FINDING BALANCE TO ENHANCE YOUR WELLBEING
From: Mental Health For Millennials Vol 3: On Happiness. Published by Book Hub Publishing, Galway, Ireland (2019).
“If you plan on being anything less than you are capable of being, you will probably be unhappy all the days of your life.” – Abraham Maslow
Balance is the key to wellbeing. What we do, think, say, feel, and eat requires conscious awareness. Through this awareness comes healthy personal growth. Making self-care a priority each and every day allows us to not only maintain balance, but also increase our overall happiness in the process.
As a mental health professional, it has become habit for me to prioritise my own self-care in order to be able to maintain balance in my overall wellbeing. I have good days and bad days, just like the next person, but find that when feeling off, focusing on the positive helps to not only identify the root cause, but divert negative thoughts surrounding it as well. Hiking in nature, reading fiction, meditating, going for a run or walk, listening to music, journaling, and spending time with beloved family and friends are all established coping strategies in maintaining health. In our fast-paced 21st century society, prioritising things like employment and other social obligations over the self is one of the root causes of unhappiness, leaving us feeling tired, resentful, and generally burned out. Finding the right balance involves being in a healthy headspace; this leaves little energy to share for acts of social kindness. Use of humour can be helpful in maintaining a healthy mindset. Indeed, it is much easier to laugh than to get angry at everyday irritations.
Modern life is demanding yet, ironically, increasingly sedentary. Most of us are hurrying about, completing tasks, but not physically moving enough in that process. We also tend to eat quick meals ‘on the go’ but are not eating healthily or mindfully. Despite greater awareness and easier access to facilities like gyms, poor health and obesity are on the rise. According to the Central Statistics Office 2017 (Ireland), the percentage of people who were classified as overweight or obese in 2015 was 60%. This has risen to 62% in 2017.
Our mental health can take a thrashing. Increased diagnoses of insomnia, depression, stress, and anxiety are often related to neglect of our overall health and fitness. Mental and physical health are closely entwined. A person feeling fatigued, stressed, and/or anxious is less likely to exercise and more likely to over-eat, consequently increasing stress levels in the long term. While it’s common knowledge in the age of global technology that sustaining a healthy lifestyle can help alleviate certain mental-health problems, all too many people still make poor choices. Self-medication is common but drinking to excess and habitual drug-use only further damages health, and by extension, happiness.
It is important to note here that things like addiction can be genetic and are not always a personal choice. Having better access to gyms as well as improved access to information on how to improve our overall health and wellbeing is not always enough. Seeking appropriate medical care is an imperative to achieving improved health and happiness. If you see a dentist twice a year to maintain your teeth and gum care, you should strive to see a licensed or certified psychologist/psychotherapist at least as frequently to maintain your mind.
Positive mental health and well-being are rooted in the mind- body connection. A healthy mind is closely related to a healthy body. It is much more difficult to feel contented while neglecting your wellbeing. Looking after your wellbeing should be a top priority, but in our efforts to earn—a necessary “evil”—we can lose our proverbial balance. However, there are a myriad of coping strategies, along with getting proper medical care, that can help an individual stay on track!
How to Sustain Positive Wellbeing
Wellbeing is a skill that can be learned. Exercising wellbeing includes the ability to be able to sustain positive feelings. So, choosing to do an activity, pastime or something you really enjoy can help prolong positive feelings and this in turn improves psychological well-being. When you exercise, or you are enjoying an activity, your body releases chemicals called endorphins. These endorphins interact with the receptors in your brain that reduce your perception of pain or anxiety. Endorphins also trigger a positive feeling in the body. For example, the feeling that follows a run or workout is often described as “euphoric.” This feeling can be accompanied by a positive mindset. Because strong social support is important for people with depression and anxiety, joining a group exercise may be advantageous. Exercising with a close friend is also very beneficial. In doing so, you will reap the rewards from the physical activity and emotional comfort, knowing that others are supportive of you.
Overall Wellbeing and Response to Negativity
Another component of well-being that we need to be mindful of is a person’s response to negative feelings. The word resilience comes to mind; it is amazing how resilient human beings can be. A firm example of this is how people recover from adversity. However, sometimes people may feel low and may try to explain it like “I can’t shake that feeling” especially after a negative experience. Areas in their brain related to strong feelings remain active for a time after the negative event. Consulting with a therapist or psychologist may be necessary to help with healing and get back on track. In conjunction with appropriate recommended care, there are coping strategies to stay mindful in order to help avoid relapses in the future. One of the ways to achieve this is to develop a sense of purpose. Even something as simple as adopting a pet can help an individual cultivate purpose. Learning to identify aspects of your life that give it meaning is part of resiliency, but also, an important component in maintaining wellbeing. Mindfulness, or self-awareness, is a key ingredient in any successful self-care recipe.
