Your Mental Health During Lockdown

For the last few months, the majority of us have been living with new limitations. This has come with a wide range of complex challenges to our mental health. Freedom of movement has been restricted and ‘social distancing’ is now not only a standard part of lexicon but a new way of life. Mental health during lockdown has come under the spotlight.

It is no surprise that the current Corona pandemic is having just as much effect on people’s mental health as it is their physical health. Increased levels of stress and anxiety are being widely reported and there is already concern for the longer term implications of our lockdown.

So what is going on?

The Lockdown Effect

For those with pre-existing medical or mental health issues, there may be a spike in stress and anxiety as well as a more intense general level of emotional distress. To a certain extent, feeling anxious about what is going on in the world is normal. Under these very unusual circumstances it is actually expected that we may be experiencing stress and anxiety. After all, the world has changed in (and I’m going to say it…..) unprecedented ways.

But what happens to us when healthy levels of stress tip into the unhealthy?

The Stress Response

When we are under stress our body releases adrenaline and cortisol into our bloodstream and our body equips itself for a fight or flight response. Our heart rate picks up and our energy levels pique. Our body is preparing itself for a potentially threatening or dangerous situation. In periodic and short spurts, cortisol is useful to us as it boosts immunity by limiting inflammation. Cortisol also equips us to deal with the situation by limiting any non-essential functions. Once the threat subsides, hormone levels usually return to normal.

Sometimes, however, this doesn’t happen. We may be exposed to enduring higher levels of cortisol which can wreak havoc on a variety of body processes. We may also end up feeling quite wired and constantly on edge.

The important thing to be aware of is that this can have an emotional and a physical impact on us. To mitigate the impact, we need to be able to regulate our stress and anxiety levels. Stress is known to cause an excess of cortisol in the body and this can make feelings of depression more likely. Not only this, the synapses in our brain shrink as a result of a cortisol overload and we are less able to think clearly or be anything like our best selves. Too much adrenaline in our bodies can also have an adverse effect on our immune system. At a time when we are all seeking to be as healthy as possible, this would be a pretty unwanted result!

Currently we’ve lost control over so much we often take for granted. We cannot control when we go shopping, when we see our family or when go out for a drink with our best mate. It can be hard to acknowledge just how much we have lost control of. On the other hand, there’s a real chance to recognise where we can regain a sense of control in our lives. Essentially, we are reminding ourselves of what we have always, and continue to be in charge of.

One thing that can be really useful, is to stick to a timetable. Ordinarily, setting a time to have lunch may seem a relatively trite thing to do when our time is more our own, but maintaining a sense of structure and routine to our day is really important to general mental health during lockdown. It may have been great to see the time gained from not travelling into work as a lie-in opportunity, but going forward time structuring and a sense of security and stability is a basic human need.

Planning your own day is within your control. You can implement your own structure and routine. Pick a regular time to still have breakfast, get up in time to start your work-from-home day at the designated time. If you are not working you may find it useful to still get up at the same time as usual. Have lunch at the same time. Put time into your day for self-care. Go to that online Body Pump class and have a virtual coffee with your fitness buddy after.

Establishing and sticking to times we set for ourselves is within our control. Acknowledging this and reflecting on this can be very grounding and empowering. It can also be a useful tool in getting through a very challenging time!

 

Understanding How Our Brain Impacts On Our Relationships

When considering your important relationships and thinking about what makes the good ones good and the bad ones bad there may be lots of things that come to mind. You may look at the beliefs and values you share with your partner, you may consider the similar interests you share with a best friend, or perhaps it is a shared experience that brings you close or repels you from another person. But there is another essential area to consider when reviewing relationships that often gets overlooked.

The brain.

How often do you consider the impact your brain can have on your relationships?

Understanding the importance of our own brains may not be the first thing that comes to mind when asked about our relationships. But, the brain is the place where we process how we perceive, evaluate, understand, communicate and interact with other people. The brain is inextricably linked with behaviour and mental processes.

There are three specific brain structures that have the ability to affect our sense of well-being and can impact our relationships.

Without going into hugely complicated brain anatomy (!) the following areas are fundamental to helping us understand how this works.

Brain Structures and Emotions

Pre-Frontal Cortex

Where we begin. This is the most important brain structure.

