June, what a glorious month, the flowers are blooming, the bee’s are buzzing and the sun is shining! My wish is that you are taking the time to pause and notice, savour and value those things that bring you joy.
The mindful practice of making time for you to notice, savour and value is good nutrition for your mind. Physical health, diet and exercise, is broadly well understood. We don’t always make the best choices, but we do know a positive choice from a poor one.
It is less well understood when we consider our thoughts, feelings and behaviours especially as ‘thoughts & feelings’ can often appear so entwined. How does anyone really know the difference between thought and feeling really?
For some people a neurological diet of negativity has become the ‘norm’. A diet of frustration, fear and sadness are literarily ‘empty calories’ neurologically speaking. As a consequence of emotions fuelling our minds we feed our brain with a cocktail of stress hormones; adrenalin, noradrenalin and cortisol.
Now it is okay to feel angry, scared or sad from time to time however, it is not okay for those feelings to define the person you are. This toxic diet of negativity can mean we feel angry, anxious and or experience the signs and symptoms of depression all too often. We can feel overwhelmed and as a consequence feel there is nothing that can be done, that we are ‘saddled’ with these negative feelings and we will just have to ‘get on with it’.
A diet of stress hormones results in a chronic activation of our survival mechanism that can demonstratively effect our physical and mental health. This is because when our fight, flight, freeze (FFF) response is activated we remain on a state of high alert that, in survival terms, this means we are ‘chemically charged’ to hit it, run away from it or hide from it, it being the trigger for that perceived threat.
This primitive response is how the mind works, it is a hangover to our more nomadic hunter, gatherer past selves. Back then we simply survived, we lived in tribes and the survival of the tribe relied on those FFF behaviours. It was not a safe thing to assume that there were no threats lurking in the long grass. Be it a ‘pack of wolves’, another tribe or disease, drought or famine. Our primitive past selves were attuned to those sounds, smells, sights and ‘feelings’ so intuitively that they succeeded, they survived and passed that DNA onto you.
Now as much as frustration, fear and sadness will all contribute to our experience of stress from time to time they are, by themselves, not life threatening. Last time I checked there were no roving packs of wolves in Norfolk, but I acknowledge it can sometimes feel like it. Any negative feelings are best understood as a negative description. Feeling angry, guilty, worthless, frustrated, scared, anxious, unfulfilled, sad, unmotivated, disillusioned, bereaved, tired, exhausted, to name only a few, are all emotions that make you feel rubbish. This will result in negative behaviours which can look like arguments, outbursts, tears, poor food choices, self-medication, self-harm, withdrawing from social situations, unwillingness to exercise, unable to take help, unable to sleep and an escalation of these negative behaviours over time.
Now this is the point I wish to convey to you; it is these feelings that are the catalyst for your stress and the increased production of stress chemicals, those ‘empty calories, for your mind. To redress this start thinking first. By thinking more positively you can acknowledge that you feel frustrated, fearful or sad but now ask yourself ‘What can you do to be less frustrated, fearful or sad?’.
I empathise that ‘if it was this simple everybody would be doing it’ however, just like diet and exercise we may all know that we should be exercising more and eating less but we don’t all do it consistently well. For some hiring a personal trainer or dietician may provide the structure necessary to get in shape. It is the same for your mind. The team at Rowan House are skilled in a variety of treatments and support that and can provide the role of ‘personal trainer’ for your mind, but for those who seek to redress this overreliance on stress chemicals perhaps consider the following.
- Notice the positive things around you; the flowers blooming, the bees buzzing and the sun shining.
- Savour that you, right in this moment, appreciate this ‘small thing’. The garden/park you are sat in, the friends and family around you or the kindness of a stranger.
- Value you are the reason you’ve noticed and savoured those things. Your mind had the ability to generate positive thought and learn to think, feel and behave more positively.
Do this and you will stop producing the cocktail of stress hormones so bad for our physical and mental health and you start to produce serotonin. Commonly referred to as the happy chemical serotonin will help foster positive thoughts, actions and interactions. The more you practice the better you will get. Just as with exercise, you will have to go for that walk, cycle or swim. Just like diet you will have to eat more healthily and evidence has shown keeping a food diary will help in controlling your eating.
It is the same with positive thinking. You will have to do the work; notice, savour and value the things that bring you joy. If you journal what you notice, savour and value (NSV) you will increase the probability of success as you will be using multiple areas of your brain to think, act and interact. By finding or buying a journal to write in you are already committing to action, by stetting time in your day be it first thing in the morning, last thing at night or in that ‘quiet moment’ before you pick the children up from school, whenever you plan to do it you are committing to action. By NSVing and writing in your journal you are evidencing your commitment to action.
Committing to action gives you a serotonin ‘hit’ every time you succeed at something new, that first small step, is an opportunity to harvest more serotonin. The more serotonin you produce the better you will think and as you begin to think more positively you will begin to notice savour and value that you are now feeling more positive; happy, joyful, content, kind, patient, creative, present, motivated, rested, arguing less, you will sleep better, make better diet and exercise choices. This will be because you are in intellectual control, utilising that part of your brain we do not share with any other animals; the pre-frontal cortex.
When properly fuelled with serotonin the human mind will thrive rather than simply survive. Serotonin is the ‘key’ to unlocking our potential. Serotonin is the key to the pre-frontal cortex, the part of our brain that allows us to think, make a proper assessment of each situation ‘good or bad’ and accept those things beyond our control, whilst committing to action to the things we can affect. The pre-frontal cortex allows you to identify the solutions that are right from you and so be that best version of yourself.
There will always be ‘negative distractions’ that mean we choose not to eat or exercise as well as we might but with application, we learn to behave more kindly towards ourselves, understand the long-term benefits of self-compassion and commit to healthier choices more often. It is exactly the same for our minds, commit to action and start thinking more positively so that when those ‘negative distractions’ dominate our feelings we can think, redress that negative influence and establish new sustainable positive response to those negative feelings, we will have changed our behaviour response to our negative feelings as we have thought about what we want to be different. What will you think about changing this month?
Brett Rennolds is a qualified psychotherapist DSFH, HPD, MNCH NCH Supervisor and registered with the Complimentary & Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC). Brett specialises in a solution-focused approach, complimented by the principles of CBT, ACT, mental health first aid and hypnotherapy. He continues to provide therapy online, via an encrypted platform. For more information please visit his website.