Did you know we can manually adjust our brain chemistry leading to
increased happiness (and health)?
Did you know that in countries like Zambia, people with a 4th and 5th grade education are being taught to successfully administer mental health treatment to local populations? What can we learn from that effort to improve access and cost to much needed mental health care services in the United States?
We discuss all of
this, and how these learnings can be applied to help us manage our
mental health during physical distancing due to COVID-19 with Dr.
Laura Murray. Dr. Murray is a Senior Scientist at
Hopkins school of Public Health in the Department of
Mental Health and International Health. She is a clinical
psychologist by training.
Dr. Murray’s recent Op-Ed in the Baltimore Sun: “Coronavirus stressing you out? Here’s how to cope (March 2020)
HERE ARE MY NOTES FROM THE CONVERSATION:
- What are the mental health impacts of being isolated? Here are some of the ways that isolation and loneliness can impact us. Being alone can make us feel these things and experience these things so we need to be aware.
Isolation can make us:
Fearful, worried, sleep and eat erratically, strain relationships, shorten our temper, cause suicidal ideation, increase substance abuse, and intense feelings of sadness, depression or anxiety.
If you are experiencing any of these things during this time, then you are not abnormal, you are not alone, and there are things you can do to manage your mental health and improve your experience during isolation.
- How can someone manage the impact of isolation during social distancing?
Dr. Murray suggested some ways we can manage our mental health during COVID-19 induced isolation and distancing including:
a) Connect with others – finding ways to do this that works for you. Even seeing someone’s face from 6 feet away can make a big difference with how we feel
b) Authentic interaction – seek these interactions even if remotely
c) Humor – as they say, laughter can be the best medicine
d) Sleep schedule – consistent rest is very important to managing our mental health
e) Activities that bring you joy or pleasure – this is up to you to define
f) Limiting media exposure – I can only take so much cable news
- Internal narratives matter – what’s trending in our internal narrative?
Dr. Murray explains that our thoughts matter. The more we think to ourselves “this is bad” or “my family will get sick” then our behavior and emotions follow those thoughts.
How does this work?
When we have negative thoughts such as “a lot of people are going to die” then a chemical reaction begins in our brain (within the amygdala) that triggers an emotional reaction. That emotional reaction triggers a physical reaction (heart rate increase, discomfort, gastro-intestinal symptoms, etc.) and these physical reactions lead to anger, agitation etc.
Dr. Murray explains that manually retraining the brain, and what follows from those efforts, is the coolest thing she’s learned in psychology.
Neuropathways in our brain can change because of our behavior
Positively affirming ourselves, or exercising have more of an impact on our brain chemistry than most people realize. Just a brief walk, or a kind word to yourself can release chemicals like dopamine or endorphins in the brain which impact the brain’s chemistry. That brain chemistry impacts your emotions. Not only is your brain getting more of chemicals that make you happy, you are also forcing your brain to get rid of chemicals that make you feel bad.
Even though some things like meditating, positive affirmations, brief exercise, etc. may seem like they aren’t doing any good, the impact really adds up over time.
- Change your vocabulary, even if you don’t believe it, and your brain will change.
In Dr. Murray’s research, she’s found that we create pathways in our brain and those pathways can be trained. They become “engrained” so to speak and when certain things happen in our life we naturally or automatically react based on those engrained neuropathways. We have the ability to manually adjust those pathways and change our emotions and behavior.
- This time we are in will produce MH struggle and addiction
Dr. Murray explained that people are coping with substances. She believes we will see an upswing in addiction when we emerge from this period of isolation.
A lot of us deal with stress and anxiety via drugs, alcohol, chemicals, process addiction, sex, pornography, etc.
- How do we know if we are developing an addiction problem during this time of isolation?
Whether you have had an addiction problem or not in the past, one of the best ways to think about it or manage it is just to monitor it. Do you have a problem? Just track it, write it down, a lot of people don’t realize how much they are starting to drink until they write it down. The first step is awareness.
During this time of COVID-19 this is a great time to reach out to people. It’s a great excuse to check-in since we are all in this isolation period. So, check in and ask people, ask your friends, neighbors, family members, etc. How much are you drinking? Are you ok?
- Laura spends a lot of her time working in low- and middle-income countries where mental health access is very low.
She started her career researching HIV and the impacts of HIV and trauma on children in countries like Zambia. She spent a lot of time studying kids who were HIV positive and have been sexually abused and how they have been able to take their life in a positive direction.
The challenge is that the ability to access treatment is still quite limited in Zambia, but they have found ways to train “lay providers” to provide basic mental health care, education and encouragement. These are people who often have a 4th or 5th grade education.
There is quite a bit we can learn about providing mental health care access in America from what she has learned in doing this in a place like Zambia.
What can we apply from that learning in the U.S.?
A lot of people may not require full evidenced based mental health treatment. May people just need more skills or tools in their toolbox when it comes to happiness and re-training these neuropathways in our brains.
Many people who are not happy at work, or in a marriage, or social relationships are going to carry that unhappiness into other areas of their lives. There are relatively simple skills and tools that can be applied to find happiness and prevent one negative aspect of your life from dominating all of your life with unhappiness. While there is certainly a place for highly trained clinicians to help a lot of people, there is room for less skilled or trained individuals to help other humans learn to be happy. This is what their work in Zambia is showing.