Greg’s Mental Health Secrets – 18 Life hacks to play with (or not)
What comes first, wellness or wellness practices? We know we should exercise, sleep deeply, eat well, and so much more (the list goes on and on). A dream runs beneath our consciousness, shaming us as it beckons: if we manage to follow the routine our body needs we’ll be rewarded with vibrant, sustained energy, positive mood, focus, great abs, cool friends, endless creativity, and constant zaps of rewarding “brain juice”. We’ll unclog the conduits of engagement with activities, connection with others, and wellness in our bodies and life circumstances, all thanks to the perfect diet and workout routine we found on the internet.
In reality, the moment we’re in a funk, or fretting, meditation sounds like a prison. Gremlins spirit us into the guilty embrace of our one true love, pizza and brownies.
Why does it happen?
What comes first, energy or exercise? Peace or meditation? Joy or yoga? Focus or rock climbing? (Try reading those pairs reversed, as a thought experiment). In other words, if you could succeed in mustering the courage to engage wellness practices, would they lift you from your malaise? Quiet your worry? Should we listen to our inner drill sergeant yelling “suck it up and get out there already!”?
I’d say sorta, but mostly no.
Causality is tricky to nail down. Specific health practices and mental wellness tend to occur together, but which causes which? The behavioral sciences attempt to isolate effects via controlled experimentation and observation, and statistics meant to prove causation, but billions of dollars and lifetimes of effort haven’t produced much hard evidence for simple pathways between behavior and wellness. Instead, wellness and wellness practices probably promote and inhibit each other back and forth (known as reciprocal causality), getting tangled up in downward and upward spirals, as most things do in nature. Therefore, it’s simplistic to the point of meaninglessness to say “running can cure your depression”. Running does great things for our brain and body, but may be as much an expression and manifestation of “health” (whatever that may be!) as it is a cause of it. Same for sleep, food satiety, stress reduction, and so on.
Unfortunately, the mind is built to resist coercion. We’re all rebels, deep down. In a perverse twist of human nature, attaching lots of internal pressure and external rewards and punishments to things we know we “should” do for our health decreases the likelihood we’ll do them. This isn’t our fault, it’s how we’re built. Let me say again, failing to respond to rewards and punishments, self-imposed or otherwise, isn’t your fault, it’s how we’re built, all of us.
Worse yet, wellness practices have a tendency to become worshipped beyond practical usefulness when we obsess (and indulge compulsions) over them, thwarting and corrupting the healthful state we seek to promote. Such immoderate faith in wellness practices can lead to excess in exercise, disordered eating (not just anorexia), fear of wireless signals, sulfates, parabens, GMOs, and an endless array of obsessions and compulsions around self-inhibition and behavioral restriction. I assert no position on these health controversies, whether these things are safe or dangerous, rather, I want to speak to the perils of rigidity and magical thinking in our diets and behaviors, for anything. Nothing should be off-limits entirely. I admit, there’s a danger to thoughtless risk-taking (asbestos and lead poisoning jump to mind), but there’s a real and silent cost to a life of fear and compulsive restriction we have to hold in balance against these environmental dangers. None of us can know perfectly what’s safe or poisonous, really, we rely on culture and learning to navigate this uncertainty, and thank goodness for these protections and reassurances. However, our stance toward the uncertainty we’re born into and cannot escape may be a surprisingly powerful weapon in building health.
Balance is key. Having a diversity of dopamine practices promotes mental health. If you think wellness is the opposite of indulgence (i.e., wellness through abstinence, discipline, and deprivation), you’re wrong. Indulgence can be a great wellness practice. Please dance, laugh, drink, screw, be merry. Meditate, run, and snuggle puppies. Do it all joyfully and choicefully. Don’t lean heavily on one source of meaning and joy, as much because it causes rigidity and chaos in our minds and lives as because such “lifestyle monoculture” is a symptom and sign of imbalance. Our puritan roots echo into this common pattern of fear and self-restriction.
The worst thing to get lost in the quantified-self movement, and the proliferation of bossy internet lists of health behaviors like the one below, is our shared vocabulary about self-authored wellness in the face of existential uncertainty. The most sustained, creative, and effective activity engagement comes from the freedom to do or not do whatever you want! The presumption of a healthy/unhealthy binary in our diets and habits is antithetical to this freedom. Foods or activities aren’t healthy or unhealthy in abstraction, only complex synergies of mind-body-relationship-society-activity can manifest health or disorder.
