Where’s your head at? Are you happy? … how often?
The Bonfire Health triad:
• FUEL – how you eat
• AIR – how you move
• SPARK – how you think.
In recent posts we’ve looked at taking care of your brain from a physical or biological/nutritional/lifestyle perspective (Size Does Matter, and Taking care of … your brain).
Yes, people struggle with their diet and finding time to exercise; yet when it comes to SPARK – how you think (or maybe, what you think), it’s another challenge altogether. Not nearly as concrete as choosing to eat eggs instead of donuts (FUEL), or go to Pilates instead of to the local pub with your coworkers (AIR). Within the SPARK domain is how you manage your stress, sleep cycles, relationships, parenting responsibilities, communication, less-than-perfect work situations, disappointments, failures, successes, and everyday ‘nothingness’ – this is definitely a more difficult and nuanced area to explore, understand and master/manage (overcome or conquer).
The Cliff Notes / Take Away:
- Exercise more
- Be grateful
- Be forgiving
- Eat less sugar and refined carbohydrates
- Increase your Omega-3 intake
- Minimize social media intake
What are you thinking? What thoughts are running through your head? Are you happy? Content? Grateful? Bitter? Unforgiving? Numb? Stressed? Worried?
Okay, probably a jumbled mix of all of the above at varying times, depending on your life circumstances. Question: are your thoughts predominantly … positive … negative? Critical or supportive? Do you allow your thoughts to spiral downward (with real or imagined worries)? Do you have an understanding as to how that can impact your … health, relationships, work/career, overall stress levels?
Deeper yet, are you depressed? Suffer from anxiety? Think you’re ‘less’ than others? Never good enough? Join the club – many, many people struggle with a deficiency of happiness.
Fortunately in recent years serious conditions like depression, anxiety, anorexia, even suicidal thoughts are getting the professional and societal attention they deserve. Yet in the midst of this increased awareness, many people still suffer silently or without support not only for these conditions, but also for many other less overt or less recognized conditions that run the gamut from disorders such as body dysmorphic disorder – BDD (a mental disorder, common among women in general and young women in particular, characterized by being extremely preoccupied with a perceived flaw in appearance that to others can’t be seen or appears minor), to OSPS (obsessive ‘selfie’ posting syndrome – I just made that up; although here’s an article that addresses the mental/emotional downside regarding selfies and social media).
What’s also important to recognize is that suffering from unhealthy ‘how’ they think, and ‘what’ they think’ issues involves people of all ages, all demographics, and all social and economic strata backgrounds – women, men, young, old, rich, poor, educated or not, thin or overweight, successful or struggling. Simply put, how we think, what we think is a challenge for many, many people. And as children transition through life and become ‘mature’, the emotional burdens or ‘scars’ from earlier phases get carried over and influence the next phase, and so on.
- Children – kids worry, they experience insecurities, being bullied, and now with the digital revolution, comparison anxiety (not to mention what screen time does to the brain); the list goes on and on. And sadly of course, ‘broken homes’ are now the norm. Dysfunctional parenting, parental alcoholism, and outright abuse – physical, verbal, sexual, emotional – can be a real presence for many children.
‘People used to think children were ready for kindergarten if they could say the ABC’s, count, identify colors, and write their first name. Readiness was always more complicated than that; it also means a child has a a healthy state of mind – a willing attitude and confidence in the process of learning.’ – Dr. Dan Gartrell
- Adolescents – as is often and accurately described, middle school is … brutal. Adolescents are old enough to know how to be cruelly critical, but not necessarily mature enough to grasp the consequences of their words and actions. They’re also old enough to start appraising their own and others’ appearances, station in life, material possessions, etc. And again, the ever-present flood of online input is hard to ignore, and definitely difficult for these young and developing minds to process; an extreme example is how adolescents today are exposed to pornography (not to suggest that it’s ‘okay’ for pornographic exposure at other ages).
How do children spell LOVE? Answer: ‘TIME’.
When there was a financial collapse in Iceland, ‘ … happiness among adolescents went up after the collapse, even though the happiness levels of adults went down. That’s because after the collapse, adults were working fewer hours, which meant parents had more time to spend with their adolescents. As it became easier for the adolescents to get emotional support from their parents, their happiness increased …’
- Teenagers – If middle school is tough, then for some, high school is Lord of the Flies. The hierarchy, the pecking order and cliques and judging that occurs at this age can be absolutely devastating to these about-to-be adults. Sometimes, it even creates emotional scarring that lasts into adulthood. And now, digital addiction is a real threat to children’s mental health:
‘ … researcher Jean Twenge largely blames [digital addiction] for the worrying mental health trends among U.S. adolescents. In her chapter of the report, she argues that screen time is displacing activities that are key to our happiness, like in-person social contact. Forty-five percent of adolescents are online “almost constantly,” and the average high school senior spends six hours a day texting, on social media, or on the Internet.’ [World Happiness Report].
