How to Secure the 4 Feel-Good Chemicals During COVID-19

We risk depression from COVID-19. Here's how to maximize our brain chemistry.

Posted Mar 22, 2020

Due to the sweeping life changes from COVID-19, kids and adults are at serious risk of depression. Social distancing, anxiety, recession, and fear of or coping with infection, among other issues, are presenting significant challenges to people’s mental health.

Research suggests there are four main “feel-good” brain chemicals that bolster mental health. Ensuring we have enough of each of these can help us stay well.

1. Dopamine

Dopamine, described as the “goal-achieving” chemical, often refers more to the anticipation of happiness rather than the actual happiness feeling. It involves the positive “hit” we get from striving, looking forward to happy things, or working toward goals. We can secure this by giving our kids and ourselves something to work toward or look forward to.

Try at home: 

  • Post a weekly schedule highlighting things to look forward to, such as hikes, bike rides, a s’mores night, a movie-watching party, a videoconference with friends, a fort-building afternoon, a Monopoly tournament, a yard campout, a dance party, or a soccer game in the basement.
  • Have kids play “beat the clock” for putting away their laundry, cleaning their room, or matching a bunch of socks with a fun reward at the end.
  • Set up an online Zoom meeting with your child and his/her classmates with a competitive science experiment (such as how many pennies one can stack on an aluminum foil boat before it sinks in a tub of water).
  • Set up a friendly competition with your friends or your kids' friends to see who got more steps each day, who read more books, or who got more hours of sleep.
  • Set up a checklist so kids can physically check off each homeschool item/task or chore completed.
  • Play a family “game night” with various board games and give each team points for each board game won.
  • Play a mix of creative ball games such as knock over a cone with a ball, throw a ball in a hoop, kick a soccer ball into a laundry basket, etc., with points for each one.
  • Collectively plan a family event or trip for six months or a year from now.
  • Set up weekly "date nights" with your partner in your home.
  • Make a short list of clean-the-house goals (such as clean out a junk drawer or fill three bags with give-away clothes) and match a reward with each one.
  • Have your kids work toward/earn a Friday fun day such as a movie night with popcorn or pizza night if they complete a variety of homework tasks.
  • Play positive (upbeat or calming) music.
  • Eat foods rich in Tyrosine (e.g. almonds, bananas, avocados, eggs, beans, fish, and chicken), which is a building block of dopamine.
  • Meditate with an app, a guided meditation, or a loving-kindness meditation.

2. Oxytocin

Oxytocin, often called the "love hormone" or the "cuddle hormone," is the chemical that helps us feel bonded, close, and like we're social creatures. To secure this chemical, we need to boost social interactions. In the last week, you might have wondered if there is actually value in kids putting fake beards or pink hair on their heads or goofing off with “video stickers” or dumb emojis while video-chatting with friends. There is. It may seem crazy, but it can help your child feel close to others on a chemical level that strengthens their happiness.

Try at home:

  • Set up FaceTime, Zoom, or Skype video meetings for family members, even young children. Set up moms nights out, dads nights out, family chats, or friend chats.
  • Have kids make “videos” for their grandparents or other isolated relatives to cheer them up, show off tricks like gymnastics handstands, soccer juggling, singing songs, reading books aloud, telling jokes, or playing instruments.
  • Have kids play virtual games like online Scrabble or cards with grandparents or games through Facebook Messenger Kids.
  • Have your children do a service project, brainstorm people who need help and ways to help them, or answer questions on www.freerice.com to easily donate rice to others
  • Give your kids extra touch like hugs first thing in the morning and last thing at night, snuggles during movies, brushing or doing their hair, friendly roughhousing, or backrubs if they’re anxious. Hugs have the added benefit of making it less likely your kid will get sick!

3. Serotonin

Serotonin is the chemical you feel when you’re respected, admired, or given preferential treatment. You can also get serotonin by eating, since the amino acid tryptophan from food is converted to serotonin in your brain. To secure serotonin, spend time with your kid one-on-one, acknowledge what they're doing right, and give them power/control or a leadership role.

Try at home:

  • Let each kid rotate a turn staying up late with mom and dad and choosing a game to play, an art project to do, or a show to watch together.
  • Say “I see you.” “I see you cleaned up your blocks nicely.” “I see you ate a healthy lunch.” “I see you riding your bike through the leaves.”
  • Compliment/notice your kid for something specific they’ve done well that day, such as being responsible or helping others. John Gottman of the Gottman Institute found that a "magic ratio" of interacting five positive ways for every one negative way helps relationships thrive.
  • At each dinner time, have each family member "give pluses" by mentioning something positive that they noticed another family member do that day.
  • Let your kids take turns being the leader of the day (e.g., choosing a movie for the family to watch, choosing what to make for dinner, or choosing where to go on a walk).
  • Let each kid rotate a turn to go on a walk or a bike ride one-on-one with mom or dad.
  • Let each kid rotate a turn to help mom or dad choose and make dinner or bake something.
  • Give your kids three meals and two snacks a day on a regular schedule.

4. Endorphins

Endorphins have been described as the “pain-masking chemical,” the “rush” or a “high” often achieved through exercising, working out, having sex, or running. 

Try at home:

  • Go for a walk, run, or bike ride outside every day with family members.
  • Work out on a home treadmill, elliptical, or bike.
  • Play baseball, soccer, or another sport in a deserted park or parking lot.
  • Complete Go Noodle online movement videos or online weightlifting, yoga, or cardio classes (such as through Amazon Prime, Netflix, or YouTube).
  • Have a child “lead” a daily P.E. class and choose what sport(s) to play.
  • Get your heart rate up and sweat at least once a day.

Facilitating specific activities to "boost" each of the feel-good brain chemicals can help you and your family can stay well during this difficult time.

I am the author of Joy Fixes for Weary Parents: 101 Quick, Research-Based Ways to Overcome Stress and Build a Life You Loveonline at erinleyba.com.