Mindfulness and Mind-Drifting
Mindfulness is the connection of the mind and body. It involves getting in touch with our inner happiness. The act of drawing in our breath and exhaling, along with awareness of the present moment, creates space for true happiness. The ability to create mindfulness through meditation is a gift in itself. Practising meditation is enjoyable and effortless, whether walking, sitting or lying down. However, quieting the mind can sometimes be a struggle. I find that it is easy to get back into focus when I identify the thought, give it the time it needs and then allow it to pass. Mindfulness is a great source of contentment, because a person has the ability to create moments of wellness at any time: “Once an individual’s search for a meaning is successful, it not only renders him happy but also gives him the capability to cope with suffering…,” (Frankl 141).
Everyone is searching for meaning or purpose in life. According to American psychologist, Irvin Yalom (b. 13 June 1931), “The question of meaning in life is, as the Buddha taught, not edifying. One must immerse oneself into the river of life and let the question drift away…,” (136). Meditation is a great starting point to acquire knowledge surrounding our whole existence. Mindfulness can be beneficial in combination with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help people to develop coping strategies, learning beneficial tools throughout their lifetime to maintain a more positive, controlled mindset. When an individual is truly focused, it prevents the mind from drifting. Being in the present moment controls thought processes, thus preventing the mind from drifting with negativity:
“Once of the quickest ways to come down from a busy mind is to come to our senses – Literally” (Goldstein 20)
The popularity of mindfulness meditation has resulted in a variety of resources to explore, cultivate and practice through various apps, classes and courses. Mindfulness meditations play a significant role in psychotherapy. When mindfulness is practised by an individual, they reap the benefits, as their health, wellbeing and cognitive processes will become much healthier and controllable than ever before. Being mindful makes it effortless to appreciate and enjoy the pleasures of life as they occur. It also creates a greater awareness and ability to deal with adversity. It is about investing in oneself. By placing your focus on the here and now through the art of mindfulness, a person is less likely to worry about the future too much or dwell on past regrets. Their relationships with themselves and others will become deeper and more meaningful, too:
“When I was first exposed, at a Buddhist retreat, to the formal meditation of love-kindness, I felt myself much at home.” (Yalom 258)
Exercising your body, like exercising your mind, is beneficial for various reasons—from improving your physical health, your physique and overall wellbeing, to increasing your lifespan. Motivation in maintaining a healthy lifestyle is achievable through prioritizing a positive mindset. People who exercise regularly tend to do so because it gives them an enormous sense of well-being. All forms of physical activity leave a person feeling more energised while also promoting better sleep patterns, memory and a positive mindset. It is also a powerful antidote for many common mental health challenges, like situational depression.
Situational depression is not clinical. But it is commonly used to describe a person feeling temporarily depressed in connection to a specific life-event or situation, such as loss, grief or trauma. Clinical depression is another term for major depression (or major depressive disorder)—this is different from situational depression, because it is not just connected to life-events but is based on a persistent chemical imbalance. Other forms of depression include post-partum depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, bi-polar disorder (sometimes referred to as “manic depression”), seasonal affective disorder, atypical depression, and psychotic depression. If you are experiencing signs of depression (change in appetite, loss of motivation to do daily tasks, feeling persistently sad, having a sense of hopelessness and helplessness, and/or, a change in sleeping habits), it’s important to work with a medical professional to determine what form of depression you have so you can get the best treatment. However, no matter what form of depression you are experiencing, things like meditation (and increased mindfulness), physical activity, and food choices can help improve your overall wellness.
Physical Activity and Mood Disorders
Exercise can be helpful in treating mood disorders. In some cases, the combination of medication, talk therapy, and exercise benefit a person prone to/or suffering with some forms of mood disorders. In addition to relieving the symptoms of depression, maintaining an exercise schedule can help to prevent relapse. It is a powerful depression combatant for several reasons. Most decisively, physical movement contributes to positive changes in the brain, including neural growth, reduced inflammation, and new activity patterns that promote feelings of calmness and well-being. Exercise also releases endorphins, powerful chemicals in your brain that energize your body to give us that feel good factor. To investigate the relationship between mood disorders and these factors, a team led by Dr. Kathleen Merikangas at NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and Dr. Vadim Zipunnikov at John Hopkins University collected real-time measures of physical activity and sleep.
Researchers enrolled 54 adults with bipolar disorder, which involves episodes of depression; 91 with major depressive disorder; and 97 with no history of mood disorders. The study was supported in part by NIMH; results were published online on December 12, 2018, in JAMA Psychiatry. For two weeks, researchers monitored participants’ physical activity using mobile monitoring devices worn around the wrist. They collected minute-by-minute physical activity data and used this information to estimate how long participants slept. Participants also completed diary entries of their mood and energy levels four times a day for two weeks. At each assessment, participants were asked to rate the degree to which they felt “very happy” to “very sad” and “very tired” to “very energetic.”
