This originally eight-part doodle on ways to manage mental-health highlights several research-backed adjunctive therapies for low mood and depressive symptoms. However, before I had the opportunity to publish the eight-part comic, COVID-19 pandemic ushered many of us into intense social distancing practices.
Even though the pandemic put many places on lock-down, research has persisted to discover how these lockdowns and distancing practices are impacting our societies. Research shows that, during these strict COVID-19 lockdowns in the UK, the isolation conditions correlated with a greater negative mood. This effect was especially true for those with less mobility, poorer sleep, and who ate a less balanced variety of foods.
With newly surfacing research, and in reviewing the original comic, I decided to edit it down to the six mental health-supporting behaviors that can be practiced alone, even during isolation in a global crisis.
[IMPORTANT NOTE] These mental health-supporting behaviors do not substitute for or replace medication or counseling. If you think you may be experiencing symptoms of depression, get screened by a licensed health care provider. Depression can become more resistant to treatment the longer it remains untreated.
Taking a vitamin D Supplement:
Vitamin D is an essential vitamin that many people don’t get enough of. One symptom of low vitamin D is low mood. Taking a vitamin D supplement may support improved mood.
SOURCE: Anglin, R., Samaan, Z., Walter, S., & McDonald, S. (2013). Vitamin D deficiency and depression in adults: Systematic review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Psychiatry, 202(2), 100-107. doi:10.1192/bjp.bp.111.106666
Moving your body:
Whether you tackle an intense 30 day fitness plan or just begin adding gentle movement to your day, researchers consistently find that movement – even just a bit – releases chemicals in the brain that support improved mood.
SOURCE: Dunn, A. L., Trivedi, M. H., & O’Neal, H. A. (2001). Physical activity dose–response effects on outcomes of depression and anxiety. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 33(6, Suppl), S587–S597. https://doi.org/10.1097/00005768-200106001-00027
Spending time Outside:
During the pandemic, our access to outdoors may be limited, but researchers suggest that even spending time on a patio or parkbench can improve our sense of well-being. In complete isolation without access to outdoors, even an open window may improve mood. An interesting note about this research is that it was found to be true even if people are NOT moving while they are outdoors- simply the act of sitting on a park bench or laying in the grass can lead to improved markers of mental health.
SOURCE: Hon K. Yuen & Gavin R. Jenkins (2020) Factors associated with changes in subjective well-being immediately after urban park visit, International Journal of Environmental Health Research, 30:2, 134-145, DOI: 10.1080/09603123.2019.1577368
Many providers put a strong emphasis on “proper nutrition” to support mental health. While nutrition matters, food is also a source of comfort and during seasons of intense disruption (such as a global pandemic).
I believe a balanced diet includes both attention to eating diverse nutritionally rich foods, and eating foods that feel good and bring pleasure to us. Mindful eating includes permission to eat all food groups and even in all quantities, but invites us to pay attention to our food and our body as we eat the food. Invest time in preparing food you can be proud of and check in with your body as you eat.
SOURCE: Rao, T. S., Asha, M. R., Ramesh, B. N., & Rao, K. S. (2008). Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Indian journal of psychiatry, 50(2), 77–82. https://doi.org/10.4103/0019-5545.42391
Researcher shows that being exposed to the microbiology of soil can actually have a positive impact on depression symptoms. Even beyond this chemical-biological link, gardening has been known to boost mood. Working in the soil outside or even tending to houseplants can have a lasting positive impact on mood.
SOURCE: Soga, M., Gaston, K. J., & Yamaura, Y. (2016). Gardening is beneficial for health: A meta-analysis. Preventive medicine reports, 5, 92–99. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pmedr.2016.11.007
Caring for a Pet:
Pets can help improve mental health for various reasons. The oxytocin released during touch, the movement involved in exercising or caring for our pets, and the unconditional positive regard that many pets – especially dogs – provide us are all elements that can contribute to improved mood.
SOURCE: Beetz, A., Uvnäs-Moberg, K., Julius, H., & Kotrschal, K. (2012). Psychosocial and psychophysiological effects of human-animal interactions: the possible role of oxytocin. Frontiers in psychology, 3, 234. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2012.002344
After social distancing:
Although less accessible during this time of COVID-social distancing, physical contact and synchronized breathing activities – like experienced during a choir practice- can improve mood and decrease depression symptoms. As you are able, even during this time of isolation, quarantine, and social distancing, take advantage of any safe opportunities you can find to physically connect (for example, with people already living in your home).
Our emotional brains are part of a system in our body called our limbic system. This limbic system is an open-loop system- it’s why premature infants have better survival rates when they experience skin-to-skin contact and it’s why psychotherapy offered online usually doesn’t feel quite as helpful as in-person sessions. Connecting our limbic system to another person’s limbic system can help us sync up and soothe our nervous systems.
If you are socially distancing simultaneously with a spouse, partner, or roommate, be intentional about physically connecting. Scheduling time for physical affection – intimate or platonic – can be a way to care for yourself during an intense season such as isolating during this pandemic.
SOURCE: Kai MacDonald & Tina Marie MacDonald (2010) The Peptide That Binds: A Systematic Review of Oxytocin and its Prosocial Effects in Humans, Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 18:1, 1-21, DOI: 10.3109/10673220903523615
Singing with other People:
Touch is just one way to sync a limbic system to another person’s limbic system. Experiences like singing, chanting, and even coordinated movements like a dance class can help improve our mental health via connecting with other people.
SOURCE: Tom Shakespeare, Alice Whieldon. Sing Your Heart Out: community singing as part of mental health recovery. Medical Humanities, 2017; medhum-2017-011195 DOI: 10.1136/medhum-2017-011195