It’s your mind, right? Use it the way you want to use it!
Our minds are wondrous, complicated, and not fully understood. Currently, science is making some large leaps in the understanding of its functioning. By extension, how we can make it work the way we want. Many of us struggle with lack of motivation, energy, and/or chronic stress, anxiety, and depression. Effects of these experiences range from sleeplessness and high blood pressure to racing thoughts and the inability to fully function to our potential. Scientists and researchers seek to find the physical root of these experiences to better understand why and how they occur.
Note that some of these experiences are very serious and should be treated as such. For many of us, there is much we can do to make our minds work for us.
How The Mind Creates Your Mood
The evolutionary theory implies human nature is focused on seeking the presence of danger in our surroundings. When there is uncertainty about an event in proximity, the result is often the perception of danger. This result is fear or anxiety with events or conceiving the potential events. (IE If we see a bear, we freak out and run away, or if we are walking through the woods and we think about the possibility of a bear attacking, we also freak out). In this way, our mood is often set. We are anticipating danger somewhere; we may be attacked at any time.
You’ve heard the terms fight or flight. Perhaps in describing the experience with the bear. Scientists recently discovered that while fight and flight are well-known reactions for survival, there is a third aspect to consider – feign (or freeze)23. Feign can mean “to fake death.” It is likely to occur when we are inundated with threatening stimuli, in part for the need to conserve energy for survival. This third category of survival behavior is in response to threatening stimuli. Feign is associated with depression, motivated to take no action.
As the mind constantly screens our environment for threats, it sets us up for fight, flight, or feigning (fawning or freezing). Setting us up for these behaviors rarely causes a “good mood.” And so a bad mood often reflects (to a much smaller degree) the chronic stress of “fight,” the anxiety of “flight,” or the depression of “feign.”
How we respond to the threat is a complicated proposition. It depends on our social status, self-confidence, past experiences and traumas, social factors, and other items. If we perceive our threat as insurmountable, we may choose to feign. Like a deer, staring into approaching headlights we simply do nothing. Relatedly, this is why a symptom of depression is helplessness.
In Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, he discusses lobsters competing for dominance fighting one another. The loser forms a completely new “subordinate brain” as a reaction to the loss. This is a good metaphor for what happens to our minds due to stress, trauma, and learning. We become stuck in a feedback loop consistently and constantly telling us we have to ‘play dead’ to survive. In comparison, individuals suffering from anxiety may always be in action, ready to run from the threat.
If we wake up to start the day dreading going to work, we will use a survival instinct to set our mood. This could stress you out, fill you with anxiety or cause you to withdraw. To some degree, the dread will impact your mood.
We are all are born with a different baseline for mood and sense of well-being24. If we are anxiety-prone, the person that cuts us off in traffic (threatening your social status) will be further evidence of the generally threatening nature of the day. You’ll be much more likely to view every event you experience in this way.
Being mindful of these trends can help. Understanding your ‘bad mood’ as a result of your survival programming is a starting point. What you can do about it is the subject we’re exploring.
1. Get Enough Sleep
Studies show that subjects limited to 4.5 hours of sleep per night were more likely to feel stress, anger, sadness, and mental exhaustion. Once they were permitted to get more sleep, the report of these symptoms lessened3. A 2018 study reported a link between lack of sleep and an increase in the emotion of anger4.
Sleep deprivation prevents the medial prefrontal cortex from blunting the amygdala’s response to negative stimuli. The Amygdala is a primal part of our brain, responsible for detecting threats in our environment. Because the prefrontal cortex is impacted this way, the amygdala’s reactions to fight or flight for survival purposes become more pointed increasing anxiety.
Lack of sleep produces more anticipatory anxiety or worry about the future5. You may feel less connected to and grateful for your partner. Not sleeping the proper amount harms our ability to have empathy for others.
It can be worse for women. Women’s brains expended more energy than men’s. Consequently, women need more sleep. When sleep-deprived, women tend to experience more anger and depression.
If you’re not getting enough sleep, start here. Take small steps to get more until you reach the threshold of 8 hours per night (or whatever amount you prefer). Turn off screens (phones, TVs, tablets, computers) one hour before sleep. Create a nighttime routine that will teach your body and mind that you are winding down and soon going to sleep6. Wash your face, take a shower, read a book.
