The mind-body connection
This is for you, Moon. Thanks for writing me, girl!
If you’ve been feeling a little bit down in the dumps lately, or maybe your nerves are unsettled but you can’t tell why, there’s a very good chance it’s nothing at all. Sometimes when we experience anxiety or depression and we find ourselves hunting for the cause in our life. “Maybe it’s because I’m not that happy at work. . .” or, “It’s probably because I just don’t have anything great happening in my life” or the all to familiar, “It’s just that pre-holiday depression I always seem to get.”
Well, before you go labeling yourself as “depressed” stop to consider whether or not you’ve balanced your chemicals lately. Your body, just like a car, needs a good tune up and needs to have the chemical levels refilled once in a while, because for the average person there are lots of different stressors that can deplete them without you even noticing.
Are you in need of an emotional tune-up? It might be time to balance your happiness chemical levels! I’m going to take your emotions to the mechanic–okay, enough of the puns. It’s important to medicate your physical body and not take every emotion at face value. If you endure any kind of stress at work or at home, you’re likely managing that stress with a lot of emotional energy. Over time, if you don’t take time to rest and relax and shut your brain to the “OFF” position, your chemicals get a bit out of whack and basically don’t fire at the right time. So, if you’ve been feeling a bit crummy lately, this is a blog for you.
Firstly, I’m going describe what you might be feeling.
Second, what might be hurting you, aka the typical causes.
Third, I’ll give you some super simple tools to “Turn the Ship Around!” That’s my main mantra for getting out of a bad mood before it gets too comfy in my body–I use it all the time and man, it works like a charm! I picture a little happy tugboat that sees a giant storm overhead and is like, “Whoo-hoo! Let’s bust a U!” So I pass it along to you to use at will.
Alright, ready to get started with the tuning? Here we go!
Part 1: Crud Muffins
These are just a few of the different forms a lack of happiness chemicals can take–so if any of these sound like you, you might be in need of a tune up. Does your broken record of bummed-outness sound like this?
Cut to you facedown in the couch as your smiling roommate walks in.
“Hey, wanna go on a hike?”
“Nah. . .I’m kinda tired.”
“Are you watching infomercials?”
“Huh? Yeah. I can’t find the remote.”
Or this? Cut to you elbow-deep in a bag of cheese-puffs.
“How was your day today?”
“I ate two bags of M&M’s and stopped at Jack N’ the Box like a fat kid. I hate myself.”
Or maybe, this? Cut to 1:42 am on a Monday.
“Are you okay? You’re cleaning your closet and it’s 1 in the morning.”
“I just feel like something’s wrong. Like something bad is going happen. I’m just—like, anxious, do you ever get those weird feelings?”
Or, perhaps, this? Cut to you about to leave for work.
“Is that shirt new? It’s hot–and super tight.”
“Thanks for reminding me how fat I am!!! How could you!” (Through sobs while storming out of the room.)
Maybe you’re feeling depressed and low-energy, like all you want to do is watch TV. Or you just feel empty inside and it’s making you snack on crappy food like you’re a bottomless pit, which then initiates a shame spiral of even more bummed-outness. Or you feel anxious, nervous and just unsettled, almost like something bad is going to happen but you’re not sure what. Or you’re feeling emotionally raw and therefore get extremely hurt by casual comments, even to the point of tears.
If this sounds like you, stop searching for what’s wrong with your life, because you’re likely looking for a phantom. Which brings me to “the why” behind your current state–which is my favorite part, because it frees you from all the irrational worry!
Part 2: The Why
I’m going to get into the science behind it so it makes sense to you but I am going to make it into my language so it is easier to follow. I will also include the references I pulled from at the bottom of this posting. Basically, think about your body like a car.
The gas pedal is the sympathetic nervous system, or your fight or flight response to stress or danger. It’s what changes your blood pressure to divert blood flow to major muscle groups so that you can run.
