Coronavirus: tiny moments of pleasure really can help us through this stressful time



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Desirée Kozlowski, Southern Cross University

If I told you that last night I built a blanket fort in the living room, crawled inside with my cat, a glass of wine and my just-arrived copy of the New Yorker, would you think less of me?

After all, we’re in the midst of a global coronavirus pandemic. Borders are closing, people are sick, dying, losing their jobs, and locked in isolation. And there was I, playing – as though I didn’t have a care in the world.

Meanwhile, you might be reading this holed up at home, screaming with fury at those bloody hoarders. Or perhaps you’re on a train valiantly trying to keep 1.5 metres away from the next person, shrinking back as they cough and splutter.

Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, whatever you think about the pandemic, the economy, or your compatriots, a tiny part of you knows you could do with a bit of pleasure right now.




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The effects of sustained stress

When we’re first exposed to something stressful, like a deadly new disease, our body reacts with a cascade of small changes such as releasing adrenaline and other chemicals, and activating brain regions related to fear and anger.

In many cases those changes make it more likely we’ll meet the challenges we face.

But if the stressful conditions continue, and especially if we feel powerless to fix the situation, the consequences of the stress response increase.




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Our risk of chronic diseases increases, immune function can be compromised, and we become more vulnerable to mental health problems.

We can feel depleted, disconnected, anxious and depressed. We can become fixated on negative thoughts and on looking for signs of threat. Sound familiar?

The good news is the effects of stress on the brain are reversible.

Pleasure in times of stress

It may seem too simple to be true but shifting our attention toward the small, everyday pleasures in our lives can offset the consequences of stress or negative events.

US researchers reported last year that experiencing pleasurable emotions, for example having interesting things to do, serves as a buffer between chronic stress and depression. So, among people with sustained, high levels of stress, those who reported more pleasurable moments were likely to experience less severe depressive symptoms.

Pleasurable experiences might even be of most benefit in times of stress.

We experience pleasure in a myriad ways. Perhaps one of the most potent of pleasures, and one that springs most easily to mind, is a lover’s caress.




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But to maximise the pleasure in every day, we should look more widely, to a multitude of sources.

If we’re too busy reading those alarming headlines to notice the beauty of the sun setting outside our window though, it’s a missed opportunity for a moment of delight.

When I recently asked people on Twitter to share the things bringing them delight in these challenging times, I received hundreds of replies within a couple of hours.

Each one was a small vignette conveying a personal moment of simple pleasure. Gardens and dogs and children and nature featured strongly, and many people reflected on the added pleasure of recalling such moments.

Indeed, recollection and anticipation – along with relishing pleasure in the moment – are effective ways to maximise the value of positive experiences or emotions. We call it “savouring”.

Luckily, we can get better at savouring with practice. And the more we savour, the less stressed we feel. And that’s why I’m here.

If we increase the pleasure we experience, it can lift our psychological well-being. In turn, higher well-being is linked to better immune function.




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It’s about boosting our personal capacity

My message is not to avoid the facts or pretend nothing has changed. It’s to intentionally build in moments of reprieve and restoration. It’s to turn your attention to what is still good and rich and fun – to really focus on those things.

This is how we can harness the protective power of small pleasures, for the sake of delight itself and to build grit and resilience.

So, there may never have been a better time to build a blanket fort, or to bring out a game of Twister, or to lie on your back in the garden making fantasy creatures out of passing clouds. Find excuses to giggle.




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Making pleasure happen

In difficult, frightening times, no one is immune to worry; it’s a natural response. But what we can do is take steps to protect ourselves, as much as possible, from its physical and psychological ill-effects.

The challenge is to make this happen, to tear yourself away from analysing the COVID-19 curve and intentionally, systematically engineer more small delights into your day.

Do you like the sunshine? Then know when the sun falls on your balcony, in your garden or in the street near your place. Take a cup of tea or coffee with you and soak up the warmth.




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Pets? Run, play, be silly with them. Eating a tomato? Plant the seeds and watch something grow, from nothing, because of you. Sing. Dance. Delight someone with an act of kindness.

