The connection between your mental and physical health

The connection between your mental and physical health

One of the most powerful symbiotic relationships that are often overlooked is the one between mental health and physical health. If you have poor physical health, it is highly likely that your mental health will decline as well. Whether it’s diabetes, obesity, or another illness your mental health is directly affected. Regardless of your range of healthiness, you can make changes that will improve your overall health. Here are a few suggestions to consider.

 

The yin-yang of physical and mental health

You already know that there is an endless list of benefits of being physically healthy. From increased energy to longevity of life, there are more pros to being in the best physical health possible. You have the power to increase the possibility of remaining healthy. Your gut is a powerhouse that keeps microbes in your body in synch. Think about the last time you felt nervous. You probably felt your stomach churn. That’s because the fight-or-flight response in your brain causes blood flow to your gut to halt or slow down. This means that your physical body is directly affected by your mental health. One will always affect the other that’s why you want to find a balance that works for you.

Activity and exercise

Good physical health starts with being active. Whether it’s a walk around the neighborhood, going for a swim, or working out at the gym, keeping active is key. Have you ever felt bad after a workout? Probably not because you felt better and had more energy afterward. This is highly beneficial for your mental health. Being active releases endorphins and a host of other ‘feel good’ chemicals in the brain. This flooding of chemicals can lead you to feel happier, more content, and less depressed. This healthy step for your physical self has a direct positive impact on your mental health as well.

Food and diet

Your food choices can be directly linked to how you feel. If you are having a stressful day and not feeling your best, you may reach for carbohydrate-rich foods. It seems like a cliché but think about how the media portrays an upset and emotional woman. They show her crying and eating a pint of ice cream. Doing this now and then won’t wreak havoc on your body. However, continuing to eat sugary foods will impact your physical health through weight gain and the risk of diabetes. If you eat heavy carbohydrate food, it’s less likely you will want to go for a walk after dinner. Making food choices that involve vegetables and fruit can help both you’re physical as well as mental health.

How to change both for the better?

You start by deciding and committing to make a change in your health. Knowing you want to change your habits is just the start. You have to be willing to take action. This looks different for each person. The change you may be ready to make is to commit to increasing your activity each week. Your goal for change is your personal goal, no one else’s. Keep this in mind if you begin to compare yourself to others. Deciding each day what small changes you can make add up to a significant impact.

Don’t be discouraged if you don’t reach your goals every time. The goal isn’t perfection; it’s persistence. If you slip up in your quest for better health, you can start over the next day. Take time to figure out what makes you happy and brings you peace. Maybe it’s having a day off where you do something fun or creative. It’s your responsibility to do what you need to improve your physical and mental health. Once you realize the connection, you will want to continue to strive to live your healthiest life.

Is Studying for the EPPP Affecting Your Mental Health?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Studying for the EPPP can be a stressful and overwhelming undertaking. Stress can be a normal part of the EPPP preparation process, therefore we must learn to manage it. But, what happens when it becomes more than stress and studying begins to affect your mental health?

In order to address the effect of studying on your mental health, you must first know the warning signs. Here are three signs that your mental health is being affected by studying.

  1. Panic Attack

A panic attack is characterized by any number of the following symptoms: shortness of breath, racing heart, dizziness, the sense that you’ve lost control, feeling faint, or a sense of terror.

If you do experience a panic attack, don’t try to fight it off. Instead, breathe deeply, engage yourself in your surroundings and allow the panic to subside.

  1. Forgetfulness

A surprising symptom of anxiety is forgetfulness. Because anxiety is overwhelming and consuming, it can cause you to forget things such as what you highlighted in last night’s study session. Furthermore, a hormone called cortisol is released when we experience stress. Cortisol is known for preventing the formation of memories.

  1. Depression

Symptoms of depression include feelings of sadness, disinterest in activities you once enjoyed, lack of energy, and anxiety. Experiencing depression during EPPP preparation can affect your motivation to study as well as your ability to maintain a healthy balance between studying and time with family and friends.

If you experience any, or a combination, of the above, then the stress of taking the EPPP is affecting your mental health. This means it is time to take a step back and get help. Talk to a trusted friend and seek professional help. A counselor can advise you on how to move forward through depression and anxiety.

If you don’t identify with the above symptoms, maintaining good mental health is key. Here are 3 ways to stay mentally healthy during EPPP prep.