Study results found that physical activity affected the participants’ mood afterward, but mood didn’t affect the amount of physical activity they engaged in later. Physical activity also affected how energetic participants felt and how long they slept. These relationships went both ways: Energy levels and sleep also affected how much physical activity participants later engaged in. These results suggest that physical activity may play a central role in mood regulation, and thus might be an effective target for interventions to change mood states. Finally, exercise can also serve as a distraction. If we are mindful during exercise, whether it is noticing our breathing, focusing on specific muscle groups, or simply focusing on the activity itself, it creates mental space for positive thought, which helps minimize the effects of both situational and clinical depression.
Good Mood Food
There is a direct link between your mood and eating behaviours (a point noted by other contributors in this volume). For example, a person that may be feeling stressed or anxious can find comfort in eating unhealthy foods in the hope of feeling better. Sugary foods do help you feel better temporarily. Diet plays an essential role in assisting our bodies to cope with the stresses of modern life. A study of more than 15,000 participants who were followed for an average of eight and a half years found that a higher adherence to the traditional Mediterranean diet, a mostly vegetarian diet, or the Alternative Healthy Eating Index-2010 diet was associated with a reduced risk of depression. This diet structure placed emphasis on fruits and vegetables, nuts and legumes, monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids from fish, alcohol in moderation and little or no processed meats, refined carbohydrates. Prolonged stress and anxiety literally depletes the body of essential vitamins and minerals, which can lead to nutritional deficiencies and leave us open to low mood and anxiety issues.
The brain communicates by chemical substances (neurotransmitters) passed from one nerve cell to the next. Most neurotransmitters are made from amino acids obtained from the protein in the food we intake. One of the neurotransmitters that are most susceptible to diet is serotonin. Our complex bodies produce serotonin from an amino acid called tryptophan and that comes directly from food. Serotonin has a calming and relaxing effect. When produced in the right amounts, feelings of stress and anxiety decrease, and our sleep pattern becomes regulated. Should our serotonin levels become low, we are most likely to experience low mood, irritability, anxiety, stress, lethargy and sleep deprivation.
Eat slow release carbohydrates as they allow your brain to produce serotonin. (e.g. oats, brown rice, legumes and vegetables) will encourage slow and steady serotonin production without the blood sugar highs and lows. B vitamins also play an important role in the production of serotonin. Prolonged stress or anxiety can easily deplete our body stores of these vitamins leaving us open to low mood and anxiety so it’s important that we consume foods rich in B vitamins on a daily basis. (e.g. whole grains, eggs, meat, seeds and nuts, dark leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, avocados and bananas. Omega 3 fatty acids naturally increase the anti-depressant neurotransmitter in our brain, called dopamine. Omega 3 acids are hypothesized to affect the functionality of serotonin in the brain by slowing its breakdown. Omega fatty acids are be found in food such as oily fish and nuts and seeds.
Unfortunately, many of us do not get enough sunlight in order to produce adequate supplies of vitamin D, nor do we take in enough vitamin D in our diets. This is a significant factor in mood disorders. Vitamin D can be sourced from rich foods such as eggs, green leafy vegetables and oily fish. It is important to try and get a least one hour every day of exposure to day/sunlight. Ideally, combining exercise with outdoors is beneficial as it enhances serotonin levels.
Another important way to improve wellbeing is to eliminate or limit stimulants. We can become reliant on quick fix stimulants such as sugar, caffeine and alcohol. These very stimulants can cause highs and lows which naturally will have an adverse affect on our mood. Social media can be a stimulant, too. Though research by Paul Zack (through his famous TED talks) suggests limited time on social media can have a positive effect on the production of oxytocin (or the bonding chemical), social media can also add to our sense of unhappiness by taking up valuable time, keeping us sedentary, preventing us from interacting with real people, and of recent interest in psychology-based research, make us feel less-than as we compare our real lives to the artificial or staged pictures we see posted by others on social media accounts like Instagram. Excessive amounts of caffeine, sugar, alcohol, and/or social media can promote an increase in stress hormones in the body. To ensure our mood remains on an even keel, we must stay mindful by applying balance in whatever we consume—whether through the body or the mind.
Tips for Increased Wellbeing
Become (More) Active
As we all know, there are many health benefits to exercise as well as improving our sense of wellbeing: “Sound body, sound mind.” Random Acts of Kindness
Encourage kindness in your family, friendships, workplace, communities, social media, or otherwise. Kindness is contagious and it brings out the caring nature that is inherent in all of us. It is the core of our being to love and care. When we give, listen, support, or encourage we tend to feel good.
