Tuesday, October 13, 2015
Staying Sane In An Insane World
"What a mistake that was!" I think to myself as I turn off the evening news. Like anyone else I want to know what’s going on in the world, but 30 minutes ago I was in a good mood. Now, after hearing negative story after negative story, I’m a bit melancholy. I decide I need a dose of endorphins, so I put on my workout gear for a little running therapy.
Dusk begins to settle in as I venture out into my neighborhood, beginning with a jog then progressing into a moderate paced run. I sometimes run with an ipod, but not tonight. I’m feeling the need to be without technology, running with just the sounds of nature and my thoughts.
Having just watched the news my thoughts are of course on the world today and how easily accessible information is. Between television, radio, internet and even the endangered newspaper, from the moment we wake up to the time we go to sleep we are easily inundated with information. Unfortunately, much of this information is negative. Frequent news topics such as the growing concerns over foreign policy, foreign relations, the economy, health care issues, and school shootings can easily provide many reasons to feel scared, angry, sad, or hopeless.
The media outlets, however, would not bombard us with this information, if in fact there was no demand for it. I’ve heard that various television networks have experimented over the years with a focus on positivity, which unfortunately resulted in poor ratings. People want to know, and certainly need to know, about the dangers in our world. That being said, while it may be human nature to want to know about the dangers and events in the world, it is possible to be overloaded, causing negative effects to both physical and mental health. Just as a boat only sinks if it lets in the water around it. Negativity will bring us down if we let it consume us.
But how do we prevent this? How do we make a difference in the world? How do we create positivity? Putting an end to all the stress and strife in the world is no simple task. Fortunately, there are things we can do which will have a positive effect on ourselves and our environment. Which, in the spirit of the expression “pay it forward”, will have a domino effect and lead to others benefiting as well.
Since I’m running, the first thing that comes to mind is exercise. There is a strong body and mind connection. By exercising regularly, both your brain and body become healthier. Scientists have been linking physical exercise to brain health for years and there is compelling evidence that physical exercise helps the brain resist shrinkage and increase cognitive abilities. For example, we now know that, regardless of your age, exercise promotes a process known as neurogenesis, which is your brain’s ability to adapt and grow new brain cells. Additionally exercise reduces cortisol levels, which in turn reduces stress and anxiety. All of these factors combine to make a more positive state of mind.
Positivity contributes to happiness and research has shown happiness to be contagious. I recently read about research in which the researchers looked at twenty years' worth of data on more than 5,000 individuals and found that when any one person was happy, their friends became more likely to share that joy.
Benefits spread out to three degrees of separation, meaning a better chance at happiness for not only their friends' friends, but also their friends' friends' friends. It’s been my experience that periodically challenging myself by stepping outside of my comfort zone, such as with a higher intensity or longer duration workout, leads to empowerment and as a result, greater happiness.
Getting outside also helps tremendously. Studies by researchers in England and Sweden have found that runners who exercise in a natural green setting with trees, foliage and landscape views, feel more restored, and less anxious, angry and depressed than those runners who do the same workout in a gym or other urban setting.
I have personally found that running outside at different times of day is also great for creating a pleasant state of mind.. For example, in the early morning I get to experience serenity from the stillness that exists in the hours pre-hustle and bustle of the work day. In the evening, I get to eliminate the stress that accumulated during the day and sometimes see some magnificent sunsets in the process.
Expressing gratitude is a common practice for producing positive emotions too. It’s certainly worked for me. Taking a few minutes each day to write down a few things we are grateful for in our life, whether big or small, brings on feelings of positivity.
I’ve been reading a lot lately about the health benefits of being creative and it’s quite fascinating. What I’ve learned, in a nutshell, is that the link between creativity and health has been well established, so anything that allows you to be more creative in your life benefits the physiology of your body and mind. Creative expression releases endorphins and other feel good neurotransmitters, reduces depression and anxiety, improves your immune function, relieves physical pain, and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, thereby lowering your heart rate, decreasing your blood pressure, slowing down your breathing, and lowering cortisol. I’ve experienced this first hand. Besides running, nothing puts me in the zone and helps me relax (or in the moment) like creative tasks. When I’m writing or doing home improvements, for example, the world is tuned out and I’m totally in the moment and stress free.
And of course, periodically disconnecting, as I have done for this run, is extremely important. Being connected all the time to a smart phone, mobile device or computer means we’re subject to interruptions, we’re constantly stressed about information coming in, we are at the mercy of the demands of others. It’s hard to slow down when you’re always checking new messages coming in. Disconnecting also means avoiding TV and radio, thereby avoiding being flooded by more negativity.
Adding fun into each day is often overlooked because adults mistakenly feel there is no place for it in their life. But this belief is false,play is absolutely crucial for everyone young and old. Just because we’re adults, that doesn't mean we have to take ourselves so seriously and make life all about work. We all need to have fun. Fun (a.k.a play) is a time to forget about work, commitments, and everyday stress. In one of my favorite TED talks, DR Stuart Brown of the National Institute for Play, suggests that a lack of play contributes to shrinkage of the brain. Sharing laughter and fun can also foster empathy, compassion, trust, and intimacy with others. It also helps us adapt and problem solve by stimulating our imagination.
On this thought I conclude my run. As anticipated my mood has been elevated, I’m now happy again. As I do a cool down walk I promise myself to practice all the things I’ve been thinking about. I hope you do too. The world is counting on us!