost confidence in our ability to eradicate the virus, and sensed that I had to manage yet another personal risk – my mental health. I have lived with complex mental health issues for a long time and have had practise in recognising risks and managing them proactively – at times quite successfully, and other times relying on professionals.
But the one key thing I have learnt (which regrettably, no school biology class taught me) is that our bodies function within a range of systems. In addition to our various biological systems (the respiratory system, the nervous system, the reproductive system, etc.) we also have an Emotion Response System (ERS).
There are three aspects to our ERS: the threat/fear response, the reward/drive response and the soothing response (see figure below). I treat these states as if I have to juggle three coloured balls – red (threat) green (reward) and blue (soothing). All three states are important, and we need them all to function optimally. Maintaining mental wellness is recognising when any one of these aspects is overloaded – where we run the risk of dropping one of the balls.
The Threat Response
When we are confronted with a threat, the fear response gets triggered. Our body responds, whether the threat is real or perceived. We produce adrenaline and cortisol, as our bodies prepare to address the threat. Since our very survival depends on active engagement of this system, we tend to be biased towards it. This is why we’re so engaged with news of catastrophes, accidents, traumas and other negative information. The fear response is not inherently bad. It serves a purpose: to warn us of threats and risks. We need a certain level of this response to function, and it can sometimes help us to achieve things that we might not have otherwise thought possible.
However, the COVID-19 crisis is likely to regularly trigger the fear response in all of us, and this can be especially risky for those who might already be managing mental health issues. The quarantine restrictions and the constant barrage of negative language keeps us in a constant (and seemingly endless) state of threat.
How to diffuse the threat system
a) Limit exposure to media. Consider, for example, watching online or TV news feeds for no more than 15 minutes – and balance local, state, national and international news. This helps to expand our view of the world and connects us with the rest of humanity.
b) Consume information on different topics – nature, sports, history, health, entertainment, hobbies, etc. This helps us to recognise that the world is actually doing other things and the wheels of human effort are still moving, if only at a different pace.
c) Consciously distinguish between fact and imagination. Seek evidence for negative information and look for other viewpoints.
d) Get involved in regular physical exercise. Calming exercise like yoga helps to metabolise the adrenaline and cortisol in our bodies.
The Reward System
Almost all human efforts are designed to reap some form of reward: money, social status, achievement or success. When we set a goal and achieve it, we feel good because our body produces dopamine – our feel-good hormone. However, it’s risky to rely on dopamine to feel good. It’s often unsustainable, and we can experience fatigue, boredom and burnout. When our reward system is overloaded, it can lead to stress, financial strain, perfectionism and depression.
During COVID-19, many of us may be working extended hours at home, spending a lot of time playing video games, or regularly online shopping. All of this can overload our reward system.
How to manage the reward system
The Soothing System
Many of us ping-pong between the reward and threat systems. The dopamine release helps to counteract the adrenaline release. But constantly switching between the two can worsen symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress in the long run.
By activating the soothing system, we can experience more safeness, connection and contentment.
The soothing system operates naturally – think of how it feels when your pet dog runs towards you or you smile at a baby. Or that peace you feel when you paint, play an instrument, or garden. The soothing system is linked with receiving or giving care, kindness, warmth, engagement, connection, and compassion.
However, we live in a culture where many of these behaviours are viewed as a sign of weakness, vulnerability or indulgence.
How to activate the soothing system
As well as the above tips, it may be helpful to connect with a therapist and discuss your concerns in a safe environment. Mental wellness begins with acknowledging and recognising risks.
The SANE Help Centre is open from Monday - Friday, 10am - 10pm AEST. Our team of counsellors are available by phone, web chat and email, so you can comfortably communicate in the way that feels best for you. We can provide you with counselling, support, information and referrals, and specialise in assisting adults who identify as having a complex mental health issue, complex trauma or high levels of psychological distress.
We also provide support to the family or friends that care about these people. Click to visit the SANE Help Centre now.
As we prepare to leave winter behind and welcome the new beginning of spring, I hope we can all find our way forward