Seasonal stress is hotter than ever this year, with more people reporting symptoms of fatigue, burnout and depression. So, if you’re feeling blue or out of sorts, you’re not alone. According to polls from the American Psychological Association, the most commonly used terms to describe negative emotions during the holiday include fatigue (68%), stress (61%), irritability (52%), sadness (36%), anger (35%), and loneliness (26%).
Look up the term “mental health”, and you’ll likely find definitions that refer to emotional, psychological and social wellbeing. Which of course is true, but it’s only part of the story. When we fail to include the brain — the physical structure responsible for what we think, feel and do — we limit our ability to integrate mind-body health effectively.
Challenges with mental health continue to increase as our brains receive messages of insufficient funds across multiple dimensions. Simply put, the brain’s primary responsibility is to sustain an energy balance that ensures safety and survival. When we think or feel that we do not have enough –whether it be time, energy, social support or other internal and external resources -the brain will shift us into conservation mode, which over time can wear us out or break us down.
Although the weather may still be dreary, the calendar suggests that spring is right around the corner. What better time to clear up the elements of your life that contribute to a sense of stress. Remember, stress is not good or bad – it’s just a feeling you get when demands are greater than capacity. Even the concepts of eustress (good) and distress (bad) do little to help us truly understand the stress dynamic, as we’ve all experienced something positive leading to overwhelm if we’re not fully prepared or something negative bringing about glorious growth and change when we have what it takes to effectively adapt.
Change is in the air, and regardless of your political position you are likely going to feel the impact of change today. We know that change is constant, and yet certain moments bring about a visceral sensation that tides are turning, a new ship has sailed. Today is one of those days.
Watching the process of change unfold in the upcoming transition of power in our country I became deeply emotional, recognizing the impact of what’s happening in this moment in time
Let me start by saying how grateful I am for the time we’ve spent together. You’ve been there to pick me up more often than I can remember. So many mornings when I wanted to stay in bed to rest, you reminded me that I didn’t have a moment to waste. “Live life to the fullest.” “You only live once.” “You can rest when you’re in the ground.” The jolt of energy I needed to get out there and make my mark on the world. To reach for the stars. To strive to be more, and do more, and have more.
Holiday stress happens primarily because of unrealistic expectations, feeling overwhelmed or out of control, and losing site of what matters most to us. The good news is that stress can be like an internal GPS, shining light on course corrections to get us back on track. Stress is not good or bad, but rather a sense we have when something is not as it should be. We only feel stress when something that matters to us is at stake, so it turns out that stressing can be one of our greatest blessings if we take time to pay attention and adjust.
Try to define stress and you might find yourself quickly in its grasp. Even the concept of stress has had a stressful ride; when it was first coined by Hans Selye as the “non-specific response of the body to any demand for change”, Selye himself had no idea the rapid rise and fall his newborn term would experience, later suggesting that had he been more clear in his description he might be known as the godfather of “strain” instead.
Faced with the most difficult of decisions, Kathy and Brian Usher relied on deep faith as they waited outside the operating room for over 12 hours while Dr. Ben Carson removed half of their daughter’s brain. In the years of struggle leading up to this moment, Beth Usher would experience over a hundred seizures each day as her brain was being torn apart by a disease called Rasmussen's encephalitis.
Over the weekend I had the incredible opportunity to listen to local researchers sharing their groundbreaking studies on Alzheimer’s disease related issues. Once again I beamed with joy hearing how much work is happening right here in our own backyard. And although I do my best to stay on top of developments as they happen, several comments nearly took my breath away, in a good way.
The World Health Organization currently recommends that people conduct at least 600 metabolic equivalent minutes (Met minutes) of physical activity – the equivalent of 150 minutes a week of brisk walking or 75 minutes of running. But a new study suggests that most health gains are actually achieved at a much higher level: between 3,000 and 4,000 MET minutes a week. (Study: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.i3857)
This week I have the opportunity to present my latest research looking at the impact of humor on the brain. We talk about a lot of different techniques for stress management: a healthy diet, regular exercise, and adequate sleep to name a few. Personally, I have found massage to be a lifesaver for building in consistent recharge time each week where I intentionally let my brain and body be guided into relaxation mode. A few years ago, thanks to my friends at the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor, I was introduced to a new type of “mental massage” – one that enhances circulation to parts of the brain that often get left out of our day to day activities, such as perceiving amusement, irony and joy.
I recently began playing golf in an attempt to boost my brainpower. As Bobby Jones once said,"Golf is a game played on a five inch course, the distance between your ears". Golf is no doubt a mental game, but it's more than that. While it certainly challenges your brain it also stimulates areas that are often left out of our daily routine - things like play, social connection, physical activity, fresh air, and if you can master it, relaxation.
When we find ourselves slipping into survival mode, it can feel pretty chaotic. Consider what happens when you’ve gone too long without eating, haven’t had a good night sleep in a while, or haven’t seen the sun in days – you might not feel quite like yourself. This is when I like to remind myself that my “monkey brain” has taken over. The first reason it’s helpful for me personally, is I happen to be a huge monkey fan, so I instantly get big smile on my face. Monkeys always seem to be in a pretty good mood, and are usually playing around, acting silly. So the initial reaction to thinking about something called our “monkey brain” just makes me laugh (and we’ll talk about how important laughter is to staying healthy in an upcoming chapter). But there is another reason to consider how the monkey brain responds differently than other parts of our brain, and when it can be detrimental to us.
The brain is very sensitive to anything that may be perceived as a threat in our environment. When we become aware of stress that others carry around us, it sends a very clear signal that we too should be worried. This triggers what’s called an “amygdala hijack” where the more primitive part of our brain responds in a more knee-jerk reactive way (based on the limbic system, fight or flight mechanisms) rather than a mindful, responsive, reflective way.