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How Pillow Fights, Laughter & Hugging Can Help Your Mental Health

by Carrie Borzillo - September 28 , 2021


Photo Credit: by Jametlene Reskp, Unsplash.com
Photo Credit: by Jametlene Reskp, Unsplash.com

Oct. 10 is World Mental Health Day and Oct. 7 is National Depression Screening Day.

Mental health is no longer that thing we don’t talk about. Thanks in part to celebrities like Prince Harry, Simone Biles, and Demi Lovato openly talking about their personal issues with depression, anxiety, or other mental health ailments, admitting you need help and asking for it is becoming “normal.”

Whether you have a clinical diagnosis or are, well, just a human being who can feel anxious, sad, or worried at times, there are many activities we can all incorporate into our lives to help us feel better mentally and emotionally. In honor of World Mental Health Day on October 10, here are seven ways to improve your mental health today. Of course, if you are suffering from mental health issues, please consult your doctor. These tips are not a cure or prescription for depression or anxiety.

Cuddle & Hug More

Cuddle parties started taking off before the COVID-19 pandemic, but with the variants on the rise and social distancing still pretty much the norm for most parts of the world, it might be hard to find a professional cuddler or cuddle party to go to. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do this at home with your loved ones.

It might sound weird, but science backs it. When we cuddle, hug, or even hold hands, our bodies release the “feel-good” hormones oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin. Cuddling and hugging more can also lower your blood pressure and lower the levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, in your body.

“Sometimes called the ‘cuddle hormone’ or ‘feel-good hormone,’ oxytocin is produced by the hypothalamus and released by the pituitary gland when we’re physically affectionate, producing what some describe as warm fuzzies – feelings of connection, bonding, and trust,” Paula S. Barry, MD, physician at Penn Family and Internal Medicine Longwood, explained on the Penn Medicine website.

Laugh Daily

They say “laughter is the best reason” for a good reason. It kind of is! Laughter is similar to hugging and cuddling in that it releases those happy hormones. According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter has many short and long-term benefits to your overall health and mental health. Laughter enhances your intake of oxygen-rich air, which increases the endorphins released in the brain, it simmers your stress response, and reduces physical symptoms of stress.

Laughter also decreases anger, frustration, and both physical and mental tension. “Laughter can also stimulate circulation and aid muscle relaxation, both of which can help reduce some of the physical symptoms of stress,” reports the Mayo Clinic.

It’s easy to get your laugh on instantly these days with so much free funny content available as every entertainment and social media platform is ready to give you a belly laugh at the tip of your fingers. Follow hashtags of funny content, such as #funnyanimals, #funny, or #humor and you’ll get your daily dose of laughter. Signing up for a “joke of the day,” hanging out with funny friends, watching comedic TV shows and movies, and hitting the comedy club for a night out are also great ways to get more laughter into your life.

Go Bouldering

Okay, this one you can’t do at home. But, if you have a park nearby or hiking trails with boulders, it’s worth a trip out. Being in nature, whether it's forest bathing, strolling through a garden, or swimming in the ocean, has long been a natural antidepressant. It’s being surrounded by pure beauty and taking in fresh air and the goodness of Vitamin D from the sun that is good for our minds, bodies, and souls.

And, while exercise in general is a good way to help balance your stress hormones, there’s something special about bouldering. Bouldering is a form of rock climbing where you scramble up large boulders without the ropes and harnesses used in rock climbing.

A 2017 German study of 100 people found that bouldering could be an effective treatment for symptoms of depression. They were scored for depression using a well-known symptom checklist. Subjects who engaged in bouldering for three hours every week for eight weeks in a row improved one full severity grade on a depression scale, from moderate to mild.

Why? Study co-leader Eva-Maria Stelzer, a doctoral student of psychology at the University of Arizona, told U.S. News this: “You have to be mindful and focused on the moment. It does not leave much room to let your mind wander on things that may be going on in your life – you have to focus on not falling."

Get Your ASMR On

This has been around for a bit now and it might sound odd, but ASMR, which stands for autonomous sensory meridian response, has proven to have a positive effect on various aspects of our mental health.

The precursor to ASMR, which you can find on YouTube, Spotify, and specific apps, such as Tingles, is the old-fashioned sound or sleep machines that offer the sounds of the ocean, rain, leaves rustling, crickets, the crackle of a fire, and more. The difference is the type of sounds in ASMR produce a tingling feeling throughout your body. Examples of popular ASMR sounds include tapping, whispering, scratching, blowing, page turning, humming, buzzing, which are all done very softly and slowly.

According to Health.com, people who listen to ASMR videos or audio clips “describe a deeply relaxing sensation with tingling in the scalp as a result of a certain stimulus — often a gentle sound. Some say the feeling cascades down their spine to their limbs. You might have heard it called a ‘brain orgasm,’ even though the static-like feeling isn’t necessarily sexual.”

Studies have shown ASMR can reduce anxiety, improve

sleep, and even relieve pain. A 2018 study showed that ASMR videos can slow the heart rate, which helps to relax and calm the mind and body; and study participants reported an increased feeling of connection with others resulting in a positive impact on their general state of mind.

Listen to Your Heartbeat

To most, the phrase “listen to your heart” means to follow what your heart desires. It’s also a popular ‘80s song by the pop group Roxette, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. To many scientists and those in the medical field “listen to your heart” is a literal action item to slow down and listen to your own heartbeat, or music and sounds that replicate the heartbeat sound, to help you relax deeply and combat depression and anxiety.

Studies have shown a connection between emotions and bodily signals such as heart rate. “For example, they have found that self-reported anxiety can be reduced by perceiving heartbeat-like vibration, and users experiencing their own heartbeats via vibration have reported that they felt calmer. Our results show that the heartbeat vibration influenced the users' heart rate variability and helped them physiologically relax,” reports the 2020 Calming Effect of Heartbeat Vibration study.

Listen to THIS Song

This might sound like a paid advertisement for this artist, but it’s not. Dr. David Lewis-Hodgson of Mindlab International conducted a study that found that people who listened to the song “Weightless” by Marconi Union showed a 65% reduction in their overall anxiety and a 35% reduction in their usual physiological resting rates.

In the study, participants were tasked with solving difficult puzzles as quickly as possible while connected to censors to evaluate their stress rates. The puzzles were designed to induce a certain level of stress. The researchers played a variety of different songs during the process and measured their brain activity and physiological states (heart rate, blood pleasure, and breathing rate) as well.

It’s not surprising “Weightless” came out on top as the number one stress-relief song because the artist, Marconi Union, wrote the song with the help of a sound therapist. “Its carefully arranged harmonies, rhythms, and bass lines help slow a listener's heart rate, reduce blood pressure and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol,” wrote Melanie Curtin in Inc. magazine.

Have a Pillow Fight

Have a pillow fight. Play tag. Hop on a chalk-drawn hopscotch. The silliness of playing such physical childhood games like these evoke not just nostalgia for a time when we were carefree, stress-free, and full of hope, but it releases endorphins and oxytocin, the happy hormones that help combat depression and anxiety.

“The play system is facilitated by our natural opiate neurotransmitters, called opioids, which are released during play. The brain’s own endogenous cannabinoid system—the naturally occurring marijuana-like chemicals in our brains—are also released during play,” neuroscientist Nan Wise, Ph.D. told Men’s Health magazine.

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