This article aims to enrich the conversations we are having about stress, resilience and wellbeing. It leaves you with a tool that can positively influence your resilience and wellbeing known as the Lifestyle Pillars and refers to a powerful resilience building tool known as Havening.
Much of the conversations about stress out there refer to the word stress as a general all encompassing term but in truth different types of stress are both good and bad for us. There are indeed 3 forms of stress. Positive stress, known as eustress, negative stress, known as distress, and traumatic stress.
Positive stress and flow is more likely to come about when we keep ourselves in tip top condition and we engage in short term exciting projects or activities that stretch us and we have feedback and support to achieve that well. To generate positive stress we need to take deliberate steps to eat well, rest well, exercise well, and do mood well. The more positive stress we have in our lives the more positive is the electro-chemical state of our body. Meaning that we have an abundance of feel good chemicals running round our body. The more deliberate positive stress we do the more we train the brain and body into that mode of operation.
Negative stress or chronic stress is something that can happen over a period of time. It involves a gradual erosion of our resources and coping capabilities; we may not eat as well as we should, we may be somewhat sedentary, we may not sleep as well as we should, our mood on the surface may be fine but may be less so on a deeper level. It may include some or all of these. The result is a vulnerable internal electro-chemical landscape leaving us exposed to high levels of stress chemicals, like cortisol and adrenaline, pushing through our body and every organ. When in this state the body is in survival mode. Many people are inadvertently training their mind and body into this operating mode not knowing thatvulnerable landscapehas become their norm, their identity.
Traumatic stress is when a traumatic event is turned into an encoded trauma. That is the event has made a permanent mark on the mind so that it remembers to avoid (flight) or be on guard (fight) in case that kind of event happens again. Havening Techniques (havening.org) is a psychosensory healing tool aimed at rapid trauma recovery and resilience building and it refers to the EMLI criteria that must be met for a trauma to become encoded. There needs to be an event that is perceived to be threatening, it needs to relate to a loss of something or someone that had a deep meaning to them, there’s a sense of feeling trapped for an intense moment or that things will never be the same again, that is inescapability. Finally one has to be in a state of negative stress or they were in a state of poor vulnerable landscape (that is electrochemically) at the time due to poor sleep/diet/fitness/ mood/ stressful environment. The mind encodes trauma for the purpose of protecting us, to be prepared in case it happens again. This means that once there is an encoded trauma the radar is turned on constantly. Always on ready to avoid or fight the potential threat off or freeze, giving time to reflect and withdraw. The result is that the mind and body processes the stress caused by that encoded trauma through certain symptoms like negative over thinking, autonomic responses, like heart racing or stomach churning, somatosensory symptoms like physical recurring pain or emotional responses like anxiety, depression or anger. All of such symptoms tend to be unconscious and people tend to get used to them almost as if it is a part of who they are and not knowing why they avoid certain situations or become unusually anxious or angry in other situations. That is unless they become consciously aware of them and make deliberate positive attempts to address them.
Negative stress and traumatic stress causes toxic stress chemicals to cycle through our bodily system every day. They pump through every primary organ in our body giving a message that it should be on high alert ready to respond to danger. Stress chemicals change the way we perceive, respond to and behave in the world and they add to our allostatic load, that is the amount of toxicity in the body. Unless we practice daily routines to reduce toxicity in the body, over time that toxicity builds up in the body and it makes us vulnerable to illness and disease symptoms.
Hence the necessity to lead our lives with the following 6 lifestyle pillars in mind. That is Rest, Fitness, Nutrition, Mood, Brain Training and Environment. At the end of this article you will have access to download this tool or you can download the NeuroSelfCare app for IOS and Android.
Rest We all tend to know that sleep is good for us. Sleep helps to reduce stress in the system. Less people may not know that while you’re sleeping, your brain stays busy, overseeing biological maintenance that keeps your body running in top condition, preparing you for the day ahead. Getting at least 6–9 hours per day of quality sleep is what is required. When we’ve had a good quality night sleep we wake feeling refreshed and rejuvenated. That helps us to remain awake all day long and maintain focus and concentrate in the tasks we apply ourselves to. Many social workers I deliver resilience and wellbeing workshops to say they’re not waking feeling refreshed and rejuvenated. This is worrying because it means their stress isn’t being processed properly, which could partly account for the higher incidence of stress related ill health in this working population.
But rest isn’t just about sleeping. We know that after every endurance activity our mind and body needs rest and recovery. Just like after a gym work out much of the muscle building happens in the body when resting after the work out. Or during the work out when taking short breaks again the muscle building is happening in the time we give to the body to rest and recover before we go hard again. Well we need to treat every day of working as an endurance activity that requires regular rest and recovery.
