4 mood-boosting activities to keep your mind happy during COVID-19 lockdown

Music, journaling, and spending time with your pets are all science-backed ways to boost mental health during stressful times.

Dancing and singing a happy tune with your loved ones can boost your mental health.

Photo by fizkes on Shutterstock
  • Expressing your artistic self has profound positive impacts on your mental health and wellbeing during times of stress.
  • "Knitting and other forms of textile crafting such as sewing, weaving or crocheting have quite a lot in common with mindfulness and meditation," according to neuroscientist Dr. Sarah McKay.
  • Spending quality time with your pets can also have beneficial impacts, including lowered cortisol levels and a boosted immune system.

    Arts and crafts

    hands in pant on canvas concept of happy crafting

    Painting, sculpting, knitting and crocheting are all crafts that help boost your mood.

    Photo by Budimir Jevtic on Shutterstock

    Arts and crafts time with your kids (or diving into a new hobby such as quilting on your own) can do wonders for your mental health, according to several studies.

    In a 2016 study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, 658 students were asked to keep diaries over the span of 13 days. The students documented their mental states during various crafting activities including painting, sculpting, knitting, scrapbooking, sewing, and crocheting.

    Participants who engaged in creative activities were:

    • more enthusiastic about returning to that activity on another day
    • experienced a positive mood boost during their craft activity
    • felt inspired to be productive and creative in other ways

    The study also found that people who engaged in regular crafting activities experienced what psychologists call "flourishing," which is a process of internal growth and purpose. Lead author Dr. Tamlin S. Connor reports: "Overall, these findings support the emerging emphasis on everyday creativity as a means of cultivating positive psychological functioning."

    Neuroscience backs up this thinking: the reward center in your brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine when you do something pleasurable. While our brains are used to releasing dopamine to make us repeat activities that are essential to our survival (like eating or having sex), over time we've evolved so that the brain can emit dopamine signals during fun activities like decorating a cake or painting on a canvas.

    An article written by neuroscientist Dr. Sarah McKay explains: "Knitting and other forms of textile crafting such as sewing, weaving or crocheting have quite a lot in common with mindfulness and meditation, all are reported to have a positive impact on mental health and well-being."

    Karaoke time

    Music can help boost your mood. According to a University of East Anglia (UEA) study, there are several benefits to belting a tune along with a group of people. The results of the study showed that:

    • Social engagement with others gives people a sense of belonging and well-being that often lasts all day.
    • Being part of a group dynamic also helps improve social skills and confidence.
    • Taking part in a fun activity helps improve your mood and allows you to function better on a day-to-day basis.

    Tuning into your favorite radio station, playing a karaoke video game, or creating a Spotify playlist your whole family can sing along to is going to have an uplifting effect on everyone's mood during what is (for most) a very difficult self-isolation period.

    Professor Tom Shakespeare, the lead on the study, explains: "We found that singing as part of a group contributes to people's recovery from mental health problems. For some, it represented one component of a wider program of support. For others, it stood out as key to their recovery or maintenance of health. But the key thing for everyone was that it induced fun and happiness."

    This isn't the only experiment to prove these results: Other music therapy studies have shown a positive boost in social connection, cognitive stimulation, mental health, and enjoyment.

    Spending quality time with pets

    family in bed together with pet dog concept of pets making you happy

    Spending time with your pets can actually release feel good hormones such as serotonin and oxytocin.

    Photo by bbernard on Shutterstock

    Spending time with your pets provides hormonal changes that decrease stress.

    While this isn't news to dog owners, you may be surprised to learn just how beneficial spending time with your dog can be. Research from the University of Missouri-Columbia suggests that a few minutes of petting your dog prompts a release of serotonin, prolactin, and oxytocin, all known for being "feel-good" and "pleasure-inducing" hormones.

    Having a pet can boost immunity.

    A 2018 study suggests that infants who are exposed to pets before they are 6 months old have a decreased likelihood of allergies. Pets may also reduce the chances of hay-fever, eczema, and upper respiratory infections.

    Additionally, having a dog in your home may help balance out or even boost your gut health because dogs have many different types of beneficial bacteria.

    Owning a cat or dog can improve cardiovascular health and lower blood pressure.

    According to researchers at SUNY Buffalo, participants in a 2004 study who were already taking medication for hypertension showed blood pressure decreases in response to owning a cat or dog. In fact, their blood pressure response to stress was cut in half by spending time with their pet.

    Journaling or expressive writing

    Similar to crafting, writing about your personal experiences can help improve your mood, boost happiness, and help you find catharsis during a time of trouble or stress.

    During the stressful COVID-19 pandemic, stress and panic seem to be spreading just as quickly as the virus. Writing about your lock-down experience during this time can help decrease your anxiety and increase your mental well-being, according to research.

    In a 2006 behavioral therapy study, participants who wrote in the expressive writing style (journaling or the act of keeping a diary) showed significantly lower depression symptoms than those who did not. In a separate NorthWestern University study, this time focused on married couples who were asked to write about a conflict they were experiencing, those who explored their problems together through expressive writing showed greater improvement in marital happiness than those who didn't write about their issues.

    By writing, editing, and rewriting your own version of events, you can achieve a cathartic experience and see the situation more clearly, often changing how we view the situation we are in.

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    The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

    New research establishes an unexpected connection.

    Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

    Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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    • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
    • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

    We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

    A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

    The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

    An unexpected culprit

    The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

    What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

    "We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

    "Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

    fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

    Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

    The experiments

    The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

    You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

    For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

    Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

    The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

    However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

    The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

    As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

    The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

    The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

    "We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

    Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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