By Sarah Berry – www.brisbanetimes.com.au
In a time when most of us are stuck at home, we might not have access to our usual outlets for feeling good and stressing less. But Dr Selena Bartlett, a professor of neuroscience at the Queensland University of Technology, says there are tricks we can employ that can immediately lift our mood.
Sally Franco and daughter Ruby, who has been ‘attending’ free art classes live-streamed on Facebook.Credit:Simon Schluter
Ask the question: “How can I help?”
Unprecedented times call for unprecedented acts of love, Bartlett says. “Thinking about how you can help others is in itself a short circuit… because it’s stopping the brain from replaying negative information over and over again,” she explains. “Asking the question: ‘how can I help’ is enough to short-circuit your stress.”
Sally Franco and her four-year-old daughter, Ruby, have been relishing in free live-streamed art classes for children, being provided by Warrnambool social worker and artist Tracey Monigatti.
The classes, aiming to support kids and parents during COVID-19, have made a “huge difference”, says Franco.
“This provides a fantastic way to connect and do something fun and creative,” Franco says. “It’s a part of the day we can look forward to.”
Loneliness, isolation and unemployment are the main issues people are facing right now, says Bartlett, so small acts of kindness, like the art classes, help.
Grab a bowl of ice
For those sitting at home feeling bored or stressed or anxious, Bartlett suggests filling a bowl with ice and cold water and submerging your hand in it “for as long as you can”.
“You’re going to say that’s ridiculous, but what it does is immediately stop the brain from thinking or overthinking,” she says. It also activates the nervous system and if we breathe through the initial discomfort, it slows the heart rate, which slows the stress response.
“You’re also causing the release of serotonin and endorphins – things that make you feel good,” Bartlett adds.
It is “very difficult” for both the fear and creative centres of the brain to be active at the same time, Bartlett says.
“It’s the same thing as with the ice. You can’t think about how scared you are and sing at the same time.”
As singing activates the creative side of our brain, this “naturally” stimulates the release of positive neurochemicals too, Bartlett explains.
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Stand up and dance, drop and do five pushups, run up some steps. “Do stuff that’s a bit physically challenging,” Bartlett suggests. “Anything that involves cardio activity is really good.”
Why? For a couple of reasons.
“There’s a direct connection between the brainstem and the amygdala and the lungs and the heart,” she explains. “So when you take a deep breath you’re allowing more oxygen in, you’re slowing your heart rate which is instantly then slowing that part of the brain that’s overreacting.”
It’s also stimulating brain activity and “most importantly” triggering the release of positive neurochemicals.
If you can’t get up and move, try improving your posture by pushing your shoulders back and taking a deep breath. “That has an immediate effect of calming down the stressed-out part of the brain,” Bartlett says.
While it’s important to stay informed, limiting exposure to the constant news cycle can help reduce stress, as can taking basic care of ourselves.
“Get sun every day and walk or do some type of exercise,” Bartlett says, adding this is also helps your immune system, as does eating well.
“Lastly, work out ways to be connected to other people even if you can’t be [in person].”
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Sarah Berry is a lifestyle and health writer at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.