The Pomodoro technique is a time management technique that suggests we should take a 5 minute break every 25 minutes. If I’m honest I find that level of frequency quite hard to do when I’m busy but the principle is there and it’s an important one. Taking a me break frequently isn’t just a nice to have its essential for the mind and body to get frequent rest and recovery time. In those moments you can attend to your mind and bodily needs, hydration, breathing, meditation, reflection and even attend to the things that are deeply important to you. If we don’t plan these moments in they can easily not happen. Over the course of a lifetime of no such rest and recovery time it can add up to a lot. Plan in regular through day productive rest and recovery breaks! There are apps out there to help you with this, like Focuskeeper.
Fitness Exercise is something that most us know we need to do but yet so many of us are not getting enough of it. Indeed the NHS says that sedentary behaviour is one of the biggest causes of rising ill health. Dr Amen, a man who had carried out 130,000 SPECT brain scans, and author of Memory Rescue, is convinced that we need to be doing much more to look after our brains if we want to ensure our brains work well into our elder years. Stress can start to deplete the growth of our brain cells and it is associated with speeding up the aging process. But certain types of exercise can help to keep the growth of brain cells going into our elder years. That process is called neogenesis. Dr Amen recommends 30–45 mins of high intensity interval type training is what the brain needs to generate enough BDNF to feed neogenesis.
BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor) is considered an important protein that influences brain function as well as the peripheral nervous system. BDNF influences a variety of functions including: preventing death of existing brain cells, inducing the growth of new neurons (neurogenesis) and synapses, and supporting cognitive function. Low levels of BDNF are often problematic and have been linked to: Alzheimer’s, accelerated aging, poor neural development, neurotransmitter dysfunction, obesity, depression, and even schizophrenia.
Dr Amen believes that we can positive impact our elder brain health by doing regular amounts of high intensity interval type training and starting this in our 40’s and 50’s or any time. He also talks about other things we can do including including fasting, reducing our weight and reducing inflammation through better diet.
Nutrition Whilst your diet can help to fuel your mind and body it can also leave toxins in it which build up over time. Having psoriasis makes me particularly sensitive to types of food that I eat and I’m grateful that my body gives me a warning that inflammation is running too high. If it didn’t tell me, that damage could be happening anyway causing a debilitating or critical reaction without warning. For example causing a frozen shoulder or heart attack.
We should all be aiming to reduce the amount of inflammation in our minds and body. Inflammation is a vital part of the immune system’s response to injury and infection. It is the body’s way of signaling the immune system to heal and repair damaged tissue, as well as defend itself against foreign invaders, such as viruses and bacteria. We know that Physical Trauma causes inflammation. If you fracture an ankle it inflames to protect the area whilst the injury is repairing. It’s a short term project for healing purposes. Emotional trauma causes inflammation too as does food that isn’t good for us. Certain types of food actually triggers inflammation in the body.
According to the Heart Foundation )New Zealand) provides really useful and clear information on this topic. They refer to 2 different types of inflammation: acute inflammation is actually good for us as it is the bodies natural response to injury and illness and tends to be short term. However chronic inflammation isn’t good for us and causes disease over time and our diet can contribute to this increasing the risk of chronic inflammation and disease. https://www.heartfoundation.org.nz/about-us/news/blogs/food-and-inflammation
They highlight Foods that contribute to inflammation tend to be highly processed nutrient-poor foods: • Low-fibre, refined carbohydrates like white bread, crackers, donuts, cakes and pastries • Sugary drinks like soft drinks, energy drinks, iced teas and fruit juices • Processed convenience and junk foods like confectionary, snack bars, potato chips, ice cream, microwave popcorn, biscuits and other sugary/salty snacks • Other foods high in saturated fat and/or trans fats like takeaways and deep fried foods.
Tim Spector, author of the ‘Diet Myth: the real science behind what we eat’ agrees with the heart foundation that a good Mediterranean style diet contains many of the best type of ingredients to support wellbeing as it is a high anti-inflammatory diet including the following
• Vegetables and fruit of a wide variety and range of colours. In particular, there is evidence for the anti-inflammatory benefits of leafy greens (i.e. broccoli, silverbeet, spinach, cabbage, bok choy), tomatoes and berries because they are high in antioxidants like Vitamin C 8.
• Legumes like beans, lentils, chickpeas and split peas
• Grain foods like oats, barley, brown rice, wholegrain bread, quinoa, buckwheat and millet
• Oily fish like mackerel, sardines and salmon, as well as other good sources of omega-3 fats like chia seeds, flax seeds and walnuts
• Nuts, seeds and healthy oils like olive oil, avocado oil and flaxseed oil.
