I’m sure you’re all well acquainted with the tremendous bin fire that is 2020, so I’ll try not to flog that dead horse any more than I need to, but man, what a horrible year, huh? Just as you might have adjusted to the new normal of isolation, it’s yanked away and you’re told to start going back to normal, which is enough to conjure up anxiety in just about anyone.
Of course, all this huge, rapid change and uncertainty isn’t great for our mental health. Things returning to normal might be exciting for some, but for others, it “might be scary, uncertain or overwhelming,” Headspace’s National Clinical Advisor Nick Duigan told PEDESTRIAN.TV recently.
“It’s normal to feel anything and everything, so remember to be kind to yourself,” he said.
Why do we feel like crap?
While we’ve identified these negative feelings and given some thought on how to approach them as restrictions lift, exactly why we feel these things might seem obvious, but there’s also a biological reason we might be feeling this way.
To get a better idea of the whole story, Dr Rachel Hill (NHMRC Career Development Fellow and head of the Behavioural Neuroscience Laboratory, Monash Medical Center) and Assistant Professor Jess Nithianantharajah (Laboratory Head – Synapse Biology and Cognition) gave us the deets, as well as a glimpse at the great work they’re doing with One in Five on the front lines of mental health research.
“For so many, life emerging from lockdown will not be the same as before for many reasons including loss of jobs, businesses, access to face-to-face support services they once had,” the pair told PEDESTRIAN.TV. The anxiety associated with this uncertainty and establishing a ‘new normal’ is difficult, they add.
When it comes to the biology of all of this, of course, everyone is different, so the way we process these changes will differ across the board and can even alter the way your brain works. “Resilience and vulnerability are key variables for an individual’s ability to manage their mental health,” Nithianantharajar and Hill said.
“Therefore, the ability to mentally process stressors from our environment and cope with uncertainties can trigger anxiety and depression. To shift your mindset and be flexible with dramatic changes to your daily life is indeed difficult and may change our brain function.”
On top of all that, there are certain environmental factors that can influence the mental impact of these changes. “The way our brain responds to changing conditions is a product of both our genes and the environmental influences we are exposed to across our lives,” Nithianantharajar and Hill said.
“These environmental influences can be good (stable relationships, healthy diet and exercise) and bad (unstable family life, poor physical health, drug abuse), and both shape the biology of our brain.”
“Therefore, each individual will respond differently both to community and personal anxiety as well as general concerns of the COVID-19 situation. It comes back to the individual’s ability to flexibly shift our minds to embrace the new challenges ahead as we emerge out of lockdown to create safety and a new sense of returning to normal.”
The pair say it’s important to acknowledge that everyone will have a different plan and timing for coming out of isolation, and some may take longer than others to get back to a feeling of normality, which absolutely fine. “Knowing it is OK to still feel worried, sad, happy or all three depending on the day is key, regardless of what others around you are doing and feeling, is the most important point,” they said.
Luckily, there are some simple things you can do to help your mental health in these difficult times:
- Any form of exercise
- Getting fresh air regularly
- Reaching out to supportive friends and family
- Keeping track of triggers and learning to avoid them
- Maintaining a healthy diet where possible.
How can we do something to help?
Nithianantharajar and Hill’s research is funded via One in Five, a charity which aims to cure mental illness. While the pair say research in the field has come a long way over the past 20 years, treatments for mental illness have barely changed over the past 50 years.
“The medications available also have significant side effects or are ineffective for many people,” they said. “This means we have a ‘one size fits all’ approach to treatment protocols which can lead to a trial and error approach to care, meaning it can take years for some people to find a management regime that might work for them.”
“Good news is with the new advances made in neuroscience, we are now able to start unravelling the exact biological changes that are leading to mental illness. Which means we can then design new treatments that actually repair the damaged biology of the brain. This is a really exciting time whereby we finally have the tools to really understand the physicalities of mental illness.”
Given 20% of Aussies will experience mental distress each year and 45% will experience it as some point over their lifetime, One in Five’s message is incredibly important – mental illness is biological. Just as you can become sick cancer, you can become sick with mental illness, yet still, there’s a stigma around it.
“These biological disturbances can be caused by genetics, but they can also be caused by our environment,” Nithianantharajar and Hill said. “Yes, the environment can change the biology of our brain – for example, exercise increases the amount of connections our brain cells make to other brain cells. But conversely, stress can reduce these connections.”
“Effective targeted therapies can only be achieved by gaining the much-needed understandings into the biological basis of different mental illnesses. Otherwise, it’s like throwing darts in the dark and hoping you hit the right target.”
You can support this great cause by buying a ticket for the Play for Purpose raffle, which supports One in Five as well as other charities like Meals on Wheels, Cancer Council and more. Every ticket you purchase not only helps these wonderful charities, but could also win you $250,000 in cashable gold bullion, among heaps of other prizes. If you’re keen to get involved, be sure to grab a ticket before 17 July 8pm AEST.
Play for Purpose raffle tickets are just $10, with a guaranteed minimum of $5 directly supporting your chosen sporting club or charity. The rest helps fund the prizes and running of the raffle.
In terms of breakthroughs, Nithianantharajar and Hill have made great progress with their recent schizophrenia research, identifying both underlying mechanisms of the disease that could help with tailored treatments moving forward.
This work is incredibly important for the future of mental health treatment, from anxiety all the way through to schizophrenia. To cure it, we must first know more about how it works. One in Five is an amazing charity to get behind, mates.Image: Taylor Swift 'You Belong With Me'