Dr. Caroline Leaf – There are so many things to worry about in life: being a good friend or partner, making time for family, having a meaningful job, raising your children well, making enough money to live comfortably…the list goes on and on. And, of course, all these concerns and fears impact our mental health, which impacts our physical health, which just gives us more things to worry about!
So, how do we manage our daily affairs and keep our brain and body healthy? Is this even possible? Good news: it really is possible! As I discuss in this week’s podcast, when we learn to manage our mind, we can handle whatever life throws our way, the good, the bad and the ugly, and maintain our mental and physical wellbeing. (Photo via Unsplash)
Over the next two articles, I will be giving you some simple and practical mental self-care techniques that you can use every day, which will help you reduce your anxiety levels and help you enjoy life to the fullest:
1. Stop Stressing About Not Getting Enough Sleep!
We have all been there at least once in our lives: we really need to sleep, and we are exhausted, but we just cannot seem to fall asleep. And, the more we worry about sleeping, the worse it gets and we end up almost panicking about not getting enough sleep. But did you know fear of not getting enough sleep is actually more dangerous than not sleeping at all?
Of course, getting enough sleep is incredibly important, as I talk about in my book Think and Eat Yourself Smart. Sleep helps the mind, brain and body regenerate. When you go to sleep, you are kind of going into a “housekeeping” mode—everything is cleaned up, which helps prepare you for the next day. When we talk about managing sleep, we need to make sure we get enough sleep to allow this regeneration to happen, but this will be different for everyone, as we all have different schedules, lifestyles and needs—the average amount of sleep an adult should try get is 6 to 8 hours (and more for children), but of course this may be different depending on where you are in life. Indeed, at any one moment, we need to look at the context of our life: what we are eating, any medications we are taking, our emotional state is, our work schedule, our thought life and so on. These will all affect the quality of our sleep, and how much we sleep.
When it comes to sleep, remember to avoid panicking when you can’t fall sleep, as I mentioned above. This fear will cause more damage in the brain than no sleep at all, and can impact your mental and physical health. If you are battling to sleep, take the time to look at where you are in life: how busy you are, what you are eating, and so on, seeing if you can improve your sleeping habits by taking more time to rest, for example, or improving your diet. Most importantly, take the time to examine your thought life; a chaotic mind will affect your quality of sleep and how much you sleep. For example, if you go to bed worrying about everything you need to do the next day, or try suppress all your fears before turning off the light, this toxic energy will move through your brain and body, causing neurochemical and electromagnetic chaos, which will disrupt your body’s ability to regenerate as you sleep.
Of course, you are not going to resolve everything perfectly by the time you go to bed, but you can choose how you want to go to sleep. You can tell yourself something along the lines of “I cannot solve all this now, but I will write them down and work on these issues over the next few days—I have got this!” before you go to sleep. This will bring a degree of closure in your mind, enabling you to compartmentalize your thoughts and sleep well.
If you do this and are still battling to sleep, I recommend looking at your lifestyle choices, such as your schedule and eating habits, and see where you can improve. In fact, if you are physically exhausted, your brain will actually find it harder to fall asleep, which is why it is so important that you take the time to rest (for more information on the important of resting, see my book Think, Learn, Succeed, and a recent podcast I did on the “Monday scaries” as well). And, if you find that you fall asleep and suddenly wake up with a rush of adrenalin, turn on the light read a bit of a book, do some work, or journal about your thoughts (I often do this when I can’t sleep), which can help you organize what you are thinking and bring some clarity to the situation. Do not lie in bed and worry about not sleeping, or panic about how you will feel the day ahead or whatever is going on in your life, and this will impact your mental and physical help and make you feel even worse the next day. Don’t worry if you cannot sleep—your body has its own natural sleep rhythm, and eventually you will rest and regenerate. Give yourself grace, especially if your life is a little crazy at the moment! Remember, if you constantly think about how bad you will feel the next day, your body will go into toxic stress, and you really will feel bad, which can affect your heart health! So just relax, tell yourself you will eventually sleep, do something constructive, and make a plan to catch up on your sleep over the next few days.
2. Reconceptualize Those Thoughts!
What does this mean? Reconceptualization is seeing things from a different angle, or redesigning a thought. You do this using your choices: you choose to see a situation or experience differently, and give yourself a new way of understanding it. If you don’t reconceptualize something that is holding you back, you will stay “stuck” in a toxic situation. But, as you start looking at this situation or experience differently, all the chemicals, hormones etc. start flowing differently, and actually change the physical structure of that thought.
For example, say you feel anxious about your future, whether you are getting married, or graduating from university or changing jobs or something else. Instead of focusing on the negative, that is what could go wrong, choose to see the uncertainty you are facing as exciting, and write down a list of all the great things that can happen. If you cannot think of anything, speak to someone you trust—let someone help you make that list and see how uncertainty can be a good thing. Reconceptualize the fear into excitement; see any stress you may be experiencing (such as adrenalin rushes or tense muscles) as preparing your brain and body for action and success! This will change your body, making it work for you and not against you. Reconceptualize things that make you fearful as “I am excited about the potential and what this means for me in the future!”
