COVID-19 got you stressed? Let your brain help you

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PITTSFIELD — Dealing with COVID-19 can be particularly stressful for older people, who face a higher risk if they contract the disease. The best relief for that stress might lie inside you, two experts suggested Wednesday.

The advice came as part of a forum sponsored by Berkshire Supergenarians and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at Berkshire Community College. The event, held by videoconference, encouraged seniors to practice self-care by remaining positive and mindful amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

Mind over movieWhile people often associate wellness with physical condition, the answer to many health problems can be found in the human mind, said Dr. Mark Pettus, director of wellness, community education and population health at Berkshire Health Systems. 

Pettus, who studies how the mind affects the body, compared mind-body science to the classic way of showing movies. The human brain is like a projector, casting the mind, like a strip of film, onto the screen — which represents human behavior. 

To change what's projected on the screen, it's usually most effective to adjust the film — or in this case, the mind. But, as Pettus noted, the mind is powered by values and perceptions, which vary depending on a person's background. Pettus suggested the practice of reevaluating one's perceptions, so that an incorrect belief does not negatively affect what plays on the screen.

"I'm an adult learner," Pettus said of himself, "but I've also had to unlearn many things."

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Fortunately, that unlearning can come with practice, he said. The human brain adjusts to new circumstances, a concept called neuroplasticity. 

"We all become the landscapers of our mind," he said. "You can grow new connections. You can teach an old brain new tricks."

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Accentuate the positive

The forum's other speaker offered attendees some of those new tricks, with an eye toward boosting one's positivity during the pandemic.

"The more often we are in states of positivity, the more we experience work success, the more we experience relationship success, the more we experience health and well-being," said Maria Sirois, an author and clinical psychologist. 

As part of her talk, Sirois invited participants to share what stressed them out most, and what they were most grateful for during the day. Sirois termed these responses "the swamp" and "the pond," respectively. 

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While the swamp is a normal part of human life, she said, people can benefit from shifting their mindset to reflect on the pond more than the swamp.

To accomplish this, Sirois encouraged participants to try a new nighttime ritual: Before you close your eyes to sleep, recall the best moment from your day, every night for four weeks. If participants did this, she said, they would start to notice more positive moments in their day, and their brains would shift — through neuroplasticity — to adopt a brighter outlook.

The shift is not deceiving one's brain to think happier thoughts, Sirois said, but it creates a sense of positivity through the lens of appreciation.

"We're just looking to move in the direction of positivity," she said. 

Jack Lyons can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @JackLyonsND.


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