  1. Know the warning signs of stress and burnout

Everyone reacts to stress differently, but here are a few possible warning signs of stress per The American Psychological Association (APA): Headaches, muscle tension, neck or back pain; Upset stomach; Dry mouth; Chest pains and rapid heartbeat; Difficulty falling or staying asleep; Fatigue.

Furthermore, if you feel like you have nothing left to give, you may be experiencing burnout.

Look at stress relief strategies here.

  1. Schedule breaks

When you create your study schedule, be sure to include breaks. During periods of rest, our brains store and organize the material we have learned. So, not only are breaks giving you rest to combat anxiety, but they are helping your memory and retention.

Your breaks should include small 5-10 minute breaks as well as longer 30 minute ones. Be sure to incorporate a good night’s sleep as well.

  1. Gratitude

Thinking thankful thoughts can literally detox your brain.  Thinking negatively creates toxins in your brain that can be combatted by shifting your thinking to positivity. By cultivating a positive, gratuitous attitude, you can starve your inclination to think negatively.

Not only will gratitude detox your brain and make you happier in general, but it will reduce stress and anxiety, ultimately making you mentally healthier.

References

Dunn, Carrie. “Mind over Matter: The Effects of Studying on Mental Health.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 6 Dec. 2008, www.theguardian.com/education/

2008/dec/06/mental-health-university-students.

“How Anxiety Can Cause Forgetfulness.” 7 Strategies for Dealing With Work Anxiety, www.calmclinic.com/anxiety/symptoms/forgetfulness.

“Listening to the Warning Signs of Stress .” Monitor on Psychology, American Psychological Association, www.apa.org/helpcenter/stress-signs.aspx.

Further Reading:

There’s no such thing as a normal brain

Well, that’s good to hear. One of my old supervisors called it “graduate student disease”. As soon as we would cover a disorder in class or practicum, suddenly everyone in my cohort agreed that they had it. We spend so much time dwelling on psychopathology that it is next to impossible not to see some of the characteristics reflected in ourselves.

Thankfully, none of us actually had any major psychopathologies (aside from some anxiety, but who doesn’t in graduate school, right?). I’m sure that you all, my loyal readers, are also (for the most part) alright. Which brings us to our topic for this week. There is no such thing as a normal brain [1]. In fact, psychology shows us that there is not really any such thing as a “normal person” either [2].

 

To illustrate this point, we can go back to an example of the 1920s United States Air Force. Todd Rose details a specific instance in the Air Force at the genesis of jet-powered planes [3]. The government agency hired several research assistants to take the measurements of many pilots in order to find the mean measurements of them all [3]. The cockpits of the planes would then be fitted to the “average pilot” [3]. As the reader has probably anticipated, this did not turn out to be the best method. Even with the extreme accuracy and breadth of data collected, there were still a staggering number of “pilot errors” and complaints of not fitting within the cockpit [3].

It wasn’t until the 1940s that finally a Lieutenant decided to compare the measurements of each of the Air Force’s pilots to the arithmetic mean “individual” that they had created from all the data points [3]. Surely the average would at least account for a decent proportion of those individuals, right? [3]. What Lieutenant Daniels found was that there was not even one individual who fit into the “average” measurements that were taken [3]. That’s right, ZERO [3].

It’s easy to brush this off as a fluke. However, our field seems to back this up. Holmes and Patrick [4] agreed that variability is not only normal, but it is necessary. They explained that there is a larger issue with our society that encourages the population to push toward some artificial, imagined average [4]. They encourage variations in our culture and in our population [4]. It is important as an adaptive and evolutionary function [4].

In the past, our society essentially needed averages so that we could attempt to address the majority of the population or “do the most good”. However, in our extremely progressive world, science has allowed to tailor everything to the individual. Rose and Ogas describe this as a “science of the individual” [2]. They explain that there is enough knowledge to conform the systems of nutrition, genetics, medicine, neuroscience, biology, and even psychology to the individual [2].

However, how do we know a psychopathology then? Surely each difference being necessary in an evolutionary standpoint cannot stand up when faced with the idea of disordered behavior [1]. Avram Holmes [4] argues that there simply cannot be a single phenotype alone that is worth diagnosing a psychological disorder. Behavior develops and is maintained as it serves some sort of function for the individual [5]. This means that the behavior alone is not implicitly “good” or “bad” [1].

Holmes [4] described studying a myriad of phenotypes simultaneously to understand whether or not a person should be diagnosed with something that is clinically relevant. With this in mind, biomarkers are then much more difficult to see as adequate predictors of psychological illnesses [4]. He explains that that there a single biomarker would never be enough to cause a psychological illness. In order to better predict this, he notes that a broader approach should be taken [1].