Plan your opportunities for pleasure. Put them in your diary. Set your alarm for them. Commit to share them with others. Photograph them. Post them on social media or share them directly with friends and family. Anticipate them gleefully and reflect on them with delight. This is our time to be here. Savour.The Conversation

Desirée Kozlowski, Lecturer, Psychology, Southern Cross University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Coronavirus is stressful. Here are some ways to cope with the anxiety



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Louise Stone, Australian National University and Katrina McLean, Bond University

One of our patients was recently talking about her anxiety around the coronavirus epidemic. This woman’s stress was understandable. She had survived a serious infection with swine flu, but only with a prolonged stay in intensive care.

I guess we all walk on the edge of a cliff […] anything can happen to anyone at any time. We are never really safe. But people like me? Now we know the edge of the cliff is right there, and we can’t help looking down.




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While some people may be more susceptible to becoming seriously ill with the coronavirus than others, none of us are immune to the pervading sense of anxiety that has taken hold around the world.

For Australians in particular, this crisis has come immediately after a horror summer of bushfires, which took their own toll on our collective mental health.

But there are some things we can keep in mind, and some practical steps we can take, to keep coronavirus-related anxiety under control.

A tangible threat versus an invisible enemy

It hasn’t been an easy start to the decade. In the face of the summer’s bushfires, many of us contended with threats to our health, our homes and even our lives.

Even those not directly affected were faced with constant images of charred bushland, injured wildlife, and homes burnt to the ground.

The bushfires put a strain on our collective mental health, and it’s very likely some people are still struggling.

Natural disasters, though, are visible and tangible. There are things we can do to avoid the threat, manage the danger or mitigate the risk. We can see the smoke, check the app, buy an air purifier, prepare our homes. And despite the vivid images of floods, fires and cyclones, we know the storm will pass.

Epidemics are different. A novel epidemic is unknown, evolving and a global risk.

We are faced with a variety of information (and misinformation) online. Guidelines contradict each other, different states have different approaches, and experts disagree.

Meanwhile, infection rates climb as economies fall. We know we may contract the virus, and as yet we know there’s no vaccine to prevent it.




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While the bushfires united us, coronavirus seems to divide us

There’s an ugly side to ways we can deal with the stress of an unknown enemy like the coronavirus.

Some people blame potential carriers for their own illnesses, scapegoating people they see as high-risk. This is not helpful.

We also seek to manage our anxiety by trying to prepare ourselves and our families for the possibility of isolation or quarantine.

While this is reasonable to a degree, practices like stockpiling toilet paper and other goods can feed, rather than relieve, anxiety. Empty supermarket shelves can create panic, and further disadvantage people who might be living from week to week.

Epidemics isolate us from each other physically too, and this will only happen more and more.

So how can we put things into perspective?

We can take heart in knowing many people will develop only mild disease from the coronavirus.

There are of course vulnerable members of our community: those with compromised immune systems due to illness or age. We need to protect these people as a community by creating safe spaces for them to live, work and access health care, rather than fostering panic.




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Our greatest asset lies in our own bodies. We may not understand how to best protect ourselves, but our bodies are experienced managers of novel immune challenges, and they will manage the risk as effectively as they can.

Ultimately, our best chance at surviving this virus relies on nurturing our bodies: avoiding exposure through hand-washing and isolation where appropriate, eating well, exercising, managing chronic illnesses, and getting enough sleep.

The anxiety a pandemic generates is inevitable. At the end of the day, we all need to learn to live with a degree of risk we can’t avoid.

Practical strategies to keep anxiety at bay

The World Health Organisation has developed some practical tips for dealing the stress of this outbreak. Here are a few of them:

  • accept that it’s normal to feel sad, stressed, confused, scared or angry during an outbreak

  • find ways to talk about how you feel with others, especially if you are in quarantine

  • remember to keep an eye out for your children during this time, and for loved ones who already have mental illness. They may need help dealing with this added anxiety

  • if you feel overwhelmed, seek support from a health professional

  • don’t use smoking, alcohol or other drugs to deal with your emotions. Keep your body as healthy as possible by eating well, exercising and getting enough sleep

  • limit worry by limiting media exposure to a few trusted sources

  • draw on skills you have used in the past that have helped you to get through difficult times.