This process is especially important when it comes to making mistakes. When something doesn’t go as planned, take a few minutes to think about the situation, asking yourself why it happened like it did, talking about the it with yourself or a loved one, and thinking about how you can improve the situation to get an outcome you desire: reconceptualize your failures and disappointment as an opportunity for improvement. For example, think about how you can learn from an experience, improve yourself or help others who are going through something similar. Choose to reconceptualize the negative into positive, and over time you will build this into a positive thinking habit that will help you next time you have to get through a challenging task!
My new app Switch (coming soon!), which is on pre-sale for less 30%, is a great tool for helping you through the reconceptualization process. It is based on my 5-step program, which is designed to help you identify and eliminate the root of your toxic expectations, and help you build a healthy new thinking habit. You can also find out more on toxic thinking and how to change negative habits in my book Switch On Your Brain.
3. Practice Self-Regulation!
Self-regulation using what I call our Multiple Perspective Advantage (MPA) is the deliberate and intentional process of standing outside yourself and observing your thoughts, words and actions, and changing them. The ability to do this is unique to humans, and can help us regulate our thinking and behavior every 10 seconds, although the busier life is the harder it gets to do this! As we practice this, however, we become much more effective at what we do and how we function. How? We use our MPA by consciously observing what we say, what we are thinking, what we are choosing, our body movements, our reactions, how people react to us, and so on. You can do this right now as you are listening to me: become aware of what you are thinking, your body movements, your breathing, etc. As you do this, the firing in the front part of your brain increases, which gives you more control and helps your thinking function at a higher level. This stops you being reactive and acting or speaking impulsively.
One of the best ways to practice self-regulation is to start a thought journal/log. Write down your thoughts, reactions, triggers—capture your thoughts and reactions, which, over time will allow you to observe patterns in your thinking. This will help you start learning to stand back and analyze how you react and work out better ways of dealing with challenging situations. This is self-regulation in action!
Self-regulating your expectations can also help improve your relationships. For example, say you went to bed upset over something that happened in your family. As you wake up in the morning, self-regulate what you expect (or imagine) will happen at the breakfast table: if your expectations are negative, you will more than likely have another fight, but if your expectations are positive (I am going to stay calm and loving and expect that this issue will be solved), you can help resolve the situation peacefully and go on to have a good day.
Thoughts are real things, and cause real, physical reactions in our brains and bodies by impacting what we say and do. When we learn how to self-regulate and design our own thoughts, we can choose the kind of reactions, and lives, we want to live. You are creating your next reality! If we don’t control this, toxic thoughts can grow like weeds, and are a lot harder to get rid of. So, self-regulation is incredibly useful as a preventative mental self-care tool, and it helps you sleep at night by organizing your thinking!
For more information on the MPA check out my book Switch on Your Brain.
4. Use Breathing to Help You Manage Your Mental Health!
Often something as simple as just breathing is forgotten in the midst of a panic attack or stressful situation. Breathing in a deliberate way helps dissipate cortisol, which is a good thing in regulated amounts, but if unmanaged (as a result of toxic stress), it can cause all sorts of havoc in the brain and body. So, taking the time to breathe deeply and intentionally is incredibly helpful, especially when you are having a panic attack! It calms the mind and helps you think more clearly, allowing you to better handle whatever you are going through.
One of the breathing techniques I like to use is to breathe in for 3 counts, hold for 3 counts, and breathe out for 3 counts. If you can’t remember to count, just breathe very deeply and feel your chest moving, then breathe out. If you are on your own, hold your nose on one side and breathe out the other for 3 counts, then do this again on the other side on the nose. Do this several times until you calm down, but not for too long, as you may become lightheaded.
5. Take Social Media Breaks!
Social media is great, but if we use it too much we can impact our mental health! Taking a few social media breaks throughout the week can be incredibly helpful. For example, you can log out Sunday night and only log back in Friday afternoon, so you can concentrate on the work you have to do during the week and don’t get distracted by other people’s lives. You can rather use you free time to develop what I call your “Thinker Mindset” (which I discuss in my book Think, Learn, Succeed), which helps you switch off to the external and switch on to the internal, giving your brain a rest by letting your mind wander and daydream. Or, take three weeks off (the time it roughly takes to develop a new thinking habit), or limit yourself to just 2 hours a day—whatever works for you.
It is also important to remember that social media is never the full story! It is just a curated snapshot, so don’t compare your life to what you see online. And always watch your comments! Don’t say something to people you wouldn’t not say to them face-to-face. Sometimes I am really shocked at the comments I see on my social media—it can get ugly fast!
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