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The Importance of a Healthy Mind

“Where the head goes, the body follows. Perception precedes action. Right action follows the right perspective.” — Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle is the Way

Do you ever sit in awe of watching a master of their craft? How about Roger Federer, calmly, almost effortlessly navigating his way through a tournament, never wavering during the emotional highs and lows of a match, sticking closely to his routine in between sets? Or Rich Froning during a CrossFit competition, seeming almost to be on auto-pilot as he shifts from one movement to the next? Or as we recently saw at the Rio Olympics, the focus and concentration of Michael Phelps, knowing he can only control the water just in front of him and nothing else? The examples in the realm of athletics are endless but the same lessons can be applied to any career or aspect of life.

The Importance of a Healthy Mind

While it is amazing that the importance of physical fitness and proper nutrition is being publicized seemingly more than ever before, we often lose sight of other very critical aspects of health. Our mental wellbeing is just as important as, if not more important than, our physical wellness. These world-class athletes mentioned above are experts at managing stress and energy. How they prepare for and how they act during competition is not random. It is by design and without this remarkably honed skill, they would not be as accomplished as they are. However, we need not manage our stress properly to simply achieve some amazing athletic feat. We need to understand the impact on our health and the health of those closest to us that chronic stress can have. It is widely believed that the impact of stress — especially chronic stress — on the human body greatly increases the risk of developing a variety of diseases such as asthma, arthritis, cancer, hypertension, heart disease, migraine headaches, strokes and ulcers (1). Psychoneuroimmunology is the study of the interaction of the mind, nervous system and immune system and their impact on our overall health. Stressors begin in the mind and our inability to cope with these perceived or real (or imagined to be real) threats can trigger a series of physiological responses and adaptations (1). In simple terms, if we are constantly worrying, constantly under pressure (whether self-administered or not) and are unable to channel these emotions accordingly, our bodies are spending way too much time dealing with this rather than our normal bodily functions — cue illness. So whether you are in tie-breakers in the finals at Wimbledon, a lawyer about to give your opening statement or a dad trying to feed one child and change the other, maintaining a clear mind and channeling your stress appropriately is the way to ensure that these tasks are successfully completed. The next few paragraphs will provide some tips and insights on how to keep your stress in check and your head clear.

Cultivate Healthy Relationships

Throughout our lives, we will form or encounter an innumerable number of relationships. Each relationship, no matter how short or long, good or bad, offers a unique opportunity to reexamine our innermost selves and, if necessary, reform our behavior. A healthy relationship is one where there is ongoing, mutual trust, respect, care, honesty and sharing. The environment must be non-judgmental and unconditional — a safe haven, if you will. Creating these healthy relationships can not only help provide us with opportunities to share our stress and problems with those close to us but can also help eliminate many perceived threats by having a healthy dialogue with friends and family. Uncover empathy, compassion and kindness. Empathy is the foundation of any meaningful relationship (4). It gives us the sense that our inner feelings truly resonate with another person. It can also provide deep insight into how another is feeling. This doesn’t mean we have to agree with everyone about everything. We can be empathetic toward someone that we wish would act differently but it allows us to give the willingness to be moved by another person. I recently visited the Philippines and I never saw so many people that were so genuinely compassionate and empathetic toward others. True kindness. This was nationwide, not just in one small town. I never saw people who had so little, by American standards, be willing to give so much. It was life-changing. It truly moved me. Maybe this is the secret to true happiness…