It’s even gotten to the point where parents are now hiring coaches, ‘screen time consultants‘ to help them wean their children off digital devices.
- Young adults – as they navigate through the transition to becoming an independent adult, the social, educational and economic strata pressures start to mount and become a ‘measuring stick’ for so many young adults, with the potential to erode their self esteem and confidence.
- Adults – as they develop the core values for their lives and they’re starting careers and families, they are at the mercy of all what’s described above – from the way they were brought up, to the traumas and dramas of their school years, to the ‘keeping up with the Jones’, and their daily struggles to balance home, family, health and work.
- Team mid-life – people at this age are trying to find meaning to the years they’ve been ‘grinding it out’ – building families, careers, businesses. They will sometimes question their life’s purpose, their choice of careers, spouses, and when the ’empty nest syndrome’ causes introspection (here’s where divorce will often rear its ugly head).
- The sunset years – surprisingly many people reach retirement age not having put any ‘work’ into their thought life, the inner dialogue for who they’ve become. Seniors are often feeling ‘left out’, or underappreciated because of their stage in life and the increasing negativity of the modern world.
Now with the insidious and often intrusive online aspects of modern life and social media, we’re challenged even more than in times past.
What is happiness? How do we define it? Where is the evidence or clues of people or cultures that experience happiness?
It’s not the intent of this article to dive into societal influences – factors that can allow people to feel connected, safe, and autonomous, all of which contribute to happiness. Yet, we do acknowledge that here exists the reality that social and/or environmental factors can affect an individual’s ability to make choices that affect their happiness.
But what can we do as individuals to have more stability, more happiness and less ‘down’ time within our own head?
People are often thinking if they could just find the right job, find the right mate, lose 10 pounds, they’d be happy.
Then of course, there’s the often-held belief that ‘… if I was successful, I’d be happy.’ It’s the opposite.
‘Conventional wisdom holds that if we work hard, we will be more successful, and if we are more successful, then we’ll be happy. It turns out, this is backwards – happiness fuels success, not the other way around.’ [Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage, ‘A must read for everyone trying to excel in a world of increasing workloads, stress, and negativity.’]
Or, ‘… if I was rich, I’d be happy.’ However, this study found that ‘… exercise is more important to your mental health than your economic status’
So, what’s a person to do – how can you improve or manage … yourself – your thoughts?
Are there methods or strategies that you can employ to have a healthier ‘thought life’? In the midst of this complex topic dealing with our ‘minds’ and how and what we think, there are some proven ways to improve your mental health.
You may not want to hear this, but yes, exercise is a key component to getting and staying in a healthy mental state. Regular exercise helps you be more calm, fight depression, overcome addictions, and generally think more clearly and have better focus.
Caveat: regular exercise to the point of exertion (150 minutes per week). Group exercises – like team sports, yoga or group classes (such as CrossFit) – produce even greater mental health benefits (humans are tribal – we do better within social groups).
For a great read on how exercise changes brain physiology and helps you beat stress, and lift your mood (not to mention fight memory loss and sharpen your intellect) see Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John Ratey, M.D.
Eat less sugar and refined carbohydrates – many people don’t realize how what we eat affects our brain: moods, energy, irritability. Sugar is at the top of that list ‘Sugar impairs your brain function, memory and cognitive ability; omega-3 deficiency makes it worse’ [article link]
Avoid eating artificial sweeteners – at the top of the toxicity list, right above processed vegetable oils, are artificial sweeteners such as aspartame (Nutrasweet) and sucralose (Splenda). It turns out that aspartame’s effect on the brain can contribute to neurobehavioral issues including depression. ‘… participants had more irritable mood, exhibited more depression, and performed worse on spatial orientation tests.’ [article link]
Take fish oil regularly
Back in 2001, Dr. Andrew Stoll, a psychiatrist wrote the landmark book on omega-3 and how deficiency can result in depression, even bipolar disorders; and how re-establishing normal omega-3 levels ameliorates these conditions [book reference].
