Looking after Number One

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As you will see, it is somewhat ironic that I sit here writing this entry at 2am in a Starbucks Cafe in Washington DC, a long way from the place I call home – Sydney. Yet it is oft the absence of something that hammers home its importance to us.

 

I look back on three pivotal events that have defined the last few years of my life; going through depression, catching glandular fever, and finding purpose. The first two taught me the importance of looking after ourselves properly, the latter provided me with a powerful incentive.

 

Now some time ago, I wrote about the investment we can make in ourselves, and that I believe this to be the most valuable investment we make in our lives. It pays back with some serious interest. I’d like to follow up on this.

 

I didn’t learn a great deal from my Neuroscience studies (except that the aroma of formaldehyde should never be combined with a hangover), but what stands out is that the body is at all times a quite remarkable and fine chemical balance. It is so easy to knock our bodies off balance, and we really feel the effects of doing so. I’ve recently been reading Matt Church’s ‘High Life 24/7’, and he mentions that one night of no sleep can affect us for up to six weeks after – that’s how long it takes for our bodies to return to their proper chemical balance. That one night of missed sleep in isolation is not much of a health risk, but it may be the reason why you wake up the odd day feeling lethargic, and your day is worse for it. How that could have been avoided…

 

He refers to give key areas of our lives that have a significant impact on our chemical balance; nutrition, sleep, exercise, thought patterns and how we deal with stress. I’d venture that social connection should be number six, as this has been shown by research to have a significant impact on our neural chemistry. Now I’ve met very, very few people who I believe take good care of each of these areas. Simple habits such as drinking lots of coffee, eating fast food, sleeping in at the weekend, staying up past when we’re tired, missing out on gym sessions and letting stress control them can have negative consequences beyond what we realise. They can knock us off-kilter, leaving us wondering why we feel tired, snappy, uncreative or disillusioned when there seems to be no obvious life circumstance at the cause. This is rather an obstacle to us achieving our goals, whether they be in our working lives or just life satisfaction.

 

However, there is an enormous, gargantuan opportunity within this. The sheer scope of this opportunity has only begun to register in my consciousness since I arrived in Sydney five months ago. The opportunity is that if we can learn to listen to our body chemistry, to understand our needs and develop habits that nourish them, then we are potentially better off for every day of the rest of our lives. If we can understand the ideal sleep pattern for ourselves, eat well, exercise as much as we need, develop great strategies for stress and learn positive thinking habits…then everything in our life benefits; productivity, creativity, contentment, relationships, confidence, learning, purpose, passion…We can do more, better, and we feel more fucking awesome about it. Not bad.

 

So why the heck are so few people developing these habits? There are a few obstacles. Lack of knowledge of what these needs are in ourselves and the habits we should develop. Lack of time or patience to implement them. But I think the biggest obstacle, and I’ve written about this before, is that we’re bloody awful at being self-aware. Whether it be because of the western favouritism of logic over intuition, or the fast pace of modern life, we plain suck at tuning in to our bodies and minds. But this extra time spent on self-reflection means that we get more out of all of the rest of our time.

 

I’m not theorising. I firmly believe in the importance of understanding these needs and habits – and preferably doing so young – because I’ve benefitted enormously from it. At some stages of uni I was sleeping four hours a night, drinking a lot of alcohol, using caffeine to get through the day, not taking the time to cook and eat properly and running off pure adrenaline much of the time. The dips could be extreme, I was frequently getting ill and wasn’t getting anywhere near my own potential. Nowadays I eat really well, drink only water, consume no caffeine most days, cycle every day and get a solid sleep almost every night. The difference is staggering. I feel better, and I’m capable of much more than I previously thought. I also learn and develop much faster than before. It’s very rare that I wake up and don’t feel full of energy/optimism for the day, and I’ve had one day off ill in five months. I feel that embedding these habits now (and continuing to improve them) will allow me to get more from my life for the foreseeable future, and in all likelihood will make my life longer too.

 

Convinced yet? If not, pick up a copy of one of Matt Church’s books and see for yourself how much more awesome your life could be. And let’s be honest, we’d all rather like that. I see this as building a foundation upon which we can flourish for the rest of our lives. It’s not sexy, but the rewards are phenomenal.