This is good news for those of us suffering from “graduate school disease”. When we see single variations in ourselves that could lend itself to a disorder, that is never enough to be able to diagnose a psychopathology or disordered behavior [1].

This is also good news for our clients. As budding clinicians, we are required to take into consideration the entire picture of the client—to tailor our field to fit more with the model of “the science of the individual” [2]. There is no singular line that we can draw between a “healthy” or “normal” brain compared to a “pathologized” or “disordered” one, let alone person [1].

 

References

  1. Cell Press (2018, February 20). When it Comes to Our Brains, There’s No Such Thing as Normal. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved February 20, 2018 from http://neurosciencenews.com/brain-normal-8527/
  2. Rose, T., & Ogas, O. (2018). There Is No Average Person. Here’s Why.. Psychology Today. Retrieved 19 April 2018, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-science-the-individual/201601/there-is-no-average-person-heres-why
  3. Rose, T. (2016). The end of average: How to succeed in a world that values sameness. Penguin UK.
  4. Holmes, A. J., & Patrick, L. M. (2018). The myth of optimality in clinical neuroscience. Trends in cognitive sciences.
  5. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied behavior analysis.

3 Ways to Rediscover the Joy on Your Path to Licensure

Many EPPP candidates admit that joy is hard to find during the study process. They experience a mental fatigue that can affect their attitude towards their career path as well as success on exam day. Although studying is likely the dominant factor in their mental fatigue, other circumstances can be blamed such as family trouble or stress at work.

Plenty of research on happiness has pointed to the fact that joy is created from the inside out as opposed to resulting from life circumstances. Therefore, to overcome mental fatigue and find joy, you must get outside of your own head.

Here are three ways to get out of your head and rediscover joy.

 

1. Be Healthy

Exercise is often the first item on the list that we sacrifice for additional study hours. Skipping out on the gym, however, can impact our experience of joy. Exercise releases endorphins, increases energy levels and oxygen flow to the brain, and ultimately increases memory and retention abilities. Consider exercise as part of your study routine.

Eating right is the second half of the healthy equation. Certain foods can increase your energy levels and help you focus. Eating leafy greens, for example, can make your brain function like it did when it was younger – sharper and more energized.2. Be Mindful

In short, mindfulness is purposefully paying attention to the moment. Because of our prefrontal cortex, we can observe our thinking and censor our own thoughts instead of falling victim to negative and passive thinking. Practice mindfulness by exercising moment-by-moment awareness of what is going on in your brain and body. Notice when you feel overwhelmed by EPPP study. On the flip side, notice when you are relaxed and experiencing happiness.

Mindfulness will come more easily with practice. Eventually, you may be able to tune into your emotions more quickly by recognizing how they alert your body. For example, perhaps you notice constant headaches and fatigue despite getting sufficient sleep. These are indicators that you are stressed. Through practicing mindfulness, you may be able to understand your body’s emotion indicators before you become overly stressed and eventually burnt out.

3. Be Grateful

Practicing gratitude can literally detoxify your brain. On average, we experience thousands of thoughts daily. Most of them flow into our mind quickly without us choosing to think them. Even if only a small percentage of our thoughts are negative, they can still number in the hundreds and affect our joy.

To cast out the negative thoughts, start by noticing them. Then, when you notice a negative thought, think about something or someone you are truly grateful for. Picture your beloved pet, your spouse, your child, or your career aspirations and achievements. Bringing yourself to a genuine feeling of gratitude will make the negativity vanish.

 

Further Reading

Exercise and Passing the EPPP: Why you Should Include Exercise in your EPPP Study Schedule

Brain Food: Holiday Treats to Boost Your EPPP Success

How Peace of Mind is a Skill That Can Be Developed With Practice 

The Three B’s of Mindfulness: Breath, Body and Brain

Use Gratitude to Detoxify Your Brain

A Healthy Brain for Exam Prep Success

How do you spend your time when you’re not studying or working? What you do during your time off may be just as important as what you do while you’re studying. Be careful how you treat your brain!

Just as an Olympic athlete will take care of his body even during off season when he is not training or competing, those preparing for the EPPP  (or any major exam) should take care of their minds even during those times of the day when you’re not actually studying.

