7min readSelf 17 June 2019
The phone rings – again – just as you are starting to make progress on that project that's been hanging over your head all week.
It's that boss (or coworker or client or customer) who just won't leave you alone.
You curse and answer with an abrupt, impatient "hello?
Your chest feels tight, your breathing gets short and shallow, and your heart races. You've been triggered, ambushed by the primitive part of your brain known as the amygdala that generates a fearful response.
This primitive "reptilian" part of the brain evolved to keep us safe and helped our ancestors avoid jaguars, bears, poisonous snakes, and other dangers. But in the early 21st century, we face countless circumstances each day that can set us off in a cascade of emotional reaction, all based on a perceived threat.
Overstimulation of this region deep in your brain has been linked to persistent anxiety. The added stress is bad for your physical health, disrupts your productivity and creativity, and can harm your relationships.
We are all wired differently when it comes to the sensitivity of our amygdala. Some of us are more calm, laid back, and easygoing, while others are driven and more of a Type A personality. We also differ in our degree of negativity bias – our predisposition to focus on the negative over the positive.
This is why if you get a negative piece of feedback you ruminate on it, while paying little attention to the positive feedback you get. Your brain naturally defaults to focus on what's wrong (or perceived to be wrong) rather than what's right. What if you could reverse that default and consciously ruminate on the positive?
We have evolved to overestimate threats and underestimate opportunities. That's just the way Mother Nature made us so we could survive. But regardless of our disposition, we don't have to live with the brain we were born with. We can train our brain to work around the default and create new patterns. We can remap our minds for greater resilience, happiness, and empathy. One of the best ways to do it is by consciously practicing gratitude.
Gratitude is closely linked to our sense of well-being, and a strong determinant of how resilient we are in the face of adversity. And one of the coolest things about gratitude is the way that the very act of looking for things to be grateful for attunes your brain to the positive.
Expressing gratitude reduces toxic emotions, diminishes depression, and increases happiness, according to studies by Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., the world's leading scientific expert on gratitude. It calms your amygdala, enriches relationships, and it feels good.
So how can we use gratitude to overcome fear, negativity, stress, anger, anxiety, and all those other pesky problems generated by an overactive amygdala? In his book "Hardwiring Happiness," Rick Hanson, Ph.D., explains how to use "positive neuroplasticity" to remap our brains so we can feel more calm, content, and confident. And we can do it by weaving gratitude throughout our daily experience. Here are some examples:
- Instead of walking around your house looking at the mess your partner left, look for something that reminds you of how you appreciate them.
- Instead of criticizing your kids, find ways to celebrate their strengths.
- When the phone rings and you feel at the end of your rope, consider that your boss, coworker, client, or customer is calling because they need you and your help.
Practicing gratitude can be a form of meditation – one that attunes your brain to the positive. Here's my formula for putting the power of gratitude to work in your life:
Step 1: Look for it. Take a few moments throughout each day to identify things, people, and circumstances in your life for which you feel grateful.
Step 2: Savor it. When you have what I call a "delicious moment" that sparks gratitude, take a couple of deep breaths and focus on experiencing that moment and feeling.
Step 3: Express/communicate it. Expressing gratitude is contagious, and increases dopamine and serotonin for both the person giving and receiving the feedback. It's an easy way to give another person a lift and lift your own spirits in the process.
Mindfulness and meditation are powerful tools to help you rewire your brain. Many people think meditation is supposed to be this calming, Zen experience. That's not necessarily the case. It can be a lot of work and can feel frustrating because your mind continually wanders. But each time you come back to your focal point (usually your breath) you are training yourself to control your attention, rather than let it control you.. While it takes practice, controlling your attention helps reduce rumination, making you less likely to hit the panic button. So the next time you feel triggered, you don't get stuck in a never-ending cycle of rumination because you have learned to focus your mind where you want it to go, and not where it gravitates naturally.
You don't have to live with the brain you were given. Depression runs in my family, so my natural set point is probably more pessimistic than somebody who has a different genetic background. But just because that is the case doesn't mean I can't change it.
It doesn't matter what your genetic set point is; it doesn't matter what emotions come naturally to you. What matters is how you choose to interpret them. You can remap your brain to start looking at your life through the eyes of gratitude.
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With a lack of certainty surrounding the future, being and feeling healthy may help bring the security that you need during these unpredictable times.
When it comes to your health, there is a direct relationship between nutrition and physical activity that play an enormous part in physical, mental, and social well-being. As COVID-19 continues to impact almost every aspect of our lives, the uncertainty of the future may seem looming. Sometimes improvisation is necessary, and understanding how to stay healthy and fit can significantly help you manage your well-being during these times.
Tip 1: Communicate with your current wellness providers and set a plan
Gyms, group fitness studios, trainers, and professionals can help you to lay out a plan that will either keep you on track through all of the changes and restrictions or help you to get back on the ball so that all of your health objectives are met.
