At first, we got creative, baked bread, banged pots on balconies and believed that life would soon return to ‘normal.’ But then, it didn’t. As we enter the third year of this pandemic, most of us are getting tired of the same old, same old. Our movements have been restricted for too long. We are stuck in routines and behaviours that we are unhappy with – mindlessly consuming our favourite treats (food, alcohol, weed) or indulging in activities we can ill-afford (shopping, binge-watching countless shows or scrolling down bottomless rabbit holes of doom and gloom). What started as temporary escapes and distractions are now seriously ingrained into our day to day lives and we are having a hard time lifting ourselves out of our respective ruts.
There’s no question that establishing routines when there are none can be helpful in getting things done. But when these routines overtake our lives, it’s time to make a change. It is commonly known that to create a habit, we need to maintain a behaviour for a series of 21 days. And we certainly have had ample opportunity to do that. So it would seem to make sense then, that by breaking the pattern, we should be able to dig ourselves out.
But it’s not as simple as that. It’s not just a matter of participating in Dry January or reducing our screen time or getting up from our desks every hour to stretch or walk. It’s also about examining what these distractions do for us.
During times of stress, when our feelings start to overwhelm us, we often look for quick fixes or ways to numb them. But after a while, these ‘coping mechanisms’ start to stress us too. We feel guilty and ashamed that we wasted another day, ate a whole pint of ice cream, drank the whole bottle, or maxed out our credit card again. So why do we go back to these behaviours over and over again?
At the risk of oversimplifying a fairly complex question, I offer the following explanation. Our nervous system contains over 100 neurotransmitters which send messages from the brain throughout the body. One of the better known neurotransmitters is dopamine. Amazingly, it regulates our motivation, memory, behaviours, cognitions, attention, sleep, mood, learning and is connected to the pleasure and reward centre of our brains. When our brain’s reward system is activated by consuming or doing something that we like, dopamine is released into the brain. The more dopamine that is released, the more pleasurable the feeling. So it makes sense that we would have conflicting feelings about behaviours that make us feel good and the realization that we may be dependent on those behaviours.
So how do we cope in stressful times and find other ways to replace our boredom, frustration, anxiety, etc. with something else? There are a number of natural ways to produce dopamine. These include getting enough physical activity, sleep and sunlight, particularly in the winter months when days are short and sunlight can be limited. Others include eating healthy foods, listening to, making and singing music, being creative, meditating and being mindful of how we live our lives.
The pandemic is not the cause of these problems, but it has served to hold a mirror up to behaviours that were already with us and of which we have now become more aware. In some ways, we can view this time as transformative, an opportunity to make some positive changes in our lives. It’s never easy to make changes and we have all been working hard to do the best that we could to survive an unusual and difficult time. So be gentle with yourself as you try to transition into a different way of coping and please let me know if I can be of any help and support to you as you do.