There is some research to show that drinking tea (e.g. black or green tea) and cooking with ginger, garlic and turmeric may be anti-inflammatory too so if you want you can add a good tasty curry to your menu too.
Mood Our emotions happen on 2 levels. Our day to day emotions that we’re conscious of that we can somewhat influence, by doing PMA (positive mental attitude) today. And then there are deeper level emotions that are unconscious that we have much less control over. Both levels can communicate with and affect each other over time. However the latter is driven by neuro-biological patterns that stems from all the experiences and attachments that we’ve had going back to the day we were born, if not before, combined with how we operate our life now and the experiences and environments we find ourselves in. They ideal of course is that both levels are in alignment but this may not be the case, which can contribute to tension in the system or dis-ease.
I’ll use the legend and late Robbin Williams, the famous actor, as an example here to illustrate my point. While he was a comedian and seen as positive person publicly, giving so much joy to many people, privately he struggled with manic depression and fluctuating moods. Turns out he had 3 marriages and he ended up killing himself in 2014. For years I was perplexed as to how this could be. A man with such an amazing wealth of personal and financial resources and a comedian spirit but life ended this way. Upon reading an excerpt of the book, Robin, it turns out that he had a deep unforgiving guilt for divorcing his first wife and leaving their children, which seemed to eat away at him. His childhood was filled with little attention from his high flying parents leaving him with childhood emotional trauma. While it was that trauma that drove him to be funny, for attention, underneath it all he had a deep underlying dissatisfaction with self and life. In the end he was diagnosed with lewy body dementia which is a particularly rare and physically debilitating form of dementia. This condition is not typically caused by genetics. So why did this happen.
We can only speculate but that perhaps a mixture of childhood trauma and the kind of lifestyle that followed including taking alcohol and substances, to maintain the mood highs he got from acting, but in the process injuring his brain, a diet full of hotel comfort food, while traveling as an actor, perhaps recurring disrupted sleep patterns and stress associated with multiple divorces, which in the least left him with deep regret. All of which one can speculate that this could have contributed to driving inflammation in the mind and body, which is increasingly considered to be one of the causes of dementia, along with stress.
Robin Williams is undoubtedly a legend. If he took the time to work on addressing his underlying low mood and sense of emptiness he may have been able to moderate his stress chemicals and lifestyle, without the need for alcohol and substances, as well as positively impacted on his other lifestyle pillars and thereby reducing the conditions within the body that created disease.
Our moods very much affect how we operate our lives. They can affect how resilient we feel on a day to day basis but they can also create habits, ways of thinking feeling and behaving, which do have an impact on our overall wellbeing down the line.
Brain training Our amazing brain is an electro-chemical organ with 86 billion neurons. More powerful than most of us realise, it operates on Electrical frequencies, known as brainwaves, which enable chemicals to exchange from one neuron to another. A blend of different brainwaves carries a unique blend of different chemicals that makes us feel, think and behaviour in a certain way. Patterns of Electrical circuits across neuronal pathways develop over the course of a life time and make up the unconscious electro-chemical loops that underlay how we think, feel and behave. (They also connect clusters of neurons that hold memories of the past as we interact with the present in light of our hopes and dreams about the future. Thanks to the brain we have an innate capacity to change.)
Since neuroscience discovered neuroplasticity we now know that we can positively impact our brain. Our brain has the ability to change through new information and through thought alone. Indeed every time we learn something new our neurons fire off new branches and wire together with other neurons. If we keep learning more information on that same topic we add further to those neural pathways turning seedlings into branches and branches into trees of neural networks. This process can happen by thought alone.
A blend of curiosity, imagination and willingness to change and grow (agility) is required to make the most of neuroplasticity. This is one of the reasons why Imagination was considered by Einstein as more important than knowledge. Our brain has the ability to imagine and design a different and desired future. After that then comes the need for knowledge (as well as motivation plus deliberate actions) to realize that desired future. For this to happen the brain needs to be in an positive environment that facilitates a growth mindset. The great thing is that every single day we can carry our deliberate actions that improve the environment for the brain to help the brain flourish.
Similarly we can also carry out actions every day that that create conditions for the brain that make it harder for it to flourish.
When under negative stress for example it can create an environment thats default into survival mode. In survival mode the electro-chemical status of the brain is operating on stress chemicals. The result is a more fixed problem focused mindset, one that is ready to fight flight freeze. The more time the brain operates in this mode the more it gets used that being the normal operating mode. It gets used to a vulnerable electro-chemical landscape. It’s like inadvertently training the brain into that norm.
