Smile like you mean it. Or not.
“Science tells us that smiling – even if it’s faked, forced and not real – actually causes the brain to stimulate the production of dopamine,” Dr Mary Berge said, and for those not well versed in neuroscience, that means something good is happening.
“Your brain has no idea whether a smile is faked. It just says, ‘Oh, I know what those muscles are doing, and they’re smiling. OK, that means let’s go, guys. Let’s start producing dopamine.’”
A licensed clinical psychologist with more than 25 years of experience, Berge has been giving presentations on Staying Sane During the COVID-19 Pandemic since life as many know it shifted gears in March. She recently shared a variety of coping mechanisms and discussed some of the related physiology.
Dopamine, for example, is one of the “happy hormones” that the brain produces to prompt positive feelings, Berge said. Other such chemicals include oxytocin and serotonin.
“I like to call oxytocin the ‘hug drug,’” Berge said. “Just hugging someone – even, they say, a pet – even a stuffed animal or a pillow, the act of hugging and squeezing and nurturing and cuddling with something really does help to get oxytocin stimulated in the system.”
As for serotonin, exercise aids production. “A quick eight- to ten-minute walk at a good pace will release serotonin in the system, and little bursts of serotonin throughout the day are important to your mental health,” Berge said. “Serotonin and exercise also help to keep inflammation down, and if you’re less inflamed, you’re less likely to be sick.”
On the negative side of brain function is the effect of stressors on the amygdala, a part of the brain that performs a vital role in decision-making and emotional responses.
“They send a message to your hypothalamus,” Berge said, referring to the portion that links the nervous and endocrine systems, “which then sends off a fire alarm, sort of that ‘fight, flight or freeze’ mode in your body.”
To help reduce stress, especially in the context of the pandemic, she recommended limiting the intake of information. Her own routine involves doing so twice a day.
“I start my day with something very local,” she said, specifically mentioning newspapers as providing details she can share with clients, co-workers, friends and family members. “I need to know what’s happening right here, right now. I don’t need to know what’s happening in China. I don’t need to know what’s happening in D.C., not really, not to start my day.”
Later in the day, she shifts gears to a global perspective. “I don’t feel like I’m a citizen of the United States,” she said. “I feel like I’m a citizen of the world, because of Rotary. I have Rotary friends and family all over the world.”
Berge, in fact, is a past Rotary International district governor, and she has been giving her “Staying Sane” presentation on a virtual basis to clubs located in numerous countries.
In her presentations, she also emphasizes the importance of developing and adhering to schedules.
“Just like children, we, as adults, actually do better when we know what is expected of us throughout our day, and that’s especially true when you’re under stress,” she said. “In fact, the lack of a routine can make you feel more lethargic and more doubtful about yourself. Knowing what you’re doing hour-to-hour, six to eight hours of your day, typically leads you to feel more energized and more productive.”
She does recommend against overdoing it. “It’s important to ‘chunk’ your days into two-hour increments, and I do this even here at work in my primary office space,” she said. “I’ll see two patients, and then I’ll have about a 15-minute break.”
That means getting away from her workstation and its primary piece of equipment. “The computer can cause internal neurological stress and physiological stress. So it’s important that if you’re doing a lot of ‘tele’ anything – Zoom, Zoom, Zoom, Zoom, Zoom! – get off of it for 15 minutes every two hours,” Berge said. “It’s just a scientific fact: Breaks help us be more productive.”
Another of her suggestions involves mindfulness, focusing attention on the present instead of dwelling on the past – “That would be ‘would’ve, could’ve, should’ve’ thinking – or what may or may not occur going forward.
“Most people, when they’re worrying and they’re anxious, they’re off into the future. And really, ‘what if?’ thinking hasn’t happened yet,” Berge said. “It’s like standing on a bridge that hasn’t been built yet.”
To promote mindfulness, she demonstrated a deep-breathing exercise, starting with inhaling through the nose, holding the breath for five or six seconds, and exhaling through the mouth. “And it’s very, very slow,” she said. “I like it when my clients will do this two to three times in a row. That really gets the relaxation going in the body.”
As for the overall impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, her advice is to use the experience toward life enhancements.
“Make a decision that you will be different, that somehow this will be a renaissance of your human spirit, that you will value things differently when you come out of this,” Berge said. “Make this your opportunity for how you’re going to be a better person.”