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If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Dr Wendy Burton, a GP in Brisbane, contributed to this article.The Conversation

Louise Stone, General practitioner; Clinical Associate Professor, ANU Medical School, Australian National University and Katrina McLean, Assistant Professor, Medicine, Bond University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Explainer: what is lupus and how is stress implicated?



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Lupus is the body’s immune system attacking itself.
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Eric Morand, Monash Health

Thanks to Selena Gomez and Dr House, most of us have heard of lupus. But most of us don’t know what it is, and until recently, none of us were sure whether stress could be a risk factor.

The simplest way to understand lupus is “your immune system gone wrong”.

We have evolved powerful immune systems to detect, attack, and destroy invading microbes. But if the immune system makes an error in the “detect” stage – incorrectly recognising some part of us as foreign – it will attack it with all of the tools at its disposal.

This self-directed, or “auto”-immunity, is the basis of countless diseases, from juvenile diabetes to multiple sclerosis. But unlike those examples, in which the immune system attacks just one tissue, in lupus all tissues of the body can be targeted.




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This can mean anything from a rash and arthritis to the immune system disrupting the function of the brain, heart, and kidney. Some sufferers may have minor symptoms such as tiredness and joint pain that resolves within a few months, but for some the disease can last for years and require transplantation of damaged organs.

These symptoms can arrive in any order at any time, and cause a severe loss of quality of life and reduction in life expectancy. As lupus mostly affects young adult women, the impact of this is great.

Why does this happen?

We are much closer now to being able to answer this question, thanks in part to being able to analyse gene expression in people with the disease.

We know from genetic studies that at least some risk of lupus is inherited from our parents, but we also know that inheritance explains only a fraction of the risk of getting lupus. So other factors must contribute.

It now appears that a large subset of lupus patients’ disease is caused by mechanisms the immune system normally uses to combat viruses. The immune system produces virus-fighting hormones (called “cytokines”) such as interferon – which activates the production of antibodies and destructive inflammation intended to kill the infection. When this happens by error, and is directed at the self, tissue inflammation and damage occur.

Current treatments are limited to non-specific immune suppressant drugs “borrowed” from other diseases such as arthritis, and drugs used to stop an organ recipient’s body rejecting the donor organ. Although life-saving in many cases, these drugs have major side effects and don’t control all patients’ disease.




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How is stress related to lupus?

As a rheumatologist I treat patients in hospital with musculoskeletal diseases and autoimmune conditions. A patient of mine suffering from lupus had, some time prior to diagnosis, been the victim of an assault, which caused post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

This case posed to me, and more importantly to the patient, the question of whether stress could have led to the development of lupus. Until recently this question has been effectively unanswerable.

A new study looked at data reporting on the association of trauma and PTSD with the incidence of lupus. It found that PTSD was associated with a nearly threefold increase in risk of subsequently developing lupus.

A study found a link between PTSD and auto-immune conditions in service personnel.
from http://www.shutterstock.com

A past history of trauma, regardless of carrying a PTSD diagnosis, was associated with a similar threefold increase in the risk of lupus.

These findings confirm a previous study of ex-service personnel, in which PTSD was both disturbingly prevalent and also a powerful risk factor for the development of autoimmune diseases, including lupus.




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The association of stress and the immune system dates back to the 1930s, when pioneering endocrinologist Hans Selye found that there are distinct changes in the body in response to a threat. The term “stress” was also attributed to Selye, albeit coined much later.

Crucially, Selye also observed that stress results in disturbances in steroid hormone production. As we now know, the body’s naturally occurring steroids act through the same pathway as steroid drugs used to treat lupus. This provides a possible mechanism for the connection between stress and the control of immunity.

Intriguingly, some organ manifestations of lupus, such as severe skin or blood disease, are notoriously resistant to steroids, and recent laboratory studies suggest interferon activation in lupus may be responsible for this steroid resistance. Thus, stress, changes in steroid production, and failure to suppress interferons may represent a chain of events influencing the development of lupus.

The ConversationSo this new study means we’re a little less unsure about the causes of auto-immune diseases. And while sufferers can’t change past life events, knowing the causes brings us closer to understanding, and to better treatments.

Eric Morand, Head, School of Clincial Sciences at Monash Health, Monash Health

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.