I hear many people separating their mental health from physical health, but the fact is that they are both thoroughly intertwined; deny me good sleep, some breakfast and a coffee, and I’ll probably get annoyed at your cheerful greeting in the morning. With a solid eight hours, expect some smiles and potentially even high fives before 9 am. Our minds are directly affected by our habits; these habits allow us to begin our days either with a positive outlook or a negative, and the results typically follow.
How we start our day can directly affect our productivity, interactions with colleagues, attention and general happiness. If we can implement healthy habits in advance and start each morning with contentment and excitement for the day ahead, we’ll begin to see an improvement in the quality of our interactions and our ability to complete our daily tasks.
When we talk about stress and anxiety, we are talking about a part of our nervous system called the sympathetic nervous system. It’s the part of the brain that keeps us alive by avoiding threat and seeking out rewards. When it is activated, it becomes single-minded in getting us away from danger. To do this, it hijacks the decision-making part of our brain (prefrontal cortex) and instead uses automatic memory of what worked in the past. It is excellent when a lion is running towards you; rather than wondering if it’s coming for a cuddle, you know to find safety as quickly as possible.
When our sympathetic nervous system is activated, we essentially go into a state of looking for something to make us feel a little bit better, something that will give a brief reprieve from the threat or discomfort. A limitation of this is our thoughts. Work stress, a grumpy boss, relationship difficulties or our biology (sleep, diet, exercise) can all activate the stress response; leading us towards automatic reactions. These tend to be instantly gratifying in the short term, and not long-term focused. If you are like me, you may unconsciously choose behaviors like holding in ideas in meetings when the Team Lead or Manager are in a bad mood, scrolling through my phone, Netflix binges, or my personal favorite, carbs!
The reaction to look for pleasure during stress is what led Psychologists (Killingsworth and Gilbert 2010) to estimate that we spend 46.9% of our time distracted. During this state, we tend to avoid tasks that take effort such as sleep, hygiene, healthy meals, mindfulness, hobbies, socializing and exercise, which brings us back to the start. For me, I need these things to start my day right. If not, things can snowball, causing a cycle that keeps repeating until the weekend and sometimes beyond.
We have another part to our nervous system that releases all the lovely relaxing feelings called our parasympathetic nervous system. I feel it most after a beautiful hike sitting at the top of a mountain; we can’t do that every day so thankfully we can activate it in other ways: through meditation, deep breathing, reading and relaxing.
When this part of our system is activated, it releases all the counter hormones to stress and anxiety, allowing us to access the areas of our brain where we are more focused, more attentive both to work and colleagues, it increases our productivity and our creativity and problem-solving skills. It allows brain functioning to be in the area of where we make active choices rather than reactions; here, we tend to choose activities or tasks that are more beneficial to us. Instead of take-out we may decide to try a new recipe, instead of Netflix we may choose the gym, a creative project, socializing or a book, these each provide more profound satisfaction; and help reduce residue stress or anxiety before sleep, helping us get a deeper sleep, and begin the next day on a better foot.
As we begin to recognize that our mental health doesn’t exist in isolation, but is rather part of a somatic system, where the brain affects the body and the body affects the brain, we can begin to implement healthier choices to boost its health. When we do this, we might find that we have a lot more head-space and our brain begin to experience the good feelings again while also allowing space for the difficult ones too, effectively boosting our resilience and coping skills.