We all need human contact and interaction. People that have had one or more relationships in their lives have a greater sense of wellbeing. Why is this so? Conversation involves the sharing of information and is akin to offloading; this helps to relieve feelings of stress or woe. Active listening or the sense of being listened to as well as hearing words of support or encouragement from a trusted friend is an effective way to establish and strengthen relationships. Quality time with people in relationship boosts our overall sense of wellbeing. But keep in mind that quality time with yourself is just as important as quality time with others.
Gratitude provides positive benefits in terms of mental health and wellbeing. It goes hand in hand with mindfulness in its focus on the present moment and awareness. Feeling grateful, noticing when others appreciate us, as well as expressions of gratitude can create a more positive, enriching outlook which compensates for our brains’ natural tendency to focus on threats, worries, and woes.
Gratitude allows for emotions like joy, peace, compassion, love and contentment, which research shows can undo the grip of negative emotions. Researcher Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, examined the influence of several positive psychology interventions on 411 people, each matched with a controlled assignment of writing about early memories. When their week’s assignment was to write and personally convey a letter of gratitude to someone they have not properly show gratitude for his or her kindness, participants immediately demonstrated a huge growth in happiness scores. This impact was more than that from any other intervention, with benefits lasting for a month. Nurturing gratitude can alsobroaden your thinking and generate more positive cycles of cognitive processes and healthy behaviours.
Discover Your Strengths and Qualities
We all have many strengths, qualities and abilities. In fact, some of our strengths are so natural to us that we may not even consider them strengths. We all possess core strengths qualities and abilities unique to us. Recognising such qualities, talents, gifts, natural abilities and utilising them in our everyday lives will only serve us well.
Research indicates that one of the best ways to boost your long-term wellbeing is to use your strengths in new ways and situations, rather than focusing on your weaknesses. A 2010 study of college students found that individuals who used their signature strengths made more progress in reaching their goals and improving their wellbeing (Linley et al., 2010). In addition, an earlier seminal study in 2004 found that certain character strengths, including hope, zest, gratitude, love, and curiosity, show a stronger link to life satisfaction (Park et al., 2004). The use of strengths and virtues is, therefore, well in keeping with the philosophy of positive psychology.
Spirituality and Wellbeing
Spirituality refers to our ultimate reality and the human experience, or understanding, of the world. It is a personal path which enables a person to discover the true essence of his or her being. It is based on the individual’s inner processes and is aligned with how it affects the human spirit or soul.
Spirituality is unique to the individual. The main differentiator between religion and spirituality is that there are no rules or guidelines one must adhere to in order to be ‘spiritual’. Spirituality is entirely a personal thing, it is found deep within us. It can be the knowing and understanding that there is a higher reality and that the universe does not revolve around the self. It may be harmony, wisdom, compassion, love, kindness, and a divine presence in every moment in life.
Spirituality can be fostered through quiet meditation, maintaining a tranquil lifestyle, practising a life of contemplation or bringing forth a gentle awareness to one’s life. It is getting to know our true self, understanding the nature of consciousness, and transcending the physical world as we know it. Currently, there are many meditations or mindfulness apps available for download. I use “Headspace: Meditation and Sleep,” “Calm: Meditation and Sleep,” and “Insight Timer,” a meditation app.
When I began working on mindfulness through meditation, I noticed the calming effects on my mind and body immediately. This allowed me to maintain better balance in my daily life, which is why I recommend others at least try to include it in their daily routine in connection with other coping strategies to improve wellbeing, like increased movement, maintaining social connections and changing your eating habits. Happiness is not a guarantee in life, but we can take action to increase our own happiness by increasing our sense of purpose.
Finding your own happiness is an entirely different notion from maintaining it. Life will undoubtedly disrupt your happiness with a variety of woes. However, catching your own thought processes around negativity is a good start. Realising that thoughts are just thoughts and bringing yourself back to the present moment is healthy. Little affirmations such as, “I am not my thoughts,” and “I am a good enough human being,” offer a reminder that we have a purpose.
We all deserve happiness every single day. Practice gratitude daily. If you look hard enough you will realise that there are many things in our lives to be thankful for. So, if you are feeling unhappy, simply refocus your mind. Steer your thoughts in a positive direction, especially when you realise that negativity is creeping in. I am not suggesting to completely repress negativity. Allow unwanted thoughts a certain amount of time; process, then release them. Focus on gratitude or the positive aspects of your life, including your sense of purpose. I find gratitude to be a powerful tool in achieving overall happiness…so does E. T. Gendlin:
“Every bad feeling is potential energy toward a more right way of being if you give it space to move toward its rightness.”
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*Volume 3 of Mental Health For Millennials (On Happiness) was edited by Dr. Rebecca Housel. Series editors are Dr. Phil Noone and Dr. Niall MacGiolla Bhuí