Most facilities and providers are setting plans to provide for their clients and customers to accommodate the unpredictable future. The key to remaining consistent is to have solid plans in place. This means setting a plan A, plan B, and perhaps even a plan C. An enormous amount is on the table for this coming fall and winter; if your gym closes again, what is your plan? If outdoor exercising is not an option due to the weather, what is your plan? Leaving things to chance will significantly increase your chances of falling off of your regimen and will make consistency a big problem.
The key to remaining consistent is to have solid plans in place. This means setting a plan A, plan B, and perhaps even a plan C.
Tip 2: Stay active for both mental and physical health benefits
The rise of stress and anxiety as a result of the uncertainty around COVID-19 has affected everyone in some way. Staying active by exercising helps alleviate stress by releasing chemicals like serotonin and endorphins in your brain. In turn, these released chemicals can help improve your mood and even reduce risk of depression and cognitive decline. Additionally, physical activity can help boost your immune system and provide long term health benefits.
With the new work-from-home norm, it can be easy to bypass how much time you are spending sedentary. Be aware of your sitting time and balance it with activity. Struggling to find ways to stay active? Start simple with activities like going for a walk outside, doing a few reps in exchange for extra Netflix time, or even setting an alarm to move during your workday.
Tip 3: Start slow and strong
If you, like many others during the pandemic shift, have taken some time off of your normal fitness routine, don't push yourself to dive in head first, as this may lead to burnout, injury, and soreness. Plan to start at 50 percent of the volume and intensity of prior workouts when you return to the gym. Inactivity eats away at muscle mass, so rather than focusing on cardio, head to the weights or resistance bands and work on rebuilding your strength.
Be aware of your sitting time and balance it with activity.
Tip 4: If your gym is open, prepare to sanitize
In a study published earlier this year, researchers found drug-resistant bacteria, the flu virus, and other pathogens on about 25 percent of the surfaces they tested in multiple athletic training facilities. Even with heightened gym cleaning procedures in place for many facilities, if you are returning to the gym, ensuring that you disinfect any surfaces before and after using them is key.
When spraying disinfectant, wait a few minutes to kill the germs before wiping down the equipment. Also, don't forget to wash your hands frequently. In an enclosed space where many people are breathing heavier than usual, this can allow for a possible increase in virus droplets, so make sure to wear a mask and practice social distancing. Staying in the know and preparing for new gym policies will make it easy to return to these types of facilities as protocols and mutual respect can be agreed upon.
Tip 5: Have a good routine that extends outside of just your fitness
From work to working out, many routines have faltered during the COVID pandemic. If getting back into the routine seems daunting, investing in a new exercise machine, trainer, or small gadget can help to motivate you. Whether it's a larger investment such as a Peloton, a smaller device such as a Fitbit, or simply a great trainer, something new and fresh is always a great stimulus and motivator.
Make sure that when you do wake up well-rested, you are getting out of your pajamas and starting your day with a morning routine.
Just because you are working from home with a computer available 24/7 doesn't mean you have to sacrifice your entire day to work. Setting work hours, just as you would in the office, can help you to stay focused and productive.
A good night's sleep is also integral to obtaining and maintaining a healthy and effective routine. Adults need seven or more hours of sleep per night for their best health and wellbeing, so prioritizing your sleep schedule can drastically improve your day and is an important factor to staying healthy. Make sure that when you do wake up well-rested, you are getting out of your pajamas and starting your day with a morning routine. This can help the rest of your day feel normal while the uncertainty of working from home continues.
Tip 6: Focus on food and nutrition
In addition to having a well-rounded daily routine, eating at scheduled times throughout the day can help decrease poor food choices and unhealthy cravings. Understanding the nutrients that your body needs to stay healthy can help you stay more alert, but they do vary from person to person. If you are unsure of your suggested nutritional intake, check out a nutrition calculator.
If you are someone that prefers smaller meals and more snacks throughout the day, make sure you have plenty of healthy options, like fruits, vegetables and lean proteins available (an apple a day keeps the hospital away). While you may spend most of your time from home, meal prepping and planning can make your day flow easier without having to take a break to make an entire meal in the middle of your work day. Most importantly, stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
Tip 7: Don't forget about your mental health
While focusing on daily habits and routines to improve your physical health is important, it is also a great time to turn inward and check in with yourself. Perhaps your anxiety has increased and it's impacting your work or day-to-day life. Determining the cause and taking proactive steps toward mitigating these occurrences are important.
For example, with the increase in handwashing, this can also be a great time to practice mini meditation sessions by focusing on taking deep breaths. This can reduce anxiety and even lower your blood pressure. Keeping a journal and writing out your daily thoughts or worries can also help manage stress during unpredictable times, too.
While the future of COVI9-19 and our lives may be unpredictable, you can manage your personal uncertainties by focusing on improving the lifestyle factors you can control—from staying active to having a routine and focusing on your mental health—to make sure that you emerge from this pandemic as your same old self or maybe even better.