 

So with all this in mind…how much better would this entry have been if I was more well-rested, had been eating better food, exercising more and feeling more settled? I guess we’ll never know for sure, but I would venture it would be a fair bit better…

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Fatigue…why are you bothering me?

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These past two days I spent bushwalking at the Royal National Park. I took the famous and popular Coastal Track from Bundeena down to Otford. Prior to beginning on Sunday, I had a feeling that I really needed to do this walk and had been feeling pretty fatigued in the lead up to it. Now a day and a half later, having gotten up at 5:20am on Sunday to begin the 4 hour journey (cycle, train, ferry) to the walk’s start point, and having covered the better part of 30km on foot (over some tough terrain) and 20km on bike whilst spending last night sleeping uncomfortably in a tent, I now find myself feeling distinctly refreshed. I feel incredibly relaxed, my mind is not jumping from one task or decision to the next and I keep laughing at the most unlikely things.

Otford (the walk’s end point) found itself one of the main objects of my amusement. Having seen signposts to it from the beginning, starting at 26km and gradually getting whittled down by our relentless walking, it held this magical allure as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow (the Coastal Walk, of course, being the rainbow in this tenuous analogy). I had rather hoped to find a pub when we reached it, or at the very least a cafe where I could grab the hot chocolate I had been daydreaming of when we set out on pouring rain and harsh winds that morning. To find that it contained little more than three roads, three houses (one was in construction), some signposts (mainly containing the names of Otford’s roads, in case you couldn’t find one of the other two) and a railway station stimulated feelings of disappointment outweighed by feelings of amusement. I found it all very funny, which made me rather happy.

However, this piece of writing is not dedicated to Otford’s charms or lack thereof. In fact, no piece of writing ever should be dedicated to Otford. If it was, I wouldn’t read it (I might out of curiosity when no one was looking).

It’s about Fatigue.

So.

Naturally upon acknowledging my feelings of refreshment upon finishing the walk, the next thought to enter my head was ‘why?’. Indeed. And then I asked myself why we ever feel tired. What causes this?

Our first instinct often is that we need more sleep. Or a holiday. Somehow we summse the lack of sleep and/or holiday is at the root of our feeling worn out. I don’t doubt this can be the case, but I would venture that the roots of fatigue can be complex, and often cumulative. I believe that doing one kind of activity for too long can wear us out, whether it be the same job, the same routine, the same lifestyle. If you don’t change it up, those areas of our brain being utilised by these activities don’t get a break in which to recover.

For instance at the end of my time travelling I was exhausted. It wasn’t a hard lifestyle; I was able to make up each day as I felt, never worried about somewhere to sleep or food to eat. But I felt so fatigued by that lifestyle. Travelling has great variety true, but although the places change and the people too, the conversations you have and the type of things you do in each place become quite repetitive. I was shattered, and yet raring to get in to my new work and new life in Sydney. On the face of it, that sounds more exhausting, but I had so much energy for this different challenge – much more than for travelling.

Reading is a great love of mine as a means of winding down, but in recent times that’s not always helped. If I’ve had a brain-bending day that challenges me to work through problems, then reading a non-fiction book that engages me in a similar way does not help – it just wears me out further. However, reading a novel does help.

The realisation that I think I’m coming to from this rather anecdotal blog, is that when we look at how much energy we are using, we should not look just at the activities we’re doing, but how they work our brains. My long walk refreshed me, because the parts of my brain usually utilised by the work I do were able to go on holiday. In fact, trying to access them actually required a lot of effort. Instead I had been thinking about my environment, watching for the terrain, taking in the sounds, picturing Otford…

In recent weeks I’ve not been bouncing out of bed in the usual energetic manner, ideas and connections weren’t flowing like I’m used to and physically I hadn’t been feeling too well. Yet, I had changed little in my lifestyle (if anything getting more sleep and downtime) and this presented physically. I find it fascinating that this can be so; that mental fatigue presents in a physical way. I feel that mental health and physical health are so intricately connected, and as society begins to accept and discuss mental health, the depth and extent of this connection will only increase in our consciousness.