‘Omega-3 concentrations are highest in the brain and nervous system. The fatty acids are necessary for optimal functioning of the neurons, protect cells, decrease cell death and improve nerve transmission. Emerging research indicates omega-3s may boost levels of the brain chemicals serotonin and dopamine, decreasing depression and violence.’ [Read here]
Gratitude is an often overlooked virtue and contributor to health in general and mental and emotional health in particular; it’s also a great ‘tool’ that can be used to create a more content life, a better outlook. ACTION STEP: Every night before bed, write down 5 things you’re grateful for. Read it again first thing upon waking.
‘Gratitude makes sense of the past, brings peace to the present, and a vision for the future’ – Gerry Lopez, surfing legend and icon, and accomplished yogi
‘A shortcut for more success and happiness is to be more grateful … and say ‘thank you” – Kerwin Rae, life and business coach
Four Lessons I’ve Learned About Gratitude – Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., one of the world’s leading researchers on gratitude (‘I can summarize 20 years of research with two words: Gratitude works“)
Real, not digital, social interaction – cut down on Facebook and other screen time activities
‘Overall, our results showed that, while real-world social networks were positively associated with overall well-being, the use of Facebook was negatively associated with overall well-being. These results were particularly strong for mental health; most measures of Facebook use in one year predicted a decrease in mental health in a later year. We found consistently that both liking others’ content and clicking links significantly predicted a subsequent reduction in self-reported physical health, mental health, and life satisfaction.’ [Harvard Business Review]
‘In other words, every activity that didn’t involve a screen was linked to more happiness, and every activity that involved a screen was linked to less happiness. The differences were considerable …’ [article link]
If you’re holding onto hurt, have bitterness, it’s essential that you learn to forgive. Holding onto a grudge and harboring resentment provide no positive benefits to your life.
Bonfire’s co-founder, Dr. Stephen Franson on the subjects of forgiveness and grace (and bathymetry – go figure):
Forgiveness and Grace from Bonfire Health on Vimeo.
And don’t forget, sleep is an essential element to being healthy – it’s one of the best ways to keep your mind and body fresh, to keep your thought life within a healthy vessel, within healthy boundaries.
‘Sleep deprivation also results in significant impairments in cognitive and motor performance …’ [article link]
Final thought: worrying is a life drainer of monumental proportions.
Worrying is like worshiping the problems in your life. Change your worship, change your life. – Dr. CJ Mertz, chiropractor extraordinaire, business coach, and someone who pursues God with all of his heart, mind, body, and soul.
HELPFUL RESOURCES & REFERENCES:
- [Your Kindergartner’s] Readiness: Not a State of Knowledge, but a State of Mind [article link]
- Does your child require an Individualized Educational Program (IEP) [article link]
- Recognizing depression in children [article link]
- Signs of Anxiety in a child [article link]
- Selfies and narcissism: Arpaci I, et al The moderating effect of gender in the relationship between narcissism and selfie-posting behavior.Personality and Individual Differences, Nov 2018 Volume 134: 71-74 article link]
- ‘…physical activities predicted life satisfaction, happiness, and presence of meaning.’ ‘… social experiences predicted happiness and presence of meaning.’ Lucas H, et al. Beyond-personal love – Experiencing love beyond the person. The Journal of Positive Psychology 14 Feb 2019 [article link]
- On exercise and depression: Babiss LA, Gangwisch JE. Sports participation as a protective factor against depression and suicidal ideation in adolescents as mediated by self-esteem and social support.J Dev Behav Pediatr. 2009;30:376–384 [article link]
- On antidepressant medications and their link to increased rates of suicide [article link]
- Elbe AM, et al Is regular physical activity a key to mental health? Commentary on “Association between physical exercise and mental health in 1.2 million individuals in the USA between 2011 and 2015: A cross-sectional study”, by Chekroud et al., published in Lancet Psychiatry.J Sport Health Sci. 2019 Jan; 8(1): 6–7 [article link]
- On grudges, resentment and forgiveness [article link]
- Omega-3 and mental health: The Omega-3 Connection: The Groundbreaking Anti-depression Diet and Brain Program by Dr. Andrew Stoll [book link]
- Grosso G, et al. Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Depression: Scientific Evidence and Biological Mechanisms.Oxid Med Cell Longev. 2014; 2014: 313570 [article link]
- Kidd PM. Omega-3 DHA and EPA for cognition, behavior, and mood: clinical findings and structural-functional synergies with cell membrane phospholipids.Altern Med Rev. 2007 Sep;12(3):207-27. [article link]
- A New, More Rigorous Study Confirms: The More You Use Facebook The Worse You Feel [article link]