The brake pedal is the parasympathetic nervous system, your body’s natural response to restore calm once you’re out of danger. It slows your heart rate, normalizes your breathing, and returns the blood to all parts so you can think calmly and rationally.
When you’re feeling emotions that are either too intense or you’re drained of energy and motivation, or your emotions are out of proportion to what’s happening in your life, it’s often a sign your (parasympathetic) emotion-soothing chemicals are misfiring or taxed. That can be due to work stress, physical stress, emotional stress, or absolutely nothing at all. Meaning, sometimes you’ll get these emotional reactions (I call them ghost-feelings) to no real physical cause, and you’ll be so confused by them and freaked out by what they seem to be warning you of that you assign the most likely source to them because you’re trying to make sense of the feelings. In reality it might be a result of not soothing the stress that’s been in your body over a long period of time or a past event that was traumatic, and your body is still suffering from the effects.
It’s like driving a car with one foot on the gas pedal and the other on the brake at the same time, which makes you feel emotionally all over the place, uses way more energy, and breaks down your base level happiness. If you’ve been operating for a long time without attending to your relaxation needs, it means you’ve been abusing your chemicals while depleting a lot of your energy just managing the stressful feelings. Hence the feeling of, “I don’t want to get off the couch.”
When you are driving with a weak brake pedal, it can also make you excessively emotionally reactive, hence the, “You’re saying you think I’m fat!” kinds of reactions. When you’re experiencing emotional upheaval, your brake pedal will release much more easily and take longer to reactivate when you need it to, which is why negative emotions tend to linger. Not a fun state to be in and not easy to deal with if you’re trying to work, study, socialize— all the normal stuff you’ve got to do in life. Which brings me to the best part of all…the tools that you can use to help you out of a state like this by making more happiness chemicals. Yay.
Part 3: Tools
All of these are basically to help you relax, quiet brain chatter, get your heart in sync with your breathing and release stress and tension from your body. You’re going to make more happy-endorphins aka neurotransmitters.
What are those? Serotonin, dopamine, and other endorphins.
What are those? Endorphins are produced in response to pain, exercise and stress. They are your body’s natural happiness meds, kind of like emotional and physical painkillers. They’re what your body releases to make you feel okay again after experiencing stress.
Why do you want to make more of these? Because if you’re emotionally misaligned with your life experiences, there’s likely an imbalance in your chemicals that is causing the nego-emotions. It’s the first logical place to look, and nowadays, it’s pretty common – we’ve got a lot of stuff going on and it’s coming at us from all angles, many of which label themselves as “more important.” It’s easy to neglect time to relax and breathe, especially if you do not realize how vital it is to your holistic well-being. Here are a couple of tools that you can do in a variety of locations. If you’re suffering right now, I recommend doing these actions until you feel soothed, or as often as possible. In other words, use them like you would an ice-pack.
1. Deep Breathing
Resonant breathing, which synchronizes your heartbeat with your breath rate, encourages the production of your happiness neurotransmitters. Resonant breathing is slow (around 3-7 breaths per minute) deep breathing that you do by inflating your belly as much as you can without straining. It creates a balance in the autonomic nervous system, your control center for involuntary functions. Not only does parasympathetic activity slow down breathing, slowing breathing also increases parasympathetic activity.
Deep Breathing releases endorphins into the body similar to when you eat food, improving feelings of well-being and providing pain-relief. You want to reach 6 deep belly breaths per minute. For many people the ideal breathing pace is for the inhalation to last about four seconds and the exhalation to last about 6-8 seconds.
• BOOK BREATHING •
This is a good way to get yourself in the habit of breathing from your belly, especially if you’re used to chest breathing. Grab a big book from your house – one you can easily balance on top of your belly (but not too heavy). Lie flat on the ground and place the book on your belly so it covers your belly button but sits pretty low – like, not on your chest. Now begin to take slow deep breaths that lift up the book and try to keep your chest totally still. Try to count to at least 4 on the way in and at least 6 on the way out. Do this for at least 12 breaths and soak in the chemical soothing!