This is where brain training comes in. The very name implies the brain is trainable. That is recognising that there is a gap between its current state and its optimal state and that we can do something to optimise the state of the brain for better outcomes. If you have been unaware of this possibility until now the likelihood is your brain is currently operating in a mode that could reflect a load of poor brain habits or by chance good habits. However, now armed with this information you can start to integrate deliberate routines that train the brain for optimal use.
So for example when we engage in certain types of physical exercise regularly we initiate a blend of neurochemicals that the brain and body can start to be much more accustomed too. This helps to develop a momentum of positive electro-chemical activity within the brain and body which can help take the body out of the more concerning ‘vulnerable landscape’ category. Different types of physical activity generates different types of electro-chemical landscapes. Recent research finds that High intensity internal training for example is known to generate brainwaves and neurochemicals which helps with emotions processing. Walking type activity is known to benefit cognition as it helps with processing our thoughts.
Mindfulness is designed to provide a tool that quietens the many thousands of, often negative, daily inner conversations and thoughts. Doing this serves to reduce the flood of stress chemicals flowing within the body. And we can train ourselves to get good at doing that.
We can also use havening to let go of encoded trauma’s. Encoded traumas tend to leave a permanent biological marker potentiated on the surface of neurons within the amygdala, where the brain stores encoded trauma memory. As discussed earlier for a trauma to become encode certain criteria need to be met (EMLI). When a trauma is encoded the emotional component of the memory remains connected to the memory of the event. This can result in uncomfortable biological responses, a unique blend of stress chemicals and brainwaves and symptoms of the autonomic nervous system. For instance a range of fight flight responses including cognitive (negative thinking), autonomic (fast heart rate), somatosensory (pain) and emotional responses. All of which can affect how we feel about ourselves and impact negatively on our confidence and motivation in life.
We use the psycho sensory tool, Havening Techniques, to remove (depotentiate) that biological marker off the surface of the cell. The result is a delinking of the emotional response from the memory of the event. And the electrochemical pathways that were creating the uncomfortable symptoms are removed. It also results in the body generating less stress chemicals as standard thus reducing the allostatic load on the body.
All of these tools train the brain and over time change the environment in which the brain sits as well as change internal structures of the brain for the better. In particular Havening’s impact on the brain can be quick and permanent.
Environment In many respects our thoughts feelings and behaviours reflect the environments in which we’re in. Yes the environment does have an influence on the way we think feel and behave. But how we interpret the environment has a lot to do with where we’ve come from and we view the environment through the lense of the past. Also we can influence our environments so that it helps to produce better thinking feeling and behaving.
For many people who are working from home these days due to the pandemic they may be experiencing challenges working with colleagues due to the more virtual working conditions. Trust on the decline for example and bullying from behind a screen is on the increase. Now more than ever we need teams with a high level of relationship resilience between team mates. To this end we each need to know more about our own styles of working and how we each communicate with others on and offline in a way that maximises the potential of other peoples working styles. You can find out more by clicking here (https://www.turnoveranewleaf.co.uk/disc). This approach can a positive impact on the way staff think feel behave, as a team player, and on their performance overall when working from home and when working from the office.
Employers, in response to the pandemic, may need to change the way they work with employees to support greater levels or motivation and performance and organisational resilience. How employers engage with their staff has an impact on how they feel about their job and how they perform. If staff feel listened to, valued and motivated then there is a greater likelihood that the the organisation will remain agile as we go into a recession. You find out more about how to increase organisational resilience by clicking here https://www.turnoveranewleaf.co.uk/measure-outcomes
Conclusive comments So in short there are many ways that we can positively impact on the mind and body for the better. The Lifestyle Pillars provides a simple tool to evaluate and tune yourself into these 6 key areas of your life. If you keep them in mind every day then you’re on the right path to optimising your resilience and wellbeing.
If you would like a copy of the lifestyle pillars tool to evaluate yourself against then click on the link below. Otherwise you can download the NeuroSelfCare mobile app for IOS and Android to complete the lifestyle pillars there which gives you a record of your evaluations collated over time. The intention being that you treat it as a journal and aim towards increase your scores over time.
I do believe I have the power to positively impact my wellbeing and I have proven that on my own well-being, on my psoriasis, on my mood and other stress symptoms that no longer present. My hypothesis is that that any stress related health condition can be positively influenced through use of deliberate lifestyle routines and practices.
So the question is, now you’ve taken the time to read this article….
Do you believe you have the power to positively impact on your resilience and wellbeing?
And if so what is your next steps to make that so?
For more information on Havening and also on the lifestyle pillars tool visit https://www.turnoveranewleaf.co.uk/neuroselfcare and click on the lifestyle Pillars screen image to download the Lifestyle Pillars tool
Author: Jan Carpenter