Feb

13

2024

Resparking: Conquering Post-Covid Challenges with Courage and Resilience

The following blog post is an adapted version of an original article, written by Graham Music called: Finding courage, resilience and hope after fear, disconnection, and post-Covid malaise and originally published on 26th May 2022 on Graham’s blog.

We are delighted to present this new blog post, ahead of our upcoming online CPD: Resparking: Working courageously with trauma and neglect with Graham Music on Friday 19th April 2024, 10am to 4pm via Zoom, with catch-up available.

Pre Pandemic

The world was by no means perfect pre-pandemic, but then people hugged and kissed each other readily, shook hands with strangers, didn’t think twice about handling objects after others had touched them, or about breathing the same air as others on public transport or in indoor spaces.

Touch itself is so important: it has powerful neurochemical effects, including oxytocin release, which is linked to loving warm feelings and, of course, to trust as well as generosity. It is also good for our health.

By contrast, solitude, isolation, the lack of touch are all linked to physical and emotional ill-health and are proven risks to health and morbidity. 

Fear and Covid-19

If we had to create perfect conditions for emotional shut-down, for fear, anxiety, and distrust – and, indeed, for addictive traits to flourish – we could hardly have done better than Covid-19, its lockdowns, and the nervousness and apprehension it generated.

Threat leads to a turning inwards, away from connection, from trust and hope.

What seemed normal during the pandemic, would have been deemed unthinkable a little while back. People were wary of others on the street, fear-induced distrust written on faces, aversion and even disgust communicated in bodily gestures, and friendliness often greeted with suspicion.

The world was not experienced as a safe or friendly one, and other people, even our nearest and dearest, were often viewed as dangerous.

Post Pandemic Desparking

Many clinicians have been inundated with referrals for psychotherapy since the pandemic, while many existing clients reported increasing levels of anxiety and depression. Studies suggests that there has been a huge increase in depression, anxiety, as well as suicidality, and, of course, in substance misuse.

This is classic desparking.

Of course, it is feeling safe, loved, and connected that gives rise to healthy hope and spark, and any one of us can, and probably has, felt desparked by the effects of isolation, lockdowns, and the climate of fear.

Many of us have seen addictive impulses and urges increase during this time. Obesity has increased dramatically, as have alcohol use and screen-based activities such as gaming, unfocused internet browsing, and social media activities. I can own that I am more knowledgeable about football gossip than ever before!

Increased Addictive Tendencies

At the same time, there is much in the modern world that increases the tendency to act in addictive ways.

Modern recreational drugs fire up unthinkable surges of dopamine, unlike anything humans have evolved to expect, and have powerful addictive potential, often giving rise to terrible ‘lows’ after use. Much social media and tech powerfully keep us coming back for more ‘Likes’ or novelty.

Large spikes in dopamine levels are seen in what are called ‘variable rewards’, which describes the uncertainty about what a reward will be and when it will come. We see this, for example, when playing slot machines, and variable-reward algorithms are powerfully designed into addictive activities such as pornography, gaming, and social media. We can claim the addictive capacities of pornography, gambling, social media and much more, and we should be wary of them.

However, the biggest issue is not the addictive temptations.

Many studies of other species found that addictions reduced when the animals were content and had good social opportunities.  Rats offered heroin and water, were much much more likely to drink the heroin when isolated in cages, but when with other rats and enriched environments, they eschewed the temptation of heroin. They did not need it, as their lives were happy.

Anhedonic slump

When feeling low and flat, it makes sense to reach for that which might provide escape from this – whether nicotine, alcohol, recreational drugs, or gaming. Covid might well have fuelled such tendencies.

Anhedonia, that lack of enjoyment of life, goes with low dopamine levels.

In fact, taking drugs that lower dopamine, such as some antipsychotic medications, leads to anhedonia. When an addictive drug’s effects wear off, we see an anhedonic slump, which is exactly when good support is essential, to avoid relapse and a return of cravings.

Resilience and Challenge

The dopaminergic system is not just involved in addiction but also pushes us on when we are challenged, giving us the resilience to persevere.

In therapy with both adults and kids I consistently see a newfound confidence when people make small but clear steps which feel in the right direction, and when those steps are acknowledged, and I have been seeing this more again as life seems to be returning to something nearer normality.

Huberman pointed out how the dopaminergic system, when not overstimulated and out of balance, allows us to pursue goals, keep on task, not give up, and enjoy a challenge.

This system can turn off when hope, confidence, enthusiasm, and our lifegiver desert us, which can lead to this system being hijacked by easy access to contemporary temptations, such as screens or drugs.

Positive Reward Systems

The kind of reward system we want is, I believe, one that can fuel us when we feel like giving up, keeping us motivated when there is a long road ahead. This confirms what the neuroscientist, Richie Davidson found in secure, outgoing toddlers and adults.

The ones who moved towards experiences with an open, positive state of mind, with a sparking lifegiver, showed higher activation in left prefrontal brain areas associated with positive feelings.

Mindfulness gives rise to a similar leftward shift in prefrontal brain activation, linked to hope and an approach, rather than avoidance, mindset.

Growth Mindset & Healthy Dopamine

Traits like courage, hope, determination, even aggression – help drive us forward, as in the determination of a hunter, or when daring to fight rather than flee under pressure. It is a good feeling, linked to potency and efficacy, to what is often called the ‘growth mindset’.

Unlike the buzzy hits experienced with addictive drugs or indeed gaming or pornography, healthy dopamine hits come from the buzz of multiple small rewards, from pleasure in mastery, from moving forward steadily when we believe this will in time lead to success.

Many of us were given up, turned away; they had little spark and were damped down. during pandemic lockdowns and struggled to come back into the world with open hearts and strong backs.

It can be tempting to take the easiest path out of dulled-down states, using addictive activities such as perseverative rituals, screens, social media, pornography, or drugs.

Therapy is about bearing pain and difficulty, but it is also about developing courage and hope and helping people to feel safe and then to reset and reboot sufficiently to allow their lifegiver to be sparked into action, prepping them for the possibility of being active players in the risky but exciting hurly-burly of life.

Find out more about Graham Music at: https://nurturingnatures.co.uk/.

Upcoming Workshop with Graham Music

Want to explore more? Join us for our upcoming workshop – Resparking: Working courageously with trauma and neglect with Graham Music on Friday 19th April 2024 via Zoom (with catch-up available).

This workshop will focus on people (adults and children) who have experienced neglect or trauma and who appear in therapy to be flat, dulled down, even numbed. They may be hard to reach in therapy and challenging to work with. We may find ourselves feeling less than enthusiastic about our work with them.

In this workshop, Graham Music will share his experience of working for 35 years with children and adults, and the research he has undertaken in writing his book “Respark: Igniting hope and joy after trauma and depression” (Jan 2022).

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