There just might be 100% agreement on this question: What is the number 1 resolution for most people? In one way or another, whether it’s weight loss, quitting smoking, exercising more, cutting down or eliminating vices or bad habits, these all relate to improvements in our physical fitness. And this is essential, as our physical fitness and health impacts our lives in so many ways. I don’t need to go into all of that… I’m sure I’d be preaching to the choir.
I want to turn your attention to one particular facet of fitness: Psychological fitness. It really is helpful to consider this an integral part of your physical fitness, since research and practice is rapidly showing us that mind and body are really one big system, rather than two systems that have a few select, specific interactions. You may be thinking, “Oh, big surprise, a psychologist is telling us to look after our mental health,” or “Who really has time for this, I can barely even find time to exercise!” Before you stop to write it off—consider this:
When I see someone for biofeedback services, one of the first demonstrations I routinely conduct is to hook the person up to one simple feedback gauge (for example, skin conductance, as measured by micro-changes in skin wetness). I help them relax, then ask them to think, very briefly, about one thing they have to do today… nothing major, just one task, pleasant or not. Invariably, they then see a MAJOR reaction on the screen, as read by that gauge. I then explain: “Remember that your brain is, in fact, a part of your physical body, and every emotion, every thought, has a physical component. That little, tiny change in thought produced a cascade of brain chemicals, called neurotransmitters, to send messages to another part of your body, in this case your sweat glands. But that’s only one response from that tiny little thought; between your neurological system and endocrine system, that was only one of many reactions that just occurred. Now, that’s one tiny change in thought. How many of those little thoughts do you have in a day? And how many major thoughts in a day? Can you see how the patterns of thoughts, stressful or not, can really affect you? They can cause chemical responses that influence processing of foods and nutrients, oxygenation levels, stress hormones that tell the body to retain fats or water, all of that and more…” The picture usually gets very clear; I really like the look of understanding that often follows.
Robert Sapolsky, in his brilliant book, “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” explains this concept well. He cites the example of, say, a zebra in the wild, minding its own business, grazing, until a predator (say, a lion) comes along. What we know as the “Fight—Flight” system takes hold. Automatically, the zebra’s body induces a sudden, extreme stress reaction. All the body’s resources for energy are transferred to the skeletal muscles and the zebra darts away, hopefully escaping the predator. When it’s over, the zebra resumes grazing. But do you think that zebra is still ruminating? Maybe thinking, “Man, that was a big lion, and FAST! He acted like he had something personal against me. I wonder if he does. Maybe he’ll be back when I’m not paying attention. Maybe he’ll mess with my family too, and he does know where I live. He can tell it’s me by the stripes. Ooohhhh… I’m worried!”
Not likely. But we do. Unlike the zebra, whose resources return to normal after an encounter, we have the ability to think of things in a uniquely human way. Obviously, this ability enhances our lives, but also leaves us vulnerable to sustained worry, sadness, anger, despair, or a host of other emotions that all go along with the sustained stress response. And sustained stress does more than make you “just not feel good.” We were wired to run from lions, as well, and the stress reaction is designed for just that. We were not designed to have that feeling, though usually not that intense, hang around us for prolonged periods. That contributes directly (by chemical changes in the body) and indirectly (by reinforcing unhealthy habits) to physical problems easily as much as does a sedentary lifestyle.
A worthy goal for 2010 is to become aware of this tendency (we all have it, to varying degrees), find how it affects you (the signs are somewhat predictable but as with anything, your story will be unique, as will your way of feeding or controlling this response), and begin to figure out some ways to counteract bad stress. It doesn’t necessarily mean countless hours of therapy, or fully changing lifestyles to embrace a whole new life philosophy. Depending on your current condition and how you respond best, one change might be as minimal as giving yourself a scheduled, short “break” in your day. If you feel you might need bigger changes to accomplish this, there are resources ranging from popular guidebooks on emotional health (Sapolsky is a great example, PLUS he’s an entertaining read!), to activities embracing both physical and mental well-being (such as yoga, tai chi, meditation, as well as other ‘alternative’ health practices), to more traditional therapy or stress-focused mental health treatment (biofeedback, hypnosis, etc.). Much like physical exercise, where there are multiple paths to great physical activity, the means for diminishing stress and enhancing life are many and readily available.