I seem to be the odd one out in my family. All the other members are quite talented musicians. I, on the other hand, seemed to have missed the gift of rhythm in the genetic sweep stakes.
So when the lock down measures were announced, one thought I had was to use this time to learn the drums (which the wannabe musician in me often looked at wistfully as they sat there in our music room).
Yet these plans have been a little lost in a haze of on-line schooling, on-line working, and sometimes plain old survival. I have lost count of the number of half-finished board games (full points for trying though!), as well as that half-finished jig-saw puzzle that sat on our bench for a week (actually, if I am honest, more like a one quarter finished jig saw puzzle that was eaten by our golden retriever as a midnight feast while we slept).
Lock down is hard. Sure, there are lots of opportunities to grow as a person and family. As a clinical psychologist, I am all for celebrating and encouraging these. Yet there can also be times of despair, moments of irritability, conflict, and even feelings of helplessness. This is all normal in these unprecedented times. Almost no one on the planet has done this before.
There is no road map, but there are some really solid brain based strategies that are backed up by good empirical evidence that we can use to help us through this time. Let’s take a look at some key ones.
1. Seek out NOVELTY
Our brain loves new stuff. Our brain’s love of new experiences is a key reason why we are still here as a species. The search for novelty has propelled us into new discoveries, new technologies, and new frontiers. If we were simply happy with the same old same old, the human race would never be where it is today.
Novelty is all about creating new experiences. Our brain responds very strongly to new stimuli. In terms of brain development, this gets back to the fact that, back in the day, new/novel experiences were either threatening (a bear chasing us) or something really good (a new food source, a new group to hang out with). New experiences activate key brain structures such as the substantia nigra (associated with motivation) and the amygdala (associated with processing emotions) by triggering the release of dopamine. Dopamine is a complex and often misunderstood brain chemical, but one of its mottos is “that feels good can we do that again?” So when we release it, we become motivated to reproduce that behaviour that released it.
Put simply, novelty sparks long held brain circuits that help in the pursuit of exploration and learning. It is like switching the “on” switch to our motivation to explore and seek reward.
So how do you create novelty when it is (socially distanced) ground hog day every day? The answer is that the brain enjoys even small amounts of novelty. Varying your daily walk by going down a different street, discovering a new series on Netflix, or a video chat with a friend you have not seen in a long time, are all small examples of novelty.
2. Manage your SCREEN TIME DIET
Novelty is a double ended sword. Scrolling through social media for 2 hours gives us an endless supply of novelty. The trouble is, it is not always the type of novelty that motivates us to pursue goals and explore. Given that a steady stream of novelty is easy to find on-line, we need to be careful not to allow our motivational systems to be hijacked by screen time. In one key study, teens who used more than one hour of screen time per day showed less curiosity, lower self-control, increased distractability, less emotional control, difficulty finishing tasks, and decreased capacity to make friends.
Of course, many people’s screen time use is going to be increased at this time. We do not have to be too hard on ourselves for this, and more so, we simply need to be aware and monitor it.
In one seminal and ongoing study (which has been running for around 80 years now) researchers found that the quality of our relationships was the number one predictor of health and happiness across the lifespan. Instead of describing it here, I will let the lead scientist of that study do that, by directing you to the beautiful TED talk titled “What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness”. Sit down with a loved one and watch the compelling reasons given as to why we need to prioritise connection to others over just about anything else.
Disconnection from others is stressful and activates the more basic areas of our brain responsible for survival and anxiety. It also sets off inflammatory processes in the body, and thus disconnection is associated with long term health problems.
In addition to connecting with the people in your household, reach out with a text message, an on-line trivia session with friends, or a socially distanced morning cup of coffee on your respective nature strips with your neighbour. Supporting those businesses, if you can, that you want to be there on the other side of this, is also a great way to develop a sense of purpose via supporting others.
4. Go for the EASY WINS
While I am some way off becoming Dave Grohl, Sheila E, or John Bonham on the drums, there are lots of mini-habits and thus mini-victories that we can have each day. The simple act of making your bed in the morning is a min-victory. These mini-victories activate our brains reward system in much the same way as larger victories or achievements. Our brain loves having a sense of progress, and achievement is a great way to create progress. This again stimulates our reward system, urging us to go and seek more of these achievements.
5. Be kind to yourself
Perhaps most importantly, go easy on yourself. No one expected ground hog day to become real life. Everyone one of you is under pressure, for different and the same reasons. Being critical of yourself will likely only reduce your motivation. So be flexible with your expectations of yourself and your kids.
There are so many other evidence based strategies, such as getting plenty of regular exercise. These strategies are not just for lock down, so the more consistently you can apply them, the more likely they are going stick around in your brain on the other side of COVID-19.