The First Aid Kit We All Need
I recently listened to an interesting podcast with Dr Rangan Chatterjee and his guest Dr Andrew Huberman, which helped to spark the inspiration for this blog. It also reminded me of a concept that really resonated with me back in 2019, when I, and my good friend Daniel White, co-created the 31 Day Health Transformation Programme. Pioneering this successful programme on the island of Guernsey introduced me to so many beautiful, courageous and resilient people, including a laughter yoga instructor called Jorge. Laughter yoga was one of the most uplifting practices I have ever experienced, and if you ever get the chance to try it, I highly recommend it. Jorge is also a Mental Health Nures who introduced me to the concept of having a ‘First Aid Kit for the Mind’.
In my last blog, I mentioned the significant decline in happiness, personal well-being, and life satisfaction that has occurred since the beginning of 2020. For many of us, there has never been a more significant time to have a ‘First Aid Kit for the Mind’. This is an analogy for a set of practical interventions that we can use to instantly make us feel better, combat stress, reinforce our resilience, and maintain a positive outlook on life. Most of us do very little to deliberately tend to our psychological well-being, and many of us that do, take a more reactive than preventative approach. Unfortunately, British culture still has a strong stigma around mental health, which probably contributes to the low uptake of preventative mental healthcare. In the context of mental health, it is far better to be proactive than reactive.
As the popular maxim goes- An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!
So, what does it actually mean to be mentally healthy? The following definition provided by the Mental Health Foundation really resonated with me:
- The ability to learn
- The ability to feel, express and manage a range of positive and negative emotions
- The ability to form and maintain good relationships with others
- The ability to cope with, and manage change and uncertainty.
In a nutshell, to be mentally healthy is to be psychologically flexible.
We can improve the agility and flexibility of the mind with some simple yet powerful interventions. These tools can have both an instant and lasting positive impact on our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. As an aside, I can count on two hands how many times I’ve needed to use a first aid kit on my physical body, however, I use my ‘first aid kit for the mind’ on a daily basis. These interventions are not just treatments, they are performance aids. If we want to feel firmly seated in the driving seat of life, we need to engage in activities that reinforce our psychological wellness!
When we fortify our mind by activating and challenging our body, we can feel an almost instantaneous sense of empowerment. When we challenge and exert our body, the mind becomes instantly more present and gradually more resilient to the thoughts, feelings and emotions associated with physical discomfort. This helps to align our mind with our body, and increase our self confidence, discipline and compassion. The immersive experience of using our body to strengthen our mind has been acknowledged for thousands of years. The founding father of ancient greek medicine- Hippocrates, believed that mental health and physical health are interrelated, and that we should optimize the harmony between the mind and body to achieve good health.
First aid kits are normally used to repair damage , however the mind’s first aid kit is for prevention and performance,. Even if you fell as though you are dominating life, the following tools will reinforce your resilience, happiness and overall wellness.
The sense of accomplishment and empowerment felt after cold water bathing is powerful. I don’t know what it feels like to be a superhero, but I reckon the physical and psychological feelings we experience after cold water immersion, comes close! The discomfort of the cold instantly brings us into the present moment and forces the mind to control the thoughts, feelings and emotions produced by this intense experience. In addition, there are a few more little adaptive benefits worth noting, such as:
- A huge boost of dopamine (around 250%)
- An increase in Metabolic rate ( around 350%)
- Immediate pain relief
- Mood Boost
- Improved immune function and resistance to infection
Not a bad return for a quick dip in cold water! You’ll be hard pushed to find a pill with side effects like that!
The Physiological Sigh
I came across this simple yet powerful practice while listening to a podcast by Dr Andrew Luberman. The physiological sigh is something that both humans and animals do regularly to take in more air, calm ourselves down, and also prepare us for sleep. It involves taking a double inhale and a long and/or vigorous exhale. The reason for the double inhale is to help re-inflate the tiny alveoli in our lungs which tend to collapse when we are stressed, and breathing more shallow. This can cause a build-up of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream and increase levels of agitation.
A deep in-breath can also help us expel more carbon dioxide from the body through a long exhale. When we exhale for longer and/or more vigorously than we inhale, we slow down our heart rate, which induces a state of calm. Emotions and stress affect us in real time so having a simple intervention that combats the effects of stress in real-time is an essential addition to our first aid kit. Just 1-3 physiological sighs is enough to induce a state of calm.
Give this a try:
- Take a large inhale, then take another small sharp inhale
- Breathe out slowly and fully through the mouth with or without an audible sigh.
- Repeat 1-5 times.
The beauty of this effective technique is that it can be done in the heat of the moment, and without disengaging from the challenge at hand.
An Attitude of Gratitude
Gratitude is the appreciation of what we find personally valuable and meaningful. By deliberately focusing our attention on aspects of our lives that we feel grateful for, we can quickly shift our focus from burdens to blessings, and from problems to solutions. Experiencing thankfulness, appreciation and gratitude produces positive feelings which enhance our overall sense of well-being, happiness and life satisfaction. People who are more grateful also experience less negative emotions such as depression and anxiety. Individual experiences of gratitude have been shown to down-regulate the stress response by promoting parasympathetic (rest and digest) activity of the nervous system.