On the other end of this topic, don’t drink alcohol before going to sleep. While its effect may make you sleepy, the result is a poorer quality of sleep.
If you’re still having trouble falling asleep, there are some things you can do during the day that will help. Exercising helps release stress and anxiety that may be making it hard to sleep. Exposure to sunlight can help produce vitamin D in the body. Vitamin D supplements can also be taken. Tryptophan is a precursor to melatonin, the hormone that makes us feel tired. Potassium can be taken to relax the body. Foods rich in potassium, such as cashews, avocados, and tomatoes, may be eaten more frequently.
Controlling your mind starts with sleep. Your brain uses A LOT of energy. Twenty percent of your body’s energy expenditure25. Make getting enough sleep a priority for you.
2. Find Your Flow
Author Steven Kotler has studied the concept of flow for two decades. He describes it as “an optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best…” In his newest book, The Art of Impossible, he deepens his explanation. Flow is a state in which we are in complete concentration, there is a merger between action and awareness, our sense of self vanishes, our sense of time is altered, we feel we have control over elements we may not normally have. The experience is rewarding in and of itself2.
Biologically, flow involves specific neurochemicals (Adrenaline, Anadamines, Dopamine, Endorphines, Oxytocin, and Norepinephrine). These chemicals are believed to produce flow. Examples of flow states include playing a musical instrument, speaking in public, or the experience of writing a novel.
We’ve all experienced it even if it’s micro-flow. The experience of “losing track of time” while involved in a task or activity could suggest that you’re having a flow experience. Buddhist monk’s experienced “ecstatic meditation” in flow; others experience runner’s high. The point is, it is a common experience.
How do you find it?
Triggering flow is possible and can be learned. First, focus. All that triggers flow brings us into the current moment, the here and now. Flow comes from focus. Meditate, read, inspect…do something that causes you to focus. Let it take you over.
Experientially, the triad of curiosity, passion, and purpose triggers flow. When these items are properly aligned (or stacked as Kotler explains), the brain begins to release chemicals driving us towards flow.
Next up: autonomy. Fifteen to twenty percent of your time should be spent doing what it is that you WANT to do. This will help turn on the physiology turning on flow. Be clear about where you focus your attention. Any vagueness will derail the train to flow. Get immediate feedback about what it is that you are doing, teaching how to make yourself better at the task at hand. Push the challenge-skill balance slightly out of your comfort zone. Make sure the task you are involved in pushing your ability. Kotler suggests an average of about 4% more than your comfort zone allows. Though peak performers have been known to push themselves 20-30% beyond.
Intentionally take these steps to get yourself into a flow state. Consider your environment. Be sure that it is rich with novelty, unpredictability, and complexity. These elements will delight and engage your mind, serving as external triggers for flow.
3. Develop a Mindfulness Practice
Mindfulness is defined as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.”8
Mindfulness practice is a tool to aid in deepening the experience. There are many types of mindfulness practices, including yoga, meditation, and exercise. However, the vehicle to get you there varies. Positive Psychology.com has some pretty great examples. It could be cleaning, noting every detail, or eating, paying attention to the texture, the flavor, and how your body reacts to experience. The practice should lock you into the current moment, focused on current awareness.
Mindfulness helps manage anxiety and stress9. A recent study has more soundly made the argument for the impact of mindfulness in preventing heart disease10.
Yoga can improve your mood, provide better sleep, helps relaxation among other positive impacts14.
Dr.Richard Davidson, director of the Center for Healthy Minds, suggests that meditation turns negative minds into positive minds11. Meditation has demonstrated its utility in turning off the prefrontal cortex – the part of our brain involved in problem-solving, logical reasoning, and short-term memory12. Meditation can increase dopamine levels, often missing from those suffering from attention-deficit issues13. Meditation also reduces rumination, decreases emotional reactivity, and provides greater relationship satisfaction15.
Overall, mindfulness practice will help improve your level of control of your mind. It will provide resistance to the negative thoughts that arise. No matter the mindfulness tool that you choose, use it regularly. The practice will, over time, improve your level of mental control.