Neuroscientists have done experiments on habitual actions and have noticed that they can literally alter the physiological structure of the brain. Something as simple as responding immediately to a text message, mindlessly scrolling through Facebook or Twitter, or checking your email with every notification can be enough to train your brain to find attentiveness difficult, to find quiet contemplation awkward, and to find sustained concentration and patience to be a chore.

In other words, our neoplastic brains adapt to the situations we put them in, and this adaptation is not always for the better. When you pass your EPPP and become a licensed psychologist, you will need qualities like attentiveness, concentration, patience, and contemplation. What you do now – minute to minute – is creating the neuropathways in your brain that make these qualities easier or more difficult.

Of course, no one can live completely free of distractions. And it’s important you have time to relax doing something enjoyable. There’s nothing wrong with spending time on social media or texting someone back quickly. The key, however, is to confine such activity to your off hours and to give your full attention and focus to your studies when you sit down to study. Best of all, if you create the habit of applying full focus during study time, you’ll find it easier to apply that focus in other study sessions and for the marathon that is exam day.

How to Overcome Test Anxiety with help from the Russian Special Forces

It’s not what you think.  While the difficulty of Special Forces training around the world is known to be extreme, especially among the few who have actually endured it, what the Russian Spetsnaz goes through is on another level.

The stresses that such rigors impose upon those undergoing it would also likely be unbearable for them were it not for the psychological tools they are provided with to help them cope.

Where do these tools come from?  They are found within the Russian Martial Art simply known as the “System” or Systema in Russian.  While its core skills and training methods are believed to be about eleven hundred years old, it was scientifically refined into its current form in the later half of the twentieth century by Soviet researchers and engineers (think Ivan Drago’s trainers in Rocky IV).

However, the communist government restricted its knowledge and practice to only its most capable forces within the Spetznaz and KGB.  It was not until the fall of Communism that this secretive system was revealed to anyone outside of these elite units.

 

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Four Ways Mindfulness Can Help Regulate Your Emotion

Mindfulness—moment by moment non-judgmental awareness of the body and its sensations—has been associated with better emotional management and self-regulation. (For a definition of mindfulness, see our earlier article ‘The Three B’s of Mindfulness: Breath, Body and Brain‘.) Here is just a smattering of the emerging academic research on the relationship between mindfulness and emotional maturity:

  • Shauna L. Shapiro, Gary E. Schwartz, and Ginny Bonner, “Effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction on Medical and Premedical Students,” Journal of Behavioral Medicine 21, no. 6 (December 1, 1998): 581–99, doi:10.1023/A:1018700829825.
  • Ortner, C. N., Kilner, S. J., & Zelazo, P. D. (2007). Mindfulness meditation and reduced emotional interference on a cognitive task. Motivation and Emotion, 31(4), 271–283.
  • Metz, S. M., Frank, J. L., Reibel, D., Cantrell, T., Sanders, R., & Broderick, P. C. (2013). The effectiveness of the learning to BREATHE program on adolescent emotion regulation. Research in Human Development, 10(3), 252–272.
  • Schonert-Reichl, K. A., Oberle, E., Lawlor, M. S., Abbott, D., Thomson, K., Oberlander, T. F., & Diamond, A. (2015). Enhancing cognitive and social–emotional development through a simple-to-administer mindfulness-based school program for elementary school children: A randomized controlled trial. Developmental Psychology, 51(1), 52-66.

But exactly how does mindfulness help with emotional regulation and maturity?

First of all, mindfulness can help us better to manage our emotional states simply by calming us down. Research shows that when mindfulness is practiced in the context of meditative breathing (i.e., spending time taking deep breaths, bringing your entire attention to the present-moment sensation of breathing), it helps to slow down the heart-rate and underscore feelings of safety, and thus to shift the brain away from the types of fight-flight-freeze responses that hijack the higher cognitive functions. (For more about this, see our earlier article “The Power of Positive Breathing.”) When we are calm, we are able to think clearer, and thus not be as subject to emotional impulses.

Secondly, the skills that mindfulness helps us to develop – skills like attentional control, self-awareness and meta-cognition – all involve the same mental muscles involved in emotional maturity and self-regulation.