A gratitude practice has both immediate and cumulative benefits. The compounded effects of gratitude strengthen our emotional resilience. The word resilience is derived from the latin word ‘resilio’ which means to bounce back. Emotional resilience is our ability to bounce back from and adapt to stressful situations without letting them affect our internal motivation.
Gratitude helps to build emotional resilience by:
- Helping us to see the positive things in life
- Fighting the negative ruminations and rebuilding pessimistic thoughts with optimistic ones
- Helping us stay grounded and accept the present situation, even if that is a harsh reality
- Identifying and focusing only on solutions
- Sustaining relationships and appreciating people who are there for us. As a result, we feel more loved, cared for, and more hopeful.
(Taken from www.positivepsychology.com)
A gratitude practice can be combined with any of your first aid kit tools. All we need to do is place our focus on aspects of our lives we feel truly grateful for. It is important for us to not just think about the things and people we are grateful for, but also to really feel the gratitude emotionally. Try to express gratitude from your heart for a more immersive experience. The heart doesn’t just respond to the brain’s commands, the communication between the heart and the brain is bi-directional, therefore what we feel in our heart has a significant impact on the way we perceive and react to the world around us.
Adopt a Physical Practice
The physiological adaptations that occur when we are stressed, prepare us for physical activity. This is ancestral wisdom that has contributed to the survival of our species- fight or run! So, the best response to stress is vigorous movement, and the following adaptations that we experience when we feel stressed, are the perfect warm up for a good workout!
- Increase in blood pressure
- Increase in blood flow to muscles, lungs, and other areas essential for moving away from danger
- Increased circulation of stress hormones and neurotransmitters, to make us stronger and faster
- Elevated release of glucose for quick energy
Any exercise is better than none, and when it comes to the type of exercise we choose, enjoyment and efficacy should be our primary considerations. When it comes to tending to the mind, we should choose physical activity that we enjoy and feel capable performing. When we perform exercise that we enjoy, our perceived levels of effort are lower and we work harder. In the case of acute stress, more intense exercise may provide more of the following benefits:
- Reduced reactivity of the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight)
- Increased levels of serotonin and adrenaline (similar to the effects of antidepressants)
- Increased release of endogenous opiods (the body’s own happy hormones and pain killers)
- Increased production of new neurons (neurogenesis) in the brain
‘Work In’ rather than ‘Work Out’
The concept of ‘working in’ describes physical activity that is designed to cultivate energy as opposed to expending it. This is the opposite to ‘working out’ which focuses on spending or burning energy. Working out places stress on the body, so if we are already burdened with chronic stress and depleted through poor lifestyle behaviours, it is probably better to work in than work out. These forms of exercise have a strong breathing component and focus on allowing the breath to dictate the movement instead of movement dictating our breath. Activities such as tai chi, qi gong and more gentle styles of yoga are great for ‘working in’.
According to Paul Chek- one of the world’s most prolific Health and Fitness experts, breathing oxygen into the body creates energy.
“The oxygen in the air you breathe carries a very strong positive charge, acting like the positive pole of a magnet, while your body tissues and the water in your body (about 75% of your body is water) act like the negative pole of a magnet. As you may remember from science class, wherever you find a positive and negative pole, there’s energy and work potential”.
If you’ve ever tried yoga or tai chi you may have heard words like ‘Prana’ or ‘ Chi’, which both translate to energy. A 20 min combination of yoga and tai chi performed over 12 weeks has been shown to increase heart rate variability, reduce depression, anxiety and sleep disturbances.
A Problem Shared is a Problem Halved
The UK is a nation of worriers, with over 50% of people having numerous worries on a daily basis. Even with the meteoric rise in sharing our personal information online, most people bottle up their more serious problems and worries. Many feel as if they should be coping on their own, and do not want to burden others with their problems. In addition, many people also feel uncomfortable talking about their personal issues. The British culture is generally regarded as reserved and repressed, which is encapsulated by the very British “stiff upper lip”. One of the main reasons why suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 is because they are less likely to express their feelings or ask for help.
Having somebody who we feel comfortable talking to, and feeling vulnerable with, is an essential component of our first aid kit. Talking about our worries can be hugely beneficial for our mental well-being. Many people report a sense of relief, and some actually feel as though their problem has disappeared once they have shared it. So, I guess a problem shared really is a problem halved!
These essential first aid tools for the mind won’t solve our problems or necessarily stop the thoughts and feelings that so often sabotage our happiness. However, by engaging in a few simple interventions we can get out of the mind and into the present moment. In addition, when we access the mind through engaging the body, we develop a more empowered stance from which to deal with life. Dealing with life from a calmer, stronger and more empowered vantage point will make even the most daunting challenges easier to overcome. Bruce Lee once said- “ Don’t pray for an easy life, pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.” With the right habits and consistency we can cultivate this strength and flexibility to thrive in the face of life’s inevitable challenges.
Health & Happiness to you all