If you can imagine looking down on a brain from above, the upper part is the cortex. The front half of this structure is the cortex. The front half of this half is then the pre-frontal cortex. If we’re on top form, this is where we will be working from. If the lights are on up there, we will be our best selves. We will be present and grounded, adaptive to others, responsive to other people’s needs, we are being “adults”. When the neurons are firing up in this section, we are on form!

Hippocampus

If we go lower into the brain, we find the limbic system, this is the place where we regulate emotions and assess potential threats. There may be emotional communication going on, but it’s not happening right at the top of our brains, at a higher level. The hippocampus and amygdala are two important structures within the limbic system.

The hippocampus modulates memory and processes sets of stimuli. It’s where we hold our autobiographical memory and from where can tell stories about ourselves. Our hippocampus is the part that will process aspects of emotional memories. Our memories are then what help us to respond to the world around us and inform what our emotional responses may be.

Amygdala

The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure lower down in the brain essential for decoding emotions. It is a more primitive part of our brain and modulates emotions directly linked to our survival such as threats or food. It is essentially the guard dog or internal alarm part of our brain.

This part is particularly important in responding to threats and many of our internal alarm circuits are found in the amygdala. As a result, it can detect threats from various sensory sources.

The amygdala also exaggerates threat on purpose. This is ideal when there is an actual threat as it helps us mobilise ourselves to keep ourselves safe. When we are activated in our amygdala it shoots out epinephrine, cortisol and adrenaline to get us active to save ourselves.

But, when there is so much focus down here, our pre-frontal cortex is essentially relegated and goes offline. Our brain is flooded and drowns out the pre-frontal cortex because in terms of biology, it’s not so important a structure in our threat response system. The amygdala and our internal threat system are going to be the brain structures keeping us out of danger. Our sophisticated pre-frontal cortex is great for rationale and higher level thinking but isn’t so necessary in keeping us safe. When our priority is reacting to an immediate threat, we don’t have time to weigh up the pros and cons of the options available to us, we just need to move quick! Thinking more or less goes out the window when what we need is to be ready for combat or to run as fast as we can.

So how do these structures come together to have an impact on relationships?

Our memories fuel our emotions

If we are in a car crash for example, the hippocampus will recall who we were with, what we were doing at the time etc. Because of the connections with the amygdala, we may then get sweaty palms and a racing heart beat too as our amygdala kicks in. If at a later date we are in the car with the same friend and a similar trigger situation occurs, we may find ourselves reacting in a very similar way even though this time we may not be at risk of an impending crash. Our system has been conditioned somewhat to this potential danger and we’re sent off on an emotional rollercoaster again as our hippocampus has been activated.

The hippocampus is important in building a theory about what works in relationships. If we recall a negative emotion we are likely to be taken to a negative mental space. If we recall happy memories we may be in a good mood. Positive memory recall entails the release of dopamine and in this way memory recall fuels our emotions.

The impact on relationships

It makes sense that if we have been in a destructive or abusive relationship, we are on heightened alert to similar situations. If we are used to operating at a level of increased self-preservation or increased anxiety, we may be at a constant level of a low grade threat response. Our reactions and emotions will therefore be informed by our previous experiences. We may find similar situations invoke a similar threat response with our pre-frontal cortex going offline even though the situation is different.

If we are at home awaiting the return of our partner and the door slams shut, if our threat system is activated we may respond in a jumpy way. Our limbic system will be activated and we may be responding to what we perceive to be a potential danger. We may snap at our partner and react angrily as our amygdala has flooded us with stress hormones. I might attribute my threat response to what is going on in front of me instead of understanding it in a more rational way. Perhaps my partner has let the door blown shut and I find myself reacting in response to what I perceive to be a major threat because I am remembering alarm bells from back in the days.

It’s Complex

This is just a simplistic look at how the brain impacts on our relationships. The connection between the brain and relationships are so closely intertwined that relationships can also actually have an impact on our brain. Our relationships have the power to also alter the structure and neural pathways in our brains.

Moving Forward

If you are interested in how you came to be the way you are, why you make decisions that you do and why you avoid making other choices in life, get in touch. Transactional Analysis therapy is an amazing way to aid understanding of ourselves, our personalities and our relationships.