Neurochemicals and musicians
As you are well aware, the pandemic and chaos hit all of us hard many months ago, especially musicians in New York. That was followed by shock and denial, anger, negotiating, depression, and finally acceptance of the tragic event. I sincerely hope that you have come to terms in reaching a functional level of acceptance with the continuing disaster.
As a result of the conditions that you have experienced during your grieving process, and the continuing stress, there are several chemicals circulating in your nervous system that can cause real damage. These neurochemicals are adrenalin (released immediately into your bloodstream with the initial shock), then norepinephrine (supplied over the next few days or even weeks), and finally cortisol (due to the protracted uncertainty, problems, and worry associated with the pandemic).
If left to remain floating through your body and brain, the three stress neurochemicals can lead to serious problems. These include a variety of physical ailments (high blood pressure, suppressed immune system, obesity), coordination difficulties, insomnia, low energy, decreased libido, irritability, inability to focus, impaired cognitive functioning, increased doubt, anxiety, and depression.
Fortunately, there are four neurochemicals which can counteract the stress chemicals and their potentially damaging effects. The happy substances are serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins. They all counteract the negative effects of the high levels of stress that you have endured for so many months without an end in sight.
Serotonin comes from the pleasure/reward center in the brain. It is released into your nervous system by sunlight, fresh air, walks in nature, sensory pleasure, fun activities, completing challenging projects, being grateful, and listening to your favorite music. When it is triggered, serotonin reduces anxiety levels while providing feelings of contentment, euphoria, and bliss.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is released whenever you expect to have a pleasurable experience or receive a desired reward. It is triggered with the anticipation of your favorite foods or enjoyable activities, as well as feeling respected or appreciated. It is also released when you are fully engaged in highly challenging tasks that require your total attention. Dopamine makes you feel alert, focused, and happy.
Oxytocin is known as the love hormone. It is secreted by the pituitary gland in response to physical affection, pleasurable activities, massage, close personal connections with friends and loved ones, being admired, falling in love/being in love, and loving who you are and what you do. Oxytocin causes a surge of positive emotions, such as feelings of joy and happiness.
Endorphins are produced as a response to pain, discomfort, or vigorous and extended aerobic exercise. Endorphins activate the opiate receptors in the brain, causing analgesic effects, as well as reducing anxiety, while increasing one’s level of self esteem, and providing an overall sense of well-being. Endorphins are partly responsible for the feeling of euphoria after a long physical workout or a deep tissue massage. Certain scents in candles or essential oils, especially vanilla and lavender, can trigger endorphins. Three small squares of dark chocolate, especially if it’s more than 70 percent cocoa, send endorphins right into the bloodstream.
If the weather permits, I suggest you take a daily walk where you are surrounded by nature, like in Central Park or Prospect Park. Studies have shown that walking among trees significantly lowers blood pressure, anxiety, and stress levels. In Japan, it is known as “shinrin-yoku” or forest bathing.
Taking a walk in nature replenishes the body’s cells with negative ions. When our cells are healthy, they are charged with more negative ions than positive. The positive ions have unpaired or insufficient electrons, so they carry a positive charge. These positive ions are known as free radicals. They steal electrons from healthy cells. This causes cell damage and affects our immune systems, emotions, energy, cognitive functioning, and coordinated movements.
It is imperative to keep your sense of humor in order to cope with the extra stress caused by Covid-19. You may not find it easy to laugh right now, but this is important. Laughing will help to get you past the negative emotions, stress chemicals, and their potentially damaging effects.Norman Cousins experienced the healing power of laughter.
Cousins was the Editor in Chief of the Saturday Review for more than 30 years. In 1964, when Cousins was 49, he was diagnosed with a rare disease that aggressively attacked the connective tissue in the spine, causing extreme pain. His doctors told Cousins that he should get his affairs in order since he didn’t have much time left.
Soon after the diagnosis, Cousins checked out of the hospital against doctor’s orders. He stopped all medication, including the 38 aspirin and injections of Phenylbutazone (a powerful horse tranquilizer) that he’d received daily at the hospital. His recovery plan included high doses of Vitamin C, an optimistic attitude, and daily laughter.
Cousins began watching comedy movies like the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, and funny TV programs like Candid Camera. He spent time roaring with laughter, sometimes until his stomach hurt. He soon found that ten minutes of induced, hearty laughter could give him two hours of uninterrupted, deep sleep without any pain for the first time since he left the hospital.
Cousins eventually made a near full recovery from the “incurable disease”. He went on to establish a department at the UCLA Medical School to investigate the connection between healing and humor. He died at 75 from heart failure, 26 years after the initial diagnosis of his spinal condition. He said, “Of all the gifts bestowed on human beings, hearty laughter must be close to the top.”
In 1995, Dr. Madan Kataria developed Laughter Yoga to help patients heal from a variety of disorders. The practice involves creating laughter by doing a series of exercises with fellow chucklers. Deliberate laughter is part of their daily routine. Dr. Kataria found that even fake laughter has healing power but honest belly laughter is even better.
I recommend that you figure out what will make you laugh out loud for several minutes every day. Consider late night TV monologues, funny videos, social media, and streaming services. What does it take to make you laugh out loud?
The idea is to strive to be happy to get you through these challenging times. Whatever helps get you in a good mood and in a positive state of mind will help you deal with the continuing stress. Hydrate to the max to flush the stress chemicals out of your system, listen to your favorite music, get plenty of sleep and rest, have some dark chocolate, take a walk in nature, get some happy neurochemicals into your system, count your blessings, and laugh out loud.
Dr. Don Greene is a peak performance psychologist who trains performing artists to handle highly stressful circumstances. His background and experience make him uniquely qualified to offer counsel to folks who may be struggling in these challenging times. Greene is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. After being commissioned, he went through airborne (paratrooper) training and Ranger (survival) training, and was the first in his West Point class to join the Army’s Special Forces (Green Berets). He was later awarded the Army Commendation Medal for his service as executive officer with the 255th Detachment, 5th Special Forces Group. After resigning as a captain, he earned his master’s and Ph.D. in psychology. His doctoral dissertation showed that the sports psychology strategy known as centering improved the performance of police SWAT officers involved in stress shooting. After graduation, Dr. Greene trained several SWAT teams as well as police dispatchers and emergency first responders. He was in charge of crisis intervention and disaster management for Merrill Lynch in New York for several months after 9/11. Greene has served on the faculty at Juilliard, the Colburn School and the New World Symphony. He has helped thousands of musicians win auditions. Please visit www.winningonstage.com for more information. You can also follow him @winningonstage on Instagram and through the Overcoming Performance Anxiety 101 Forum on Facebook at www.facebook.com/groups/winningonstage