It should resemble the feeling of stepping out of a sauna: calm and a tiny bit slow. If you don’t feel enough of the effects and you’re still a bit anxious or low, go straight into to your next favorite chemical-soothing activity. It should be something involving increased blood flow like exercise, a walk outside with deep breathing, or deep breathing in a downward dog yoga pose. Keep going until you’re somewhat calm – even if you’re tired and it’s dark outside. Commit to feeling the results.
It’s one of the quickest and healthiest ways to boost your serotonin and endorphins. Any exercise will do but aerobic exercise is definitely a plus because it gets your heart rate up. Whatever you do, make sure to sweat and don’t overdo it – I like to say 20 minutes minimum and 2 hours maximum if you’re doing it each day. Find your practical sweet spot and do something you actually enjoy – for example, if you hate the ocean, don’t take up surfing just because it’s good exercise.
This is your you-time, a soothing, happy time. Love the culture associated with the activities you choose and try to find something reflective of your personality. Have clothing you like wearing, have music you like listening to: make it a ritual that you do for you.
If the idea of regular exercise just seems exhausting and chore-like no matter what it is, don’t worry – that’s a result of your current chemical state. You will find that the more you do it and the more you get the chemical-soothing results, the more you will actually start to crave it – just like you would have craved a beer and the couch.
Meditation has a bad rap because to most people it means forcing yourself to be bored. It can be tough to sit quietly, let alone focus on nothing – but don’t worry, it gets a lot easier and it’s not about just thinking about nothing. You’re actually choosing something to focus on and bringing your attention back to that thing as soon as your brain wanders away. I like to use the sound of my breath because it’s simple but you can choose something that demands more attention via physical action. One of my go-to’s is a beaded bracelet that I hold in one hand – you push one bead through your pinch-fingers, one at a time per breath.
Start with a few minutes and increase as you can. Just find a quiet place to sit and either focus on one point or close your eyes. When you can quiet your thoughts and train your focus it stimulates the parts of your brain responsible for making happiness neurotransmitters. (Specifically the hypothalamus and your pituitary gland.) It’s a tiny bit of effort for a massively awesome result. Give it a shot!
4. Eat Whole Foods with Vitamins
If you have low serotonin, you get cravings for junk food because processed foods give you a spike in endorphins and serotonin but then they make you crash right after. To increase your happy chems, eat more whole foods with high vitamin content, like green and yellow leafy vegetables. Whole foods meaning not processed: things that once breathed air or lived in dirt. Things with high Niacin and Vitamin B are especially helpful – chicken, fish, avocado, nuts, beans and veggies. Here’s a science-y page with some more.
What I want you to take away from this…
Your body will recover if you help it to – so be aggressive about your self-care and demand the most from yourself. Your happiness is the building block upon which you build the life you want – both professionally and personally, so don’t treat it as less of a priority. It’s also the best way to give to others – just like on an airplane, you have to secure your mask if you want to be able to help everyone around you.
So the next time you find yourself looking for the cause of an emotion, before you blame it on life and succumb to the impact of the emotion, get yourself up and out of whatever room you’re in for some happiness medicine. Push yourself, against your bummer chemicals, to spring into physical action. Turn the ship around! Jump into your activity of choice and give it at least 10 minutes. I think you will soon feel much relief and life will look a whole lot different. All those “problems” will probably evaporate right before your eyes. Because when you’re happy you see reality for what it really is: it’s when you’re the most rational. So for the good of your life and everyone in it, take time to soothe yourself and relax. Be good to you!
Smile peeps! xox Sarah-May B.
I hope this helped you in some way. If you prefer to listen, here’s the podcast version of this article. If you like it, please review me on iTunes 🙂 If you’re interested in reading/listening about any other topics, Tweet me or email me – I will help as much as I can.
Featured image via Flickr.