A third way that mindfulness can help with emotional self-regulation is to increase the gap between stimulus and response. Research shows that emotions are often experienced first in the body before they are recognized by the conscious mind. (See our earlier post “The Emotional Body” for evidence of this.) For example, resentment may be felt in a tightening of the neck; fear may be felt in a speeding up of the heart-rate; anxiety may be experienced as an increase in the rhythm of one’s breathing. Because of this link between emotion and physiology, achieving moment-by-moment awareness of the body and its sensations (mindfulness) can give a person advanced warning about ways their emotions are being triggered. This advanced warning gives us time to engage in emotional self-monitoring and ask ourselves what the healthiest response actually is, instead of waiting until our emotions overwhelm us and we simply react. As Viktor Frankl observed in his classic Man’s Search for Meaning, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

A fourth way mindfulness can help regulate emotions was suggested by Dr. Ron Siegel’s in his video “The Science of Mindfulness” below. Dr. Siegel, who is Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School, explains that often our approach to emotional discomfort is to do things that make us feel happier, and thus to decrease the intensity of discomfort and pain. Mindfulness works the other way round, by increasing our ability to bear with discomfort, both on the physical and emotional level. When our capacity to bear with emotional discomfort is enlarged, we are less likely to react to our emotions or to let them control us.

But how does mindfulness help us bear with emotional discomfort? In the video below (from 32:00 to 39:40) Dr. Siegel shows that mindfulness enables us to develop the cognitive muscles by which we can observe, as if from the outside, the parts that make up emotion. Every emotion is basically a body sensation and a thought. By practicing brain-based mindfulness (moment-by-moment non-judgmental aware of our cognitions), we can notice our thoughts coming and passing, but we don’t have to get drawn up into the thought stream either by fighting them or personalizing them. Instead, we can keep our attention at the sensory level. By being attentive to what is happening at the sensory level, we can notice our body’s sensations, including the sensations created by emotions, but we can treat these sensations in the same way that someone who is meditating might treat a fly or an inch: by objectively observing them but not getting caught up. Thus, when we notice the physiological correlates of emotion as they are experienced in the body, instead of letting these conditions dictate our behavior (i.e., giving into the emotion), and instead of fighting against them (thinking, “Oh my gosh, why am I feeling this!”), we can simply observe and be present with the feeling.

Further Reading

The Dangers of Digital Addiction and Information Overload: How I Discovered that Silence is Good for my Brain

I still remember the night that convinced me I finally needed to join the twenty-first century.

I had just finished a long day helping as a judge for a debate tournament. By the time I finally headed home it was dark. Or at least, I thought I was headed home. However, the further I drove, the less I recognized of my surroundings. As the road progressed further and further up into the mountains, I remembered my young children waiting at a friends’ house for me to collect them. Finally, the road abruptly ended. Literally, it just ended. I had no choice but to turn around and start over.

At about midnight I finally pulled into the drive-way of my friends’ house to collect my tired children. I determined never to let myself get lost again: I would finally invest in a GPS.

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Develop a High-Performance Mindset

How can a person perform at peak capacity during times of stress? What is the foundation for self-confidence? Why do we often perform better when we’re practicing a skill vs. performing it under pressure? How can we get into a flow-state whereby we become completely engaged in present-moment tasks? What are the principles behind a high-performance mindset?

These are the types of questions we ask here at TSM as we help prepare psychology students for the high-stress licensure exam known as the EPPP. These are also the types of questions that musicians, athletes, public speakers and sports psychologists wrestle with every day.

Michael Gervais of the Seattle Seahawks talks about the way great performers use their minds to realize their full potential. Gervais, who has worked as a sports psychologist with some of the world’s best athletes, explains how the principles that help champions perform at peak capacity can actually assist all of us to perform better in the situations we face every day. This fascinating conversation shows that developing skills like mindfulness, positive self-talk and focused attention can make the difference between success and failure.  Because so much of what Gervais says is relevant to exam-anxiety, we encourage all psychology students to watch this video at least six months before sitting the EPPP.

The Emotional Body

Did you know that emotions are often experienced first in the body before they are experienced by the conscious mind? We explored this in our earlier article ‘The Three B’s of Mindfulness: Breath, Body and Brain,’ where we saw that subtle changes in mood are often experienced first in the body and only afterwards by the conscious mind.

The physiological effect of emotions was demonstrated by a group of scientists at the University of Iowa. The scientists set up a gambling exercise in which participants were asked to pick cards from a red deck or a blue deck. In the course of the game, the participants all eventually realize that over time it’s only possible to win by taking cards from the blue deck. But most people didn’t realize that until turning over 80 cards. However, the significant part of the experiment occurred before each participants consciously realized that the red deck was disadvantaged. About 40 cards into the game, their palms began to sweat when reaching for a card from the red deck—a clear sign of nervousness. Their body knew there was something wrong with the red deck 40 cards before their conscious mind was aware of it.

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