Balancing Ambition and Mental Health in a Post-COVID World

Balancing Ambition and Mental Health in a Post-COVID World

Post covid mental health crisis is at an all-time high, especially for young adults. It doesn’t need to be that way. Harness your own powerful feel-good chemicals and build a brighter future. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a particularly strong impact on young adults, disrupting their ability to launch into an independent life and satisfying career.

Sobering statistics reveal that post-pandemic:

 Young adults (18-29 years old) have the highest rate of depression with 31 percent experiencing depressive symptoms in a two-week period.

  • One in five of those aged 18-25 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year
  • Over one-third of young adults aged 18-25 had "Any Mental Illness" in the past year
  • Approximately 12% had a severe depressive episode causing significant impairment
  • There's been a significant increase in mental health-related ER visits and suicide attempts. (1)

 Why is this age group so depressed, anxious, and overall unhappy?

A time that should be exciting, with new challenges and optimism has been dampened by the COVID era of lockdowns, resulting in social isolation, and dependence on computers, phones, and pads for information.

Families and peer groups form a powerful buffer against depression and can help prevent self-harming practices such as alcohol or drug abuse, suicidal ideation, or self-harm.

A look back at the covid pandemic

The silent war within

The scare tactics employed throughout the pandemic resulted in a type of trauma due to the long duration and psychological toll it took on vulnerable and less mature minds.

During the pandemic,

  • 91% of adolescents were anxious about the COVID-19 pandemic
  • 52% % have experienced (post-traumatic stress disorder) or ASD (acute stress disorder) related to COVID-19. (1)

The residual emotional impact of the pandemic lockdowns, isolation, and lack of peer support and interaction deeply affected this age group more than probably any other.

Trauma ongoing

Trauma is defined as a psychological reaction triggered by a traumatic event that consists of being overwhelmed by distressing and unbearable feelings. Underlying trauma is the failure to explicitly process and integrate the intense emotional experiences of the traumatic event into autobiographical memory.

Adolescence is defined as a transitional period in which changes at the physical, cognitive, and emotional levels occur simultaneously. This is a critical period of development in which their ability to regulate emotions and processes is disrupted through a traumatic episode or extended period, such as the multi-year COVID pandemic. (2)

Add to this, family support systems were strained through illness, unemployment, substance abuse, and social isolation. Many lacked coping skills and had little to no local social or family connections.

One hormone and 2 neurotransmitters away from a healthy mind

Connect, motivate, and regulate naturally.

Oxytocin- “The Connection Hormone”

Oxytocin, also known as the love hormone, is produced in the hypothalamus and released into the bloodstream by the pituitary gland. Also called the "cuddle hormone," oxytocin plays a crucial role in social bonding, nurturing relationships, and sense of community.

Natural ways to increase oxytocin production

  • Direct, extended eye contact. Having a conversation, without a phone or other distractions produces high levels of oxytocin, producing feelings of connectedness.
  • Hugging, physical contact
  • Listen to or make music. Singing, especially in a group is effective at increasing oxytocin levels
  • Practice yoga, especially in a group
  • Spend time with pets

Dopamine- “The Motivator”

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is manufactured in the brain and more than 50 percent in the gastrointestinal tract. It plays a major role in reward and pleasure systems and influences motivation and reinforcing behaviors. Imbalances of dopamine levels are linked to various psychiatric conditions including schizophrenia and addiction.

 Dopamine is released when we hear our phone ping for messages on social media or other reasons. The neuronal feedback loop that causes addiction to gambling, drugs, and alcohol is the same loop that social media uses.

Natural ways to increase dopamine production

  • Regular exercise boosts dopamine levels and improves mood. High-intensity exercise increases dopamine release.
  • Eat a protein-rich diet. A precursor to making dopamine is tyrosine. Consume tyrosine-rich foods, such as eggs, chicken, beef, dairy, legumes, and soy.
  • Dopamine production is dependent on a consistent sleep schedule
  • Get out in the sun, even for a few minutes a day. Sunlight can help increase dopamine levels
  • Consuming probiotic-rich foods- yogurt, fermented vegetables, kefir, and other ferments can encourage dopamine production.
  • Challenge yourself with a new hobby or adventure. This is one of the most effective ways to stimulate dopamine production
  • Drink coffee- in moderation. Caffeine triggers dopamine production.
  • Drink tea. Both black and green tea contain amino acids that contribute to producing dopamine.
  • Practice prayer or meditation. These practices help increase dopamine levels and enhance overall well-being

Serotonin- “The Mood Regulator”

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that regulates much more than mood. In fact, 90 percent of serotonin is manufactured in the gastrointestinal tract! The gut-brain axis, a superhighway of microbiota that signals the brain according to information given via the production of serotonin in the gastrointestinal tract is intimately involved not only in mood regulation but digestion. Low levels of serotonin are linked to depression and anxiety.

Serotonin aids in stress response, sleep regulation, and cognitive functions such as memory and learning.

Natural ways to increase serotonin

  • Regular exercise especially aerobic exercise can boost serotonin production
  • Avoid sugar and processed foods
  • Eat a diet rich in tryptophan eggs, cheese, turkey nuts seeds, fish, and tofu. Combine these with complex carbohydrates (non-starchy vegetables) can help increase serotonin levels
  • Practice stress reduction- yoga, prayer, deep breathing exercises
  • Positive relationships can stimulate serotonin production

Disconnect to Reconnect

Social media and even sabbaticals for a day or week are becoming increasingly popular. Taking scheduled time away from the computer, phone, or pad and focusing on people you enjoy being with, taking up a new hobby, and reading a good book, will help combat depression and anxiety. Social media is addictive, and sometimes toxic. Many times, it is fear-driven and offers no solutions to everyday problems.

Dig deeper if you don’t get relief

Seek the help of a competent healthcare professional if you are feeling overwhelmed, depressed, or anxious. Many times, health conditions manifest in this way (diabetes, for example). Medications, such as corticosteroids are well-known for anxiety manifesting as a side effect.

And check out other resources such as clergy, trusted friend or relative, or some of the resources listed below.

NAMI- National Alliance on Mental Illness provides support, education, and a helpline. They also hold webinars and hold support groups either online or in person.

Call or text 988- Suicide and Crisis Lifeline talk or text free, professional 24/7 crisis helpline to support and resources if in distress and need help.


  1. Liang, L., Ren, H., Cao, R., Hu, Y., Qin, Z., Li, C., & Mei, S. (2020). The effect of COVID-19 on youth mental health. Psychiatric Quarterly, 91(3), 841-852.
  2. National Institute of Mental Health. (2023). Major depression.
  3. Ionio C, Ciuffo G, Villa F, Landoni M, Sacchi M, Rizzi D. Adolescents in the Covid Net: What Impact on their Mental Health? J Child Adolesc Trauma. 2022 Nov 23;17(1):1-7. doi: 10.1007/s40653-022-00497-8. Epub ahead of print. PMID: 36467673; PMCID: PMC9684742

Written by Brooke Lounsbury

About our editorial team

The TWC Editorial team is comprised of various wellness practitioners from physiotherapists, acupuncturists, fitness instructors, herbalists, and MDs.

This article does not constitute medical advice. Please consult a healthcare provider for proper diagnosis and treatment.
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