So, with this spirit heavily in mind, I gladly share with you a list of (mostly) science-backed wellness practices for you to do or not do however your organism damn well pleases, with the hope their enactment may express your wellness, and perhaps, over time, reinforce and reinvigorate you in the process. Enjoy!
Practice: Eat Yogurt (and/or kimchi, sauerkraut, fermented foods, or probiotic supplements). Purported Benefit: Reduction of anxiety and depressive symptoms, improvement of general health (digestion, primarily). Summary: Live active cultures, like those in yogurt, have been confirmed to promote mental health in multiple recent studies, like this one.
Practice: Exercise Purported Benefit: improved sleep, reduced stress, enhanced cognition, improved mood. Summary: Cardiovascular engagement promotes dopamine activity in the brain, and helps regulate countless neuro-endocrine processes like metabolizing your stress hormone cortisol, improving immune functioning, and so much more.
Practice: Hug. Huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuug. (Holding hands is also great.) Purported Benefit: Reduced stress, improved heart health, increased longevity Summary: Physical, skin to skin contact releases oxytocin, a powerful bonding chemical, as well as a reparative agent of stress damage and oxidative stress on the heart and circulatory system.
Practice: Nasal irrigation via Neti pot. Purported Benefit: Reduced incidence and duration of colds and flus, reduced allergies, reduced snoring, improved sleep, improved sense of wellbeing. Summary: Culturally appropriated from Ayurvedic healing practices, nasal irrigation via Neti Pot has fully integrated into the U.S. culture since the late 90s. Dr. House did a plotline on death by Neti Pot, which did happen in two documented cases, but if you use filtered, distilled, and/or boiled water you should be fine (death is from Naegleria fowleri amoeba found in warm freshwater lakes). The benefits have been touted by Dr. Oz and others. Traditional practitioners say we’re doing it wrong (skipping mutli-step cleansing process). All I know is a good Neti Pot helps me sleep, seems to reduce colds, and gives me a surprising feeling of lightness and mental clarity (placebo response? Perhaps). Give it a try!
Practice: Standing desks. Purported Benefit: Improved focus and attention. Improved circulation, posture, and longevity. Summary: “Sitting is the new smoking”, some say. This one takes getting used to and isn’t for everyone, and is incompatible with many work environments, but for some it is transformative, mentally and physically. I’ve been practicing this for 3 or 4 years now (my calves hurt right now!) and have built up a good endurance. I wouldn’t say standing feels great, and the physical discomfort distracts me from certain highly taxing cognitive tasks enough I’ll need to sit to complete them, but I do find work-sitting now makes me extremely tired and cranky, shockingly fast. The research evidence is inadequate and mixed, but I’ve found it helpful enough to integrate into my routine. See what you think.
Practice: “Rise time”. Get up at the same time, every day. Pick a time that works for you, then stick with it, hell or high water. Purported Benefit: Improved sleep quality, reduction in depressive symptoms, enhanced cognition. Summary: It will suck at first, but after 10 days or so your body will reward you tenfold. Those bouts of cranky, achy, anxious distress aren’t about the mean person you rehearse telling off in your head, or the misfortune befallen your life, as much as your own body’s confused rebellion against your inconsistent rise time. It may seem like an extra 30 to 60 minutes is worth grabbing on the mornings you can, but it’s not! It throws you into constant jetlag and depression. Bedtime matters far less to sleep quality than rise time. Overall sleep amount may matter even less. A consistent rise time resets patterns of insomnia and sleep disturbance, and has a large effect on depression and anxiety, give it a try, if you’re inclined, you may shock yourself with how much you love it. If you’re worried you didn’t get to sleep early enough one night to honor your rise time, just think how well you’ll sleep the next night. Happy slumber credits in the bank.
Practice: Courage. Act in the face of risk, real and imagined. Purported Benefit: Empowers us to learn from mistakes, effect change, grow strong, and build extremely satisfying mastery over amazing skills from brain surgery to pole vaulting or speaking a new language, which build identity and life meaning. All this makes us happier. Summary: Embody the belief stress won’t kill you, and it won’t. Pursue meaning, even if it’s hard, rather than avoiding challenge, risk, and pain. Adopting stress-positive beliefs changes your blood vessels in a manner which prevents the worst effects of stress. Positive stress is part of cultivating expert performance and life meaning, which promotes health. Distress is a response to threat without hope of escape, involving challenge with opaque, confusing, and incoherent goals and performance feedback. Eustress (or positive stress), on the other hand is just as heart-thumping, with real stakes on the line, but occurs in the context of support, encouragement, and unambiguous, performance-relevant feedback, i.e., you may suck, but at least you know what you need to work on to get better. This is a form of healthy stress, the more the better, seek it out, and know how to tell the difference (hint, the difference is as much in the person/activity synergy as in any given activity (no activity is inherently healthy or unhealthy, it’s the pattern of engagement and relationships attached to the activity, coupled with your stress beliefs which make the difference)).