It also demonstrates the value of building in to our lifestyles activities that work different parts of our brain. Activities that require such focus that you don’t reflect on work. Perhaps sport or creative hobbies.

I’m certainly going to take that lesson on board, and reflect a little more in this subject in the mean time.

And next time I feel tired, I might just take another long walk. To Otford.

P.S. One more thing. If there’s one takeaway action, it’s this: spend a day without turning on and using your phone or computer (or tablet). Acknowledge how uncomfortable feels, and how remarkable it is that this was probably the norm a few decades ago. What I found, is that it is also very relaxing. Your stress levels noticeably drop.

Why does sunshine make us so happy?

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Well it does, doesn’t? We all know that beautiful feeling of waking up, looking out of the window and seeing blue skies with sunshine streaming in. It puts us in a great mood straight away. Conversely, when up above you is a blanket of grey clouds, we feel pretty fed up. A funny little observation I’ve made since being in Sydney is that people here, broadly speaking, are a little more friendly and cheery than in the UK. And it really is a noticeable enough trend to be obvious. And yet much of the population shares the same ancestry, so how did that happen? The UK’s not that bad is it?

But I’m not going to spend this blog convincing you that sunshine makes us feel happy. Most of us have already had this insight and if you haven’t…well you should probably stop reading here as the rest of the blog is based on this assumption. And you’re probably living somewhere without much sunlight – like Antarctica maybe. Go and take a holiday in the Caribbean and then read it again.

Neuroscientists have identified the physiological basis of this improvement in mood that occurs when we receive more sunlight. Depending on what you read, you will hear about increases in certain chemicals called endorphins and serotonin. Both have been frequently linked to mood, and indeed the main form of drug treatment for depression is a series of drugs called SSRIs, which artificially raise our levels of serotonin. I touched on the subject in an earlier blog (linked to brain changes blog).

For most Neuroscientists, they think that this increase in chemicals is a splendid answer to the question of the title. But not for me. You see, mood is an adaptive mechanism that has evolved over time to give us a biological advantage. We have reward pathways in the brain, which exist to give us a positive feeling when we do something that is good for us i.e. anything that helps us to survive or create more mini people. Likewise they give us a negative feeling when we do the opposite. Of course there are plenty of examples where this can go horribly wrong – such as with some recreational drugs, which act very powerfully on these reward mechanisms and confuse the hell out of our bodies.

So emotion isn’t just there because it’s nice to feel happy. It has a more adaptive purpose. With that in mind, why does the sun lift our mood? Or rather, why does our reward mechanism in the brain tell us that being in the sun is AWESOME? When I connect up the dots I’m left with the conclusion that sunlight obviously has an impact on our bodies that is important for us physiologically – important for our survival and health.

The best answer I can come up with is Vitamin D. Sunlight is well known to increase Vitamin D in our bodies, a vitamin that is quite tricky to get from any other source in the same quantity as from the sun. It’s good for our teeth, bones AND does truly marvellous things for our immune system. Well that’s pretty awesome. I guess with that in mind, it would make some sense that our brain is telling us to go and soak up more of it.

The bizarre lead on then from this then, is that those of us living in countries without much sunlight and feeling miserable (typically associated with higher levels of mental illness, especially seasonal affective disorder and even higher suicide rates) are actually receiving feedback from our brains telling us to LEAVE. It’s basically saying to you, “Look, you can stay in this country with its rubbish weather where I’m not going to get any of that delicious Vitamin D I like, but I’m going to make you feel bloody miserable if you do.” If this was the most powerful driving force for humans, we would probably see a very different population density across the globe, with hoards of people moving to Latin America and the Caribbean, and no one left in Scandinavia or the UK. I don’t know what would happen to Eskimos.

So those are my two cents on the matter. Hopefully I’ll uncover more reasons why our brains have adapted to encourage us to get outside in the lovely sunshine.

And in the mean time go and listen to ‘Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone’ by Bill Withers. It’s been in my head the whole time I’ve been writing this blog…