As we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic with new mandates for social distancing, isolation, quarantine, home office, and testing, we are challenged to preserve and nurture our mental health through it all. Psychologists, psychotherapists, life coaches, and anyone professionally involved with optimizing how we can think more efficiently and effectively about ourselves and our purpose during times of turbulent change are also challenged to find new tools for developing our mental health.
The ways in which we set, pursue, and eventually succeed or fail in accomplishing goals is dependent on two dimensions of behavior: motivation, the will to do something, and cognition, the way we do it. In order to gain entry into both of these dimensions and utilize them for advancing through hardship we must take a deep look into the neuroscience of reward learning, motivational psychology, and executive functioning.
Why is it that setting a goal is easy but achieving it is hard? Research at the interface of neuroscience and psychology has made significant advancements in discovering the mechanisms of goal pursuit and attainment. Dr. Elliot T. Berkman at the Department of Psychology, Center for Translational Neuroscience, University of Oregon, published a paper in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, in which he describes how goals are usually understood as “things we want but have difficulty achieving even when we know they are achievable” — in other words, a goal involves doing something different from what has been done before.
What is difficult for many of us is not the choice of being a goal-oriented person during times of stress, but rather, taking part in the daily process of continually engaging in new behaviors that are needed in order to achieve a goal. Berkman describes how engaging in new behaviors on a regular basis, a must for achieving goals, does not necessarily come naturally to us. New behaviors rely on a set of neurocognitive processes, some of which include attentional focus, inhibitory control, and working memory capacity. In addition, new behaviors are also born out of our volition, intention, and drive for achievement — our hunger for success.
There is a reason as to why many professionals in the field of mental health recommend staying hungry for success. Positive affect is not something which should just be nourished in young adults but is essential in nourishing throughout the life span. Success across various domains of life including social, professional, physical, and psychological relies on the continual nourishment of positive affect. From an evolutionary perspective, researchers believe that the operational role of positive emotions is to take part in building physical, intellectual, and social capacities that promote adaptation and long-term survival. Pleasure in the short-term has been theorized to reinforce and drive survival behaviors such as food, procreation, and social networking.
A review article published in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews by Dr. Rebecca Alexander and colleagues describes how findings consistently support the key role dopamine plays in the reward-related processes. Some of these processes include: the hedonic experience of pleasure; the motivation to seek reward; and reward-based learning. Researchers have found that “wanting” something and “liking” something are two quite distinct neurological states which depend on unique networks within the brain. The dopaminergic “wanting” network is a widespread reward system whereas the experience of “liking” something specifically involves the orbitofrontal cortex, insula, and ventral pallidum.
Neuroscience research has also recently illustrated that individuals with depression show reduced activity in reward-function circuitry, primarily including the nucleus accumbens and anterior cingulate regions. Anhedonia (diminished pleasure) is a primary symptom of major depressive disorder and has been a concern of many mental health care professional during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sedentary lifestyle, decreased social interactions, loss of work, and distance from family can all take part in supporting anhedonic behaviors and maladaptively adjustment to avoidance seeking behaviors.
A study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health by Dr. Jacob Meyer and colleagues found that no longer being physically active along with increased screen time following COVID-19-related restrictions are associated with worse current mental health. Physical activity among those who were previously active before the pandemic was reduced by 32%; self-isolation and quarantine was strongly associated with higher depressive and anxiety symptoms compared to social distancing.
Dr. Julio Torales and colleagues published a review article in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry that concluded the outbreak is leading to additional health problems such as stress, anxiety, depressive symptoms, and insomnia on a global scale. Collective concerns in regard to outbreak rates, deaths, and shutdowns influence daily behaviors, economy, prevention strategies and decision-making from policymakers.
But the authors believe that the current focus on the transmission of COVID-19 and its associated variants all over the world may be distracting the public’s attention away from acknowledging the psychosocial consequences. This conclusion places emphasis on raising the public’s awareness of what psychophysiological interventions can be explored that can mitigate the effects of stress, anxiety, and depression and inform health care professionals how they can be optimally delivered during quarantine times.
Given the persistent malleability of the human brain, engaging in practices that enhance positive emotions and associated neural correlates can contribute to promoting goal-oriented behavior. Focusing attention on present moment experiences on a daily basis has been proven to nurture long-term happiness.
The neural correlates of meditation practices and “flow” states are both involved in a deep focus on the present moment and are linked to experiencing positive emotions. Flow — a positive emotional state that involves sustained, task-oriented, goal-driven attention during a rewarding activity — is experienced in a broad array of different problem-solving situations, such as artistic activities, athletics, contemplative practices like yoga, and computer programming.
Alexander and colleagues describe how any activity, mental or physical, can produce flow as long as it is a challenging task that demands intense concentration and commitment, contains clear goals, provides immediate feedback, and is perfectly matched to the person’s skill level. When individuals are “in flow” they become so deeply focused on a particular task that everything else disappears — the person experiences a euphoric state of joy and pleasure without strain or effort.
In an article published in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, Drs. Jeffrey Burgdorf and Jaak Panksepp suggest that various regions of the limbic system, including especially ventral striatal dopamine systems, are implemented in an anticipatory (appetitive) positive affective state. Even though many of us may feel that being positive is something we must strive for and receive from the outside world, this neurobiological appetite for mental health is already deeply ingrained within us.
Dr. Feng Kong and colleagues published an editorial in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience that describes how the neural components linked to other positive activities (for example, expressive writing and martial arts) can promote lasting positive human functioning. Expressive writing about a past failures led to increased activation in the mid-cingulate cortex during a learning task. Furthermore, kendo martial artists exhibit lower functional connectivity between the nucleus accumbens and frontal eye field within the motivation network and a higher functional connectivity between intraparietal sulcus and precentral gyrus within motivation network than non-kendo martial artists.
These findings strongly suggest that being positive is dependent on specific tasks that are practiced daily in order to nurture neural networks associated with reward, motivation, and goal seeking. Our appetite for taking part in such tasks is already there, all we have to do is to design a weekly schedule conducive to incorporating them into our daily lives.
Activities such as expressive writing can be practiced in the form of an evening journaling practice and flow state activities can take the shape of a 15-minute yoga morning routine. When the world and our situation in it places pressure upon us we must begin to practice the skills and tools already at our disposal that fortify a sustainable well-being.
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