The COVID-19 pandemic has caused another type of public health crisis, but this time affecting our mental health. Recently, 60% of Americans reported they have been “very” or “somewhat” worried about infection since March, even as most states across the U.S. loosen social distancing restrictions.
To improve their mental health, many people during the weeks of stay-at-home orders began activities such as meditation and yoga while also trying to get more sleep, which may have been difficult due to stress or anxiety.
As you’ll learn in numerous other articles on Thrive, these self-care activities and others can and will improve our mental health. And like so many other aspects of our mental health, it can vastly improve our physical health, such as chronic pain. Research has shown “one important contributor to chronic pain is perceived stress and stress response systems,” and that the areas of the brain that interpret and modulate pain are structurally different in people with chronic pain than those without the condition.
There are also biological and physiological changes that occur both during and after such self-care activities that can influence our mental health. Here are a few examples:
Meditation, which involves silently focusing on one’s breathing and how their body is feeling in the moment, has become increasingly popular. In 2017, the practice had almost tripled since 2012, according to a National Center for Health Statistics survey. Adoption has increased even more since COVID-19 as downloads of meditation apps increased by 25% in the last week of March when the virus was spreading across the world.
Meditation is catching on because, as studies are finding, it is changing our brains to better manage anxiety and depression. Researchers at Harvard University, for example, scanned the brains of people with a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine before and two months after they began meditating. They found that the activity in the amygdala part of the brain, which processes emotion, responded more strongly to positive emotional content in images in test subjects who learned meditation and less strongly to negative images compared with the non-meditating group.
Like meditation, yoga focuses on the moment and urges the practitioner to concentrate on how the body is feeling. Also, like meditation, the number of U.S. adults who reported they practiced yoga grew from more than 9% in 2012 to more than 14% in 2017, according to a National Institutes of Health survey. Since yoga can easily be practiced in the home, the social distancing restrictions and availability of live, virtual studio classes haven’t prevented any enthusiasts from participating and reaping the stress-reduction benefits.
The scientific research around yoga’s effects on our health extends to at least 1851, but more recent studies have validated the exercise’s impact on our brain, which in turn influences our mental health. Studies have shown yoga increases levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor in the body, which is associated with a decrease in symptoms of depression and anxiety. Yoga also slows the body’s production of cortisol—also called the “stress hormone.”
We all know we’re supposed to get 7 to 8 hours of sleep per day to reap the mental and physical health benefits. Certainly, the amount of time is important, but more crucial for mental health could be the quality of rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep, which is the phase where we typically dream.
Researchers studied the brain’s electrical activity in participants while they were sleeping to identify various phases and then asked them to complete a survey upon waking. They found that participants with disturbed REM sleep had the most trouble overcoming emotional distress. In a later study by the same researchers, the brains of mice were scanned and it was determined that mice who had restful REM sleep were better able to adapt to anxiety than mice who had restless REM sleep.
Change Your Brain
All of this research and much, much more shows that if you’re meditating, doing yoga or sleeping more soundly, your brain is changing for the better.
Adopting healthy habits into our lifestyle creates a sense of control during tumultuous times. If you have any questions or concerns, practitioners such as doctors of chiropractic, naturopaths and acupuncturists will build on these lifestyle choices to further optimize your health.
About the author:
Sherry McAllister, DC, is executive vice president of the Foundation for Chiropractic Progress (F4CP), a not-for-profit organization that informs and educates the general public about the value of chiropractic care and its role in drug-free pain management. Visit www.f4cp.org; call 866-901-F4CP (3427).