Contributed by Habeebah Rasheed Grimes, Chief executive officer
The Coronavirus and Mental Health
That the coronavirus pandemic would have an impact on mental health is not surprising to me, nor is it to anyone at Positive Education Program. We work with kids and families each day who are struggling, whose mental health is fragile – and we know that the wholesale disruption of routine and the nagging uncertainty about the future is taking a toll. Yet, when I read Dr. Jennifer A. King’s series about the impact of COVID-19 on mental health, I was moved by her description of our current reality.
The reason the four-part series, entitled “COVID-19: Our Brains Our Bodies, Our Trauma” resonated so deeply with me is because it looks at the impact of the pandemic through the lens of the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics. At PEP, we rely on this neuro-developmental framework created by Dr. Bruce Perry to guide our work. One of the things I appreciated most about this piece was how Dr. King made brain science and NMT so accessible. She made it effortless to follow why our own brains are behind many of our COVID-19 behaviors and feelings.
Dr. King’s writing not only helps give shape to the psychological and physiological context behind our collective COVID-19 experience, but also provides practical suggestions on how to cope. The series is wonderful and worth reading from beginning to end; however, I’ve pulled out a few of my favorite insights and highlighted why they captured my attention.
Ten Key Take-Aways
- The importance of the breath. Throughout the series, Dr. King pauses and asks readers to take small actions, such as focusing on a slow inhale and exhale, to help them return to a calm, regulated state. She calls them “breaks for tiny bits of regulation.” I love this because it reminds me of the importance of the breath, of pausing regularly, and of taking small actions to help our emotional state as we navigate this difficult time.
- The coronavirus pandemic is causing us all to live in a state of what Dr. Bruce Perry would call “prolonged stress response.” You certainly don’t need me to tell you our current situation is stressful since you are living it yourselves, but what struck me about this seemingly obvious point is the brain science. Dr. King does a terrific job of explaining how the mental “alarm bells” created by the ongoing uncertainty of COVID-19 leave us relying heavily on the lower parts of our brain, with less access to logic and intellect.
- Coronavirus behaviors are linked to our prolonged stress response. Point number two above, cascades directly into my third takeaway. The impact of a prolonged stress response is evident in some of our coronavirus behaviors and experiences. Are you exhausted? Perhaps it’s the impact of staying hypervigilant. Are you scrolling endlessly through your news feed and forgetting the details you’ve read? It could be because of the restricted access to the thinking part of your brain.
- Self-regulating activities that are “bottom up” will work better than those that are “top down” during prolonged stress response. Again, this is an idea tied to brain science. Since the prolonged stress response has the more logical part of our brains in shut-down mode, it’s hard to rely on reason to calm ourselves. Self-regulation activities that focus on soothing the lower portion of the brain will help “bring the thinking brain back online,” says Dr. King. She points to Dr. Bruce Perry’s Neurosequential Model of Therapuetics here, which shows that neural networks change in response to brief, repetitive stimulation.
- Bottom-up self-regulation is different for everyone. Dr. King lists numerous patterned, rhythmic, repetitive, rewarding activities that work for bottom-up self-regulation. Examples include walking, dancing humming, praying and drawing. The key, she says, is that it must be fun.
- Small doses of self-regulation are more effective than one large chunk. What struck me about this is that when we talk about self-care we often think of it as a long undertaking – something we may not have time for. However, Dr. King’s series stresses the importance of “dosing,” or small amounts of self-soothing throughout the day. When we are highly activated, our stress response system is recalibrating moment to moment. Dr. King reminds us that because of this, even activities that are just three to five minutes can be therapeutic and that we should incorporate them throughout our days.
- Our stress response can be mitigated by seeing, hearing or being in the presence of the people we care about. Everyone knows that being around people you care about can make you feel better during difficult times. Again, what struck me about this point was how clear it is that our neurobiology is connected to the way our relationships fortify us. Dr. King draws an arc between the rhythmic way nurturing caregivers comfort us when we’re small to the calming effect our loved ones have on us, especially when we engage in self-regulating activities with them.
- Even though it’s hard, it’s crucial to stay connected. Point seven above leads naturally to this piece of wisdom. Of course, we all know it’s important to stay connected but laying out the neuroscience makes it obvious: our well-being depends on being deliberate and finding ways to connect with our people.
- Some of our coronavirus behaviors may be a dissociative response to prolonged trauma. In response to prolonged stress, one version of dysregulation is dissociation. According to Dr. King, during the pandemic, that may look like avoidance, numbing or tuning out. Time may seem distorted. You may get days mixed up.
- Emotions are contagious. It is possible to catch feelings from another person through what Dr. Bruce Perry calls “relational contagion.” Our brains are always on the lookout for threats and so we are highly sensitive to other people’s emotional states, a phenomenon that is even more pronounced during times of trauma. We can become dysregulated by engaging with dysregulated people – which can be tricky given our current orders to stay at home. The lesson I focused on here was the importance of prioritizing your own self care and being deliberate about practicing self-regulation. Dr. King sums it up beautifully: if we are calm and regulated, we have the power to regulate others with our presence alone.
If you’d like to read Dr. King’s entire series, you can access it through the link below. She has also posted the series on her Twitter account under her handle: @drjenniferaking.