Practice: Meditation/mindfulness, 20 minutes a day. Purported Benefit: A mindfulness practice strengthens the neural circuitry responsible for mood regulation, behavioral response flexibility (pausing before punching someone in the face, for instance), empathy, morality, and so much more. Summary: Practice suspension of your “word brain”. Try approaching it as a game at first, when you find your analytical/thinking brain spinning on overdrive, challenge yourself to see how long you can go without thinking a single word, but impose no additional limitations on thoughts. You’ll be shocked how complex your thoughts can be even without our habitual verbal shaping. Direct attention to sensations, images, and feelings in the immediate, present moment, within your body and sensory environment. What textures are around? Temperatures? Sounds? What sensations are inside? Don’t describe them, sense them, attend to them, with curiosity and without judgment or agenda. Now attend to the inner landscape with as much curiosity and nuance as the physical environment, still not narrating or describing. What’s popping up? Childhood memory fragments? Someone’s face? A random street corner on a route to work a decade ago? Tension in the body? Longing? Don’t describe, sense. Attend, permit, allow, and experience. Stay present. Exit the practice and notice the difference between your “default mode” and a “mindfulness mode”. Both are good. Increased integration of these modes, the default, narrating, “explainer” mode, and a mindfulness “presence” mode, builds our mental health. Most of us have no problem entering the “explainer” mode, it’s the “presence” mode we need to enact choicefully to strengthen (i.e., practice).
Practice: Enjoy food. Scratch that, take extreme pleasure in eating. Purported Benefit: Increased food satiety, facilitates moderation and healthy eating, provides dopamine reward and pleasure. Summary: Getting energy from food is a natural miracle, and one of life’s greatest joys. Don’t take it too seriously, no one knows the perfect diet. Food is not your enemy. It’s also not an anti-anxiety medication or substitute for hugs (see above). It can be extremely rewarding. You might think overeating is promoted by an excess of reward chemicals in the brains of overeaters, and indulging food pleasure is inviting disordered overeating, but the opposite may be true. Overeaters, in many studies exhibit a blunted pleasure response, in terms of brain activity. Maximum pleasure is shown during moderate, satisfying feeding behavior. Or, in a defensible interpretation of the brain science, one could also surmise, taking joy in eating can promote moderation and balance (rather than the other way around). Our culture shames fat so powerfully, it’s easy to internalize self-punishment of food pleasure, but pleasure isn’t evil, psychologically, and may be simultaneously a wellness practice, and the result of wellness itself, so bon appetit!
Practice: Adult attachment (intimate relationships built on trust, loyalty, risk, respect and honesty). Purported Benefit: Secure attachment helps us be courageous and enter positive stress (see above), explore our environments, build confidence and self-esteem, and imbues our lives with meaning. Summary: Go love somebody. The neuroanatomy of pair-bonding, previously thought to be relevant only in the parent-child dyad, is now believed to carry into our intimate adult relationships. Our metaphors for love (falling in love, crazy in love, et cetera) are cultural artifacts, and deeply misleading about how intimate bonds are formed and maintained. Rather, standing in love, or building a long-term secure attachment relationship with your lover heals old wounds from childhood in ways which make you (and your partner) simply better. Even the best couples argue and complain, set each other off, disappoint one another, and hurt each other’s feelings, but healthy relationships involve robust repair mechanisms and a fundamental culture of respect and security which leads to an upward spiral of individual and relational health.
Practice: Pronoia – the delusional belief others are plotting in secret to make your life amazing (opposite of paranoia). Purported Benefit: Facilitates relationships, reduces unnecessary worry and suffering. Summary: A change in beliefs which contributes to enduring shifts in brain activity from avoidance states to approach states, or fear states to exploration (“left shift”, based on observations of hemispheric specialization in the brain in which the left hemisphere is seen to control behavioral approach, and the right hemisphere processes and controls avoidance). We can’t know another’s mind or intentions, we’re guessing either way, why not leverage our species-wide propensity to rampant speculation and try assuming the best in others? Obviously this is a bit tongue-in-cheek, since the goal is to be accurate in our perceptions of the world, rather than delusional with optimism or pessimism, but playing with pronoia may help you break the habits of paranoia, and gain facility in a range of responses better equipped to approximate reality. Play with it. I’m a card-carrying delusional optimist, personally. It’s great!