I’ve written a lot about journaling. (Click Here For Journaling). Journaling takes the experience of your life out of the echo chamber of your head, making the experience external. You can type or write, but I recommend writing. Writing dramatically increases the level of retention16. Writing triggers the Reticular Activating System. The RAS is responsible for filtering what your brain needs to process, making what you’re writing important. This provides focus and retention on the task at hand16.
Those suffering from depression who journaled, writing down their thoughts and feelings for three days reported less depressed feelings17.
Journaling can be beneficial for setting goals. The act of simply writing the goal down can greatly increase the likelihood you’ll achieve it. Journaling can also increase well-being when it is used to express gratitude. Dr. Robert Porter suggests a future gratitude journal. In this, you write about the future you desire, creating your future18.
Journaling can force you to open up, create certainty about your experiences. It can also help guide you towards your future. Relevant in our current times, it can bolster our immune system making vaccines more effective19.
There are many benefits to journaling, but they are best characterize by Professor Joshua Smyth.
5. Give Yourself “Space”
Leo Babauta has (enviably) one of the most popular Blogs available, Zen Habits. The purpose is to “find simplicity and mindfulness in the chaos of daily life.” One of Batauta’s articles is called “10 Benefits of Rising Early, and How to Do It”. In the article, he discusses the major life transformation by getting up earlier- at 4:30 AM.
I’ve heard stories like this and until the past few years, never seriously considered them. I work long hours, so I’d plan little on my workdays. I’d sleep as late as possible, then rush off to work. I wasted a lot of time. But something changed. I started getting up between 5-7AM (depending on how late I worked) and dedicating those early morning hours to exploring, learning, and growing. What you do isn’t important as long as it is something that causes growth.
In thinking about this major change in my life (much like what Babauta describes), I began to understand its value. I came from a large family (5 little brothers). I work many hours and expend a lot of mental energy. What getting up early did for me was give me space to get to know myself when I wasn’t in the heat of the moment. It provided space to exist when I wasn’t rushing, stressed out, or overwhelmed.
I struggled with guilt giving myself this space. I silenced my phone, ignored those living with me. Eventually, I understood its worth. It has opened a door, giving my life meaning. l only wish I’d discovered this sooner…
People who go to bed later tend to experience more negative thoughts20. Morning folks are more persistent, cooperative, agreeable, and conscientious. These traits are correlated with highly successful people. Morning people tend to report better moods21. It provides you time to work on your passions. Additionally, this excitement can provide the motivation to get out of bed.
Aside from getting up earlier, set better boundaries. For many of us, this means understanding our baseline, our normal levels. Once we have wandered outside of these bounds, we need to reset. When we experience stress, this may be a sign that we need to enforce or reset a boundary. Turn off your notifications on your phone if you’re a boss. Put some time on your calendar for only you. Take that time.
Dr. Chad Buck gives some guidelines on how to set effective personal boundaries:
- Limits are clear and decisive, yet reasonable.
- Value is placed on your needs, as well as the needs of others.
- The focus is on authenticity instead of pleasing others or playing the victim.
- Boundaries are not the result of guilt, worry, fear, or shame.
- Boundaries help you to channel anger and frustration into helping you determine what is unacceptable rather than moving you to aggressive action or shutting you down.
- Boundaries are based in what the reality is instead of what you or another person wants reality to be22.
The important thing with these ideas is that you have the mental space to comfortably be your authentic self. The activity of giving yourself space grows exponentially. You will free up RAM in your mind that you didn’t know that you were using and give yourself even more “headspace” than you thought possible.
Our minds are…our minds. They work for us. They are not owned or operated by anyone else. We start with programming that has evolutionarily kept us alive. But this programming is not always helpful in the living of our day-to-day lives. And so it becomes important to take the reigns and make our minds work for ourselves.
Thankfully, there is more interest, research, and knowledge in this area than ever before. We have the opportunity to choose to use this for our benefit and put it to work. The mind is an amazing thing. And learning you can do more than you thought possible by unlocking your mind’s power is moving and inspiring. But don’t wait.
Life really is a gift. We don’t know how many weeks, days, months, or years we have. At the end of it all, we’ll have our book of experiences. Shouldn’t we try to make our experience worth experiencing? Start now!
- Kotler, Steven. 2021. The Art of the Impossible. Harper Collins. ISBN: 9780062977533