by Rob Stanley
A vital aspect of lockdown life and mental health that we need to understand is the concept of our personal rest cycle and reward system.
Your reward system
We all know what rest is and why it is important. Good sleep is essential to mental and physical wellbeing.
But what about our reward system? It’s the brain circuitry that keeps us motivated. Even just expecting a reward activates neurons that release the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine.
“Any object, event, or activity can be a reward if it motivates us, causes us to learn, or elicits pleasurable feelings”. Brain Facts Organisation
The rest and reward cycle
So when we talk about a rest and reward cycle, we are talking about identifying the rhythms and the motivators that typically drive our daily lives.
For instance, before Covid-19 we might have ‘lived for the weekend’ when it came to our orientation toward rest and reward. Saturdays and Sundays were perhaps our only times to have moments of active rest, or do things that felt a reward from work, so they became precious to us.
Rest and the lockdown lifestyle
photo by: Jason Mowry
Now, during Covid-19, we might find ourselves with far more or far less rest time, depending if we have been furloughed, or if we are stuck working at home and homeschooling the kids.
- our usual rhythms of stress management are disrupted
- the brain chemistry which we develop by focusing, setting goals and exerting ourselves is altered
- decreasing motivation and making us more prone to dangerous ruts (Gremel et. al, 2016)
- activities which were once ‘rest-oriented’ only (lazing on the couch, living schedule-free, drinking alcohol, etc) have the potential to become daily occurrences.
The reward system and pandemic living
Before the coronavirus pandemic, we might have used money, status, or feelings of personal satisfaction as motivators of our daily actions.
Now we might find our lives completely upended, and we could be living without our typical motivators for the first time in our adult lives. Gone are nights out at the pub with friends, date nights, and trips to the gym for our favourite classes.
- our dopamine production (the neural flow associated with setting goals and achieving them) gets thrown out of whack
- the goals, dreams, and life principles which we once relied upon for grounding evaporate
- the answers to big questions about things like our ethics and our purpose in life suddenly get a lot cloudier.
As you can see, just a few simple changes to our lifestyle can have a dramatic effect.
How do we combat these changes to our rest and reward cycles?
1. Look for ways to challenge yourself to help reset your reward mechanisms.
Decorate a room using a new DIY technique. Tackle a building project in the garage. Challenge yourself to walk a certain distance everyday.
These may be challenges that we wouldn’t have found very exhilarating pre Covid. But the longer we do nothing, waiting for our reward cycles to recalibrate, the more prone we are to anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. (Gautam, Polizzi & Mattson, 2019).
2. Consider rest time activities as sacred.
Whenever the activities we once associated with our rest cycles—not setting an alarm, watching TV all day, scrolling social media in bed—become the norm for our lives, we are placing our mental health in peril.
To combat this, it is imperative to guard the times and the places we normally associate with rest so that those precious moments do not lose their impact.
3. Find, and cherish, your new weekend time.
Because of work interruptions or lockdown restrictions, some people may have lost the option of having a normal weekend to look forward to. That doesn’t mean that the elements of our weekends which used to be so life-giving can’t be found elsewhere.
Just think of the things that used to bring you joy on the weekend and seek to find them in new and intriguing ways.
- explore new places — take a virtual tour of a museum, spend a few hours on Google earth or Geoguesser
- socialise — Host a Zoom or Skype cooking or game night, use the ‘watch with friends’ feature on your streaming service and catch a movie together
- have fun — build a home escape room, browse luxury home realtor sites with friends and choose your dream house.
Feel yourself again despite the pandemic
Every now and then, ask yourself ‘What would I like to do right now?’. Then give yourself permission to do it.
While seemingly small in nature, each of these incremental steps can have a lasting impact not only on your rest and reward system, but also on your overall mental health.
Can’t get motivated? Or never feel you can relax since the pandemic started? Now is the time to seek support. We connect you with top London-based talk therapists, or find a UK-wide registered therapist or online counsellor on our booking platform.
Want to share your tip for keeping your rest cycle and reward system in shape despite lockdown and a pandemic? Use the comment box below.
Rob Stanley is a Canadian Registered Psychotherapist and founder of Whiteboard Counselling, proudly founded upon the dual principles of empathy and evidence.
Berridge, K. C., & Kringelbach, M. L. (2015). Pleasure systems in the brain. Neuron, 86(3), 646-664.
Bogacz, R. (2020). Dopamine role in learning and action inference. Elife, 9, e53262.
Charlton, S. G., & Baas, P. H. (2006). Fatigue, work-rest cycles, and psychomotor performance of New Zealand truck drivers.
Gautam, A., Polizzi, C. P., & Mattson, R. E. (2019). Mindfulness, procrastination, and anxiety: Assessing their interrelationships. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice.
Gremel, C. M., Chancey, J. H., Atwood, B. K., Luo, G., Neve, R., Ramakrishnan, C., … & Costa, R. M. (2016). Endocannabinoid modulation of orbitostriatal circuits gates habit formation. Neuron, 90(6), 1312-1324.
Lee, H. J. (2020). Human Circadian Rhythm and Social Distancing in the COVID-19 Crisis. Chronobiology in Medicine, 2(2), 45-46.