Practice: Spotlight effect: others aren’t paying nearly as much attention as you think they are. Purported Benefit: Attenuates fear of judgment, frees you to act from want instead of fear. Summary: Studies show average group members don’t notice glaring stains on your shirt, or awkward social missteps you think are lighting you up like a neon sign. Sad they aren’t noticing, perhaps, but there’s safety in the lonely self-absorption of others. Play in that freedom, if it helps, no one’s watching anyway.
Practice: Gratitude. Count your blessings, literally (once a day or so). Purported Benefit: decreased depression, increased happiness. Summary: This simple practice has been shown to promote happiness and shift your default mode of perceiving the world.
Practice: Make money, up to a point. Purported Benefit: Happiness. Summary: Get enough money, then get barking up a different tree. Science shows money does buy happiness up to a point (about $70k income/person/year, about a decade ago), then additional income has no additional effect on happiness. In other words, poverty and income insecurity are terrible scourges on well-being, crippling our creativity and psychological resilience. Logically, defeating the poverty scourge in our life with money does set us free to flourish. Beyond the inflection point, however, happiness is about pursuing meaning, relationships, and cosmic belonging (see below). The fact the social deck is stacked against the poor, social mobility is crippled to non-existent, and our income is more a product of chance circumstances from birth is another matter entirely, but all else being equal, the research suggests money does buy happiness, so pursuing it is a wellness practice, up to $70k/person/year.
Practice: friendship. Purported Benefit: life meaning, longevity, reduced depression and suicide. Summary: Quality, not quantity. Social isolation predicts mortality and innumerable psychological risk factors. Causality is tricky here too, but a few quality relationships are as important to survival as food and water.
Practice: more vulnerability, less shame. Purported Benefit: deeper relationships, more life meaning, less bullshit. Summary: Vulnerability is vital to human flourishing, shame is not. In countless ways we fall into the cultural delusion we can control and engineer ourselves and our future into prosperity and self-worth, protecting ourselves from uncertainty and loss. We can’t. Sharing our humanity, our fallibility, fragility, and vulnerability brings us together, and strengthens us, but it’s painful and difficult work. Shame, on the other hand, is just as painful as exposing our true selves, but it’s an unnecessary and unproductive pain, rooted in the aforementioned delusions of control and self-engineering, when we fail at such (impossible) engineering and feel, therefore, worthless. Rather, we’re all in the same existential predicament (imperfection) and the only salvation is facing the truths of existence, together.
Practice: Surrender. Purported Benefit: Reduced anxiety, greater gratitude, presence in relationships, joy. Summary: Sorry, Sherlock Holmes is as much a fantasy as Harry Potter or Superman. No one can see the whole picture at once (like Sherlock) and effect the change they want, all in one fell swoop. A painter painting a masterwork, a farmer working a field, we all engage in some form of “competence without comprehension”. Like a graceful dancer who hasn’t studied physics, or a mouth-watering chef who hasn’t studied chemistry, we create not always from knowledge but from art, knack, intuition, experience, and surrender to processes outside our comprehending. Science informs industry, certainly, but much of life-worth-living can’t be reduced to a step-wise recipe. If we limit our behavior to only those activities we feel completely in control of, we’ll lead an impoverished life. We’ll miss opportunities to experience awe, wonder, abundance, humility, surprise, and the depth of our own existence in a natural world we can’t hold in our mind all at once.
Practice: Spiritual life. Purported Benefit: Happiness Summary: This can be theistic, faith-based ritual, prayer, or congregation, or it can be non-religious (indeed atheistic) volunteering, political activism, parenting, or anything which connects you with forces larger than yourself. A feeling of deep belonging to a greater whole, be it humanity, a community, nature, or the cosmos, isn’t just an outcome of mental health, but a great wellness practice in itself. If you feel isolated, set apart, and misanthropic (whether this is justified by the awful world or not) you may be missing out on a key component of mental health. If, by luck, you have practices which reliably generate cosmic belonging, you can now do them with added enthusiasm and freedom knowing they emerge from and feed into your mental health. If you don’t have such practices yet, perhaps knowing their importance will embolden you to playfully experiment with new ones and find some which speak to you, seem to fit, and easily call forth your desire to integrate them into your life. I hope so.
Bonus Practice: don’t listen to me or anybody else, listen to that whisper inside you until it becomes a roar, and do whatever the hell you want with your one precious body, and one precious life.