Sleep

Sleep is an astonishing and actually somewhat creepy phenomena. The amount of activity going on in our body and brain while we sleep is absurd and a good night’s sleep (eight to 10 hours) is no doubt critical to our continued existence. Our brains are busy at work storing information from the previous day, solving problems, detoxifying and repairing cells. There are different types of sleep — shallow sleep (stages one and two) where you are easily awakened, deep sleep (stages three and four, or "slow wave sleep"), and REM sleep where our eyes dart around in our heads and dreams happen (2). These stages aren’t random but rather specifically choreographed so that our bodies can repair and replenish effectively. We start off in shallow sleep, gradually drift into deep sleep before "rising" back into REM sleep, then go back into shallow sleep again. We repeat this process every 90 minutes or so (2). During the different stages of sleep, our stress hormones go through a period of controlled ebbs and flows. These changes are very important in controlling our stress hormones — if we don’t sleep enough or sleep well enough, we are likely to be more irritable and, in turn, experience difficulty falling asleep. So, being stressed makes it difficult to fall asleep and not enough sleep causes us to be stressed — quite a malicious cycle. Some good ways to combat stress prior to going to bed is with meditation and deep breathing exercises. Vigorous deep breathing, such as the breathing that occurs during exercise or conscious breathing during mediation, enhances flow of lymph fluid through a type of breathing called belly-breathing. Babies come into this world belly-breathing. It is something that adults should relearn to promote optimal immune function (1). One of the reasons the flow of our lymph fluid is important is because our lymphatic system is crucial to the integrity of our immune system and it does not have a pump (like the heart) to force it through the body. All of our lymph fluid must pass through our strategically placed lymph nodes throughout the body. Waiting at the lymph nodes are special white blood cells, called T cells, which wait on alert for foreign materials (1). Think of these T cells like airport security, providing a checkpoint before any substances are able to pass. Won’t take your shoes off? Mysterious liquid in your suitcase? Not welcome! Our controlled belly-breathing allows for a consistent oozing of this lymph fluid, keeping this airport security team prepped and ready to ruin the bad guys’ vacations! For a meditation idea, try laying in bed, relaxing every single tip of your body starting from the bottom up. Think about each and every muscle and feel them calm down. Completely remove yourself from whatever is worrying you. Imagine yourself in a place that makes you feel completely at ease and try staying there for a couple of minutes. You may be amazed at how much better you feel almost instantaneously.

Perspective

This may be the most important aspect of creating a healthy mind. Our perceptions aren’t always reality. We are often deceived by our perceptions. Rather, it is what lies beneath them that truly matters. How often do we react emotionally? All this does is turn bad situations into really bad situations. When we take the time to evaluate how bad things really are (often not that bad at all), we can find a way to flip the obstacle in front of us and use it to our advantage. We have a choice. It won’t be easy, but we do have a choice… Think about it. How truly bad is your current situation? Do you have eyes that see? Legs that walk? How about a home? Steady meals? Is the traffic jam you are in really that bad? (Maybe use that time in traffic as a time to practice your meditation, eyes open of course.) Or this deadline your boss imposed — is it really impossible to meet? Or are you just reacting emotionally, because you haven’t taken the time to analyze the situation? A clear head makes for steady hands. This isn’t to say you aren’t allowed to get pissed off. Go ahead and burn off some steam, maybe kick over the trash can in your cubicle. But where is that anger going to get you? Is it really going to make anything better? That deadline still exists and you still have to meet it. So cheer up, suck it up and find the solution. Life could always be worse. As the Stoics say — in all things, cheerfulness. We live in an extremely fast-paced society and that pace seems to be ever quickening. The stress mounts and we tend to lose sight of what is truly important — the situation at hand. If you have a chance, look up all of the companies that were started during a depression or economic crisis. The list may surprise you. In fact, half of the companies in the Fortune 500 were started during a bear market or recession, including FedEx, Walt Disney Co., Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and Proctor & Gamble (3). How did this happen? It’s because the leaders and founders of these companies were too busy focusing on the task at hand, rather than the "big picture." They had a job to do and a great idea they believed in. They didn’t waste time thinking about what was fair or unfair or worry about what everybody else was doing. They lived in the present. New England Patriots' head coach Bill Belichick often uses the phrase "ignore the noise" when speaking to his team. That is exactly what the leaders of these companies were doing. Now, living in the present isn’t easy, just as it isn’t easy dealing with a traffic jam, a frustrating work assignment or a house full of screaming children. These are things we have to work at, one moment at a time. Remember, whether positive or negative, where the mind goes the body will follow...

Be Great

Everything we do is a chance to learn. A chance to be great. Everything. Only self-absorbed people think they are too good for whatever their current situation requires. We may not always like our current situation but sometimes we just have to do things we would rather not do. It is part of the process. We may fail and that is just fine. We’ll likely find the answer by finding what is not the answer. I promise you will be better for it. No one in the history of the universe woke up great. Not Marcus Aurelius, not Michael Jordan. Don’t worry about what might happen in two weeks, two months, two years or 10 years. Dial in to the task at hand, "the water six inches in front of your face," as Michael Phelps does. After all, that is all you can control. That is "the process" — trust it.

Resources
  1. "Invitation to Holistic Health: A Guide to Living a Balanced Life." Dr. Charlotte Eliopoulos, Dr. Charlotte. 2010.
  2. "Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping." Robert M. Sapolsky. 2004.
  3. "The Obstacle is the Way." Ryan Holiday. 2014.
  4. "Buddah’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom." Dr. Rick Hanson. 2009.