We’re living through unprecedented times at the moment. Uncertainty is at an all-time high – no one knows what the world is going to look like tomorrow, yet alone in three weeks or months. It may sound trivial, but the lack - or even prohibition of - physical contact with other people during this period of social distancing can have a real impact on mental well-being, particularly if you live alone. Now that human touch is restricted, many people will start to feel psychologically isolated, emotionally un-held, mentally isolated, and socially excluded. For some, sadly this will be a trigger for depression, anxiety and feelings of upset, sadness, being deprived, being alone and being lonely.
We crave touch because it plays a fundamental role in our existence. Touch is part of our life from the very beginning, at birth, and conveys love and care without words. Physiologically, studies have shown that skin-on-skin contact releases oxytocin – dubbed the ‘happy hormone’ – which helps mothers bond with their baby, or lovers bond as a couple. Psychologically, the cuddling, stroking, massaging and nurturing that happens to us as a baby conveys a sense of being looked after and loved. We carry that imprint with us as adults, so that welcome touch from someone makes us feel adored, loved or trusted.
Other studies have shown that hugs or massages can reduce levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, while triggering the release of serotonin, the hormone that regulates happiness. If you’re someone who’s particularly tactile, this disruption to your usual hormone patterns could compound feelings of distress or anxiety around the Covid-19 outbreak. Without realising it, we might even start to feel helpless. We can even feel bereft, as though we have lost our loved ones in some way.
Because of this it’s important to compensate in novel ways to maintain a sense of connection. Connecting with other people – even virtually – not only helps you to feel more confident and valued – it can also help to give you a different perspective on things. Try a “virtual hug” when you next have a video call with friends or family. Make time to hug yourself to them, and they back to you. Virtual hugs may sound strange, but are actually good for you precisely because they’re funny – and laughter is the perfect stress-release.
Practice mindful meditation, or spend time outside where possible, gardening, watching birds or listening to birdsong. Any time in nature helps to sooth us and connect us to something bigger than ourselves. This reduces symptoms of depression, anxiety and isolation.
Now is a good time to practise some valuable self-care techniques, and here are some of my favourites:
Hugs release oxytocin, sometimes known as the ‘happy’ or ‘cuddle’ hormone – they lower anxiety, reduce stress and help to make us feel good. The firmer and deeper the hug, the more effective. Twenty seconds is the minimum for releasing oxytocin. If you’ve got no one to hug, don’t despair, this is a time for true self-nurture and care. Physical self-soothing can make a big difference. After a bath or shower, take time to massage some moisturiser or body lotion into your skin with loving intent.
Remember How to Breathe:
Mindful breathing is a brilliant way to stay in your body, which is what touch helps us do. During high-stress periods we may go hours or even a whole day without taking a full, grounding breath if we’re not intentional about it. Take a few deep breaths in the morning and also throughout the day to help you to re-centre and connect more with the present moment. It’s easy, free and makes a huge difference to your daily stress levels.
Look around You:
Be aware that what you look at will have a direct effect on your mood and emotions. Limit how often you look at the news, interact with social media or watch stress-inducing films. Instead, immerse yourself as much as possible in the positive: old photographs of loved ones and beloved places, online interactions where you can actually see another human face, and best of all, if you can, immerse yourself in the greatest healer of all, Mother Nature. The ground beneath your feet, the sky above your head. Try to get outside for at least half an hour each day. When you least feel like doing it is when you need it most. Catch beauty where you can – it will send cascades of soothing neuro-chemicals throughout your body.
Make Time to Listen:
Firstly, take time to listen to the silence. Nowadays, we talk more, and we hear less. Take this opportunity to focus on your breathing and hear the silence around you for at least 15 minutes per day. Some of us have to learn to be a bit quieter to connect with our emotions. For many people, self-care is simply about sitting back and understanding how you’re really feeling, and treating yourself with compassion (all too often, we’re talking to ourselves in a negative way). By sitting still – and getting rid of distractions – we can begin to identify any negative thought patterns that might be making our mental health worse in the first place. Also make time to listen to music, a valuable therapeutic tool. There is a large body of medical evidence that points to the benefits of music therapy. So make a lock-down playlist for a friend, or turn up the volume and dance around – physical movement helps to shift tension. We should also never forget the importance of listening to each other. The need to connect at a deeper level is one of the important lessons of these times.
Use Your Nose:
Smell is far more powerful and primal than you might think. According to scientists, 75 per cent of our emotions are generated by what we smell. Scents can transport us back in time, lift us, soothe us, carry us into feeling and shift our mental state. Of all the senses, smell is the only one that travels directly into the limbic part of the brain which ‘talks’ symbiotically to the heart and plays a major role in controlling behaviour, emotion, mood and memory. So, stay conscious when it comes to smell. Burn a delicious, hand-made candle, or use an essential-oil diffuser, or add oils to a warm bath.
Self-care techniques and general lifestyle changes can help manage the symptoms of lock-down stress. They may also help prevent some problems from developing or getting worse.
Stay safe, and look after one another!