Mental Health

Maintaining Health and Balance in the midst of a Pandemic

There are multiple facets to a happy, balanced lifestyle. Listing them might even cause some to start hyperventilating. Maintaining balance during pre-pandemic times was already a challenge and now it might seem completely out of reach.

But how do we maintain balance? Trapeze artists might say it is something that comes with patience and practice. Also understanding what is throwing you out of balance and having a strong anchor.

In this post I’d like to argue that good mental and physical health can be a strong anchor for balance. Think of it as a strong core and a safety harness for the trapeze artist.

The importance of physical health is a given. A strong immune system can prevent you from contracting the virus or if you do get it, a healthy immune system will fight it off and you will survive.

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group conducted a survey on COVID-19 and mental health. 65% of the people who completed the survey reported feeling stressed or very stressed during the national lockdown.

The main challenges experienced during lockdown included:
1. 55% Anxiety and Panic
2. 46% Financial stress and pressure
3. 40% Depression
4. 30% Poor family relations
5. 12% Feelings of suicide
6. 6% Substance abuse

It is clear from these statistics that mental health is definitely a problem we need to actively address during these times.

More and more research is showing that chronic levels of high stress can lead to physical ill-health. Mental health and physical health are no longer thought of as separate entities and psychosomatic illness does not mean that your physical ill-health is “in your head”. The brain is in the body and communicates with the body continuously.

When a chronic stressor is encountered, the brain has an immediate fight/flight response. When that fight/flight response gets a cognitive component telling it to continue, anxiety will set in.

Certain chemicals are then released in your brain and in your body. These chemicals lead to functional and structural changes in your brain, nervous system, endocrine system and immune system. You will experience changes on a cellular and subcellular level. These changes eventually lead to neuropsychological changes and systemic manifestations.

Chronic stress will lead to:

Neuropsychological effects: Anxiety, depression, other mood disorders, difficulty concentrating, difficulty learning

Systemic effects: High blood pressure, heart disease, insulin resistance and diabetes, obesity, weak immune system, sexual dysfunction, digestive disorders, respiratory infections, skin disorders, insomnia and autoimmune diseases. See the highlighted ones? They are risk factors for COVID-19 infections. This is how stressing about the situation will not make it better.

So, we need to stop worrying. As all of my patients tell me: this is easier said than done. Removing the stressor would also be a logical way of going about it. But we cannot change our situation. We can only change our reaction to the situation.

On a brain cell level we need to look at something called neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to adapt and to grow. When we know that the brain can adapt and grow, then we understand that the brain can overcome the stressor. The brain can choose to not see the initial stressor as a threat to it’s survival. The fight/flight response can be regulated. And all of the above effects can be slowed down or reversed. Is this possible? Yes, it is. With the help of something called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). BDNF promotes the survival of nerve cells (neurons) by playing a role in the growth, maturation (differentiation), and maintenance of these cells. BDNF plays a key role during the processes of neuroplasticity. In other words, BDNF is the fertiliser for your brain cells to grow, change, adapt and learn.

BDNF is increased by exercise and decreased by chronic stress, chronic pain, insomnia and chronic anxiety.

So our answer so far is to try to manage anxiety. To manage anxiety you need to understand anxiety.

How do you understand anxiety? What is anxiety to you? What does anxiety look like?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *