Last week I was asked to write an article for an online runner’s magazine on my lived experience of running during the lockdown. It was an exciting opportunity for me, as I am so passionate about running and the crucial part it plays in my physical and mental health. Writing that piece got me thinking deeper on how vital the body is in our wellbeing. My last blog post outlined the five ways to wellbeing with findings derived from both the Foresight and Gallup reports. Being active is one of the key aspects to wellbeing so today I want to focus on the impact the body has on the mind.
Most of us often tend to live in our minds or ‘above the shoulder’ engaging in the stresses of daily life with a neglect of what lies below the neck. Howard Gardner in his book ‘Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences’ defines the body as “more than simply another machine, indistinguishable from the artificial objects of the world, it is also a vessel of the individual’s sense of self, his most personal feelings and aspirations, as well as that entity to which others respond in a special way because of their uniquely human qualities”.
In one of my earlier modules at University, I studied the concept of positive psychophysiology in depth. Positive psychophysiology in simple terms is the study of the body, how it’s influenced by our thoughts, feelings and emotions and how this in turn can have a massive impact on our individual flourishing and health. Researchers in this field have studied the different parts of the body including the brain, eyes, heart, skin and body fluids to determine responses to changes in the psychological state. Isn't that fascinating? Have you ever stopped to think how the physiological responses in our body, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system influence our optimal functioning? The role of the body is salient today and very relevant in what we are collectively experiencing in the world globally through this pandemic. Our stress levels are on an absolute high with the lockdown, unprecedented unemployment, death rates and the shrinking economy.
In today’s piece I want to focus on one crucial physiological mechanism, the nervous system and how that impacts our wellbeing. The nervous system as you know controls most bodily functions and although many processes function without our awareness, researchers have been able to show that we can manipulate some of these functions to perform optimally. This is where I’d like to draw attention to cortisol. When we are scared or frightened, the brain reacts instantly sending signals to the hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal axis that secretes the hormone cortisol from the adrenal cortex. Cortisol is a hormone that has many key functions within the human body but is also the body’s primary stress response hormone. The threats we currently face – the unpredictability of this whole pandemic, its consequences, our lack of control and the significant threats to physical illness can all increase the secretion of cortisol.
So even in the midst of this entire crisis how can we manage our levels of cortisol?
Physical Activity: Exercise and physical activity is shown to reduce levels of the body’s stress hormones. It also restores and enhances the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are natural mood boosters. Positive psychology researchers Hefferon and Mutrie and have identified physical activity as a ‘stellar’ positive psychology intervention, not only to reduce ill health but also to produce positive emotion, self-efficacy and overall flourishing. Regular exercise can increase self-confidence and lower the symptoms associated with mild depression and anxiety. Exercise can also improve your sleep, which is often disrupted by stress, depression and anxiety. All of these exercise benefits can ease your stress levels and give you a sense of command over your body and your life.
Sleep: Are your current stress levels making you lie awake at night? As we’ve seen the body produces more cortisol during stressful times, but cortisol is more than just a stress hormone. One of its roles is to tell body systems when it’s night and day so they can function in a concurrent manner. Cortisol works in partnership with melatonin, the night time hormone and if cortisol is high at night, it can inhibit melatonin from doing its job. Sleep is so critical for our wellbeing and less sleep can create fatigue, make us susceptible to depression, reduce productivity and so much more. It is estimated that we need seven to eight hours of sleep per day.
Individually and collectively as a society we are going through tough times. Trauma and stress is stored in not only in our heads, but also in our bodies and releasing it can have powerful consequences and build resilience during adversity. As discussed, some of the ways of releasing this stress are through exercise and sleep. You can try simple interventions to get started. For instance, couch to 5k is a great place to begin. Yoga, pilates and resistance training can also create optimum levels of functioning both for our physical and mental health. For more information on coaching for wellbeing, please do get in touch.