Notes from a Melbourne psychologist and the power of the 20-second hug

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Like many Victorians, when lockdown No.6 was announced, Chris Cheers felt weary and frustrated.

The Melbourne pyschologist had just allowed himself to go to a “hopeful place” and begin planning a holiday. By 8pm the same night, Melburnians were ordered back into their homes.

Melbourne psychologist Chris Cheers says the effects of lockdown are cumulative. Credit:Joe Armao

“I went back into shock and then what was interesting to me in the sixth lockdown is I felt more anger and frustration,” the university lecturer said.

Our brains are hard-wired with an elaborate threat-detection system. Stress puts our brains and nervous systems into “flight-or-fight mode”, disrupting attention, memory, breathing and sleep.

“When the threat is an invisible virus or another lockdown, we can’t run away and our bodies are left struggling to complete the stress cycle,” Mr Cheers said.

Lockdowns can affect our brains in many ways. Many people experience brain fog as prolonged anxiety, meaning we fall into a rudimentary state of cognitive ability. Stress hormones like cortisol rush through our veins.

“These effects get more significant as lockdowns go on … When it comes to the impact on the brain, stress and anxiety, these effects are cumulative,” Mr Cheers said.

“The brain needs safety and social connection to be well. At the moment, both those things are under threat. It’s not getting easier. It’s getting harder.”

Our brains have more difficulty accessing the prefrontal cortex, which is important when we’re trying to make decisions.

Being under chronic stress – like that of repeated and prolonged lockdowns – means our brains are constantly having to process stress so the hippocampus, a brain structure embedded deep into temporal lobe that helps learning and memory, is also diminished.

“Our brains are being asked to do a lot at a time when they’re depleted,” Mr Cheers said.

“We’re being asked to adapt, to pivot, to be creative and these are exactly the kinds of functions that are lost under long-term stress and anxiety.”

Mr Cheers said while you were unable to control the stressor (lockdown), you could help your body to complete the stress cycle and process the emotions.

While his first inclination was to distract himself from another lockdown with alcohol or chocolate, he instead created a list of tips on Instagram, “Notes from a Melbourne psychologist”, which has been shared thousands of times on social media.

Tips to relieve lockdown stress

The 20-second hug: This can be hugging another person in your bubble or even holding a pet. Hug and count to 20.  “That physical contact can help complete the stress cycle,” Mr Cheers said.

Stop and breathe: If you can calm your breath, you can calm the mind, Mr Cheers explains. If you are feeling overwhelmed take five, slow and deep breaths. To help with this, you can also use a smartphone breathing or anxiety app.

Do something creative: When your body has to create something or do something new that can be another way to complete the stress cycle.

Stay connected: Have a big laugh or a cry: For those who live alone, lockdown can be extremely lonely. The “single social bubble” is again in place. But keeping in touch with others — via phone, text, social media, — can help avoid isolation and depression. “Having a big laugh or a big cry with somebody can also be a way to complete that stress cycle,” Mr Cheers said.

Move your body: Exercise, whatever that looks like for you. Spend time outdoors if you can.

Children can be among the most deeply affected by lockdowns.

“The first important thing you can do with kids is to teach them how to recognise their emotions, be able to name them, and then think of something that they should do to help with that,” Mr Cheers said.

Balloon breaths are also a simple measure you can teach children to do when they recognise they are having big feelings.

“Get them to put their hands on their belly, and as they breathe in, try to make their belly bigger, like a balloon blowing up and then breathe out and make the belly smaller,” Mr Cheers said. “Repeat a few times then see if they notice a change in their body.”

He also urged parents who were juggling home schooling to take a moment each day for themselves.

“It is really important for parents to take a step back and think about the everyday routines to make sure there is space where they are supporting themselves,” he said.

Behavioural scientist Jillian Ryan, who has been studying the psychological impact COVID-19, has some simple advice to the millions of Australians in lockdown: be kind to yourself.

“Lockdown is incredibly stressful, it’s super hard, and everybody’s experience is really different,” the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation researcher said.

“Some people are facing different stresses that others don’t. But the key message is if you’re not acing it, curing the world’s problems, or having a perfectly healthy daily routine, don’t worry. What is done during lockdown can be undone afterwards.”

Dr Ryan said it is important to acknowledge, while the lockdown may be lengthy, it’s a temporary disruption.

”If your children have too much screen time on a rainy day, or you struggle to get in your normal amount of fruit and veggies, it’s OK,” she said.

Support is available from Lifeline on 131 114.

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