More than half of adults and over two thirds of young people said that their mental health has got worse during the period of lockdown restrictions (Mind 2020) so I thought I would put together a box of quick go-to happiness hacks that boost your serotonin and dopamine naturally.
We’re all struggling along, keeping safe, Emergency Schooling, working from home, feeling the weight of burnout, as well as gut problems, muscle tension, mental health.. the works! Boundaries are so vital for self-care and have never been more important.
But only you can start to create boundaries and protect your space and time. Keeping to Work Hours, going for a quick walk for my ‘commute’, I never take my phone to bed or answer emails at the weekend, and we’ve introduced tech free Sunday evenings which started out as quite a difficult thing but have become special times to communicate. We actually have to TALK and it connects us for the week. Small little changes can have a pretty powerful effect when you stick with them.
I try now to place as much importance on down time as work, wanting to bring energy and enthusiasm to the things that help me take care of my mental health. Focusing on the relationships that are important to me with more time and more tenderness. Noticing what helps me to recharge and prioritising it.
And all this has to start with you.
A vital tool to hack anxiety and improve your mental health is to stimulate your Parasympathetic Nervous System. Sometimes called the rest and digest system: it is the opposite of fight-flight-freeze. When we are fully relaxed, and not living in survival mode, our parasympathetic nervous system can kick in and properly start to heal us. Deeper sleep, better digestion, less physical tension, more mental clarity, boosting our mood and metabolism - there are so many benefits to switching into this mode.
You might have experienced the fight or flight feeling during an anxiety pang during lockdown? An argument with your partner. Being triggered by something at work. The quicker you can self-regulate (self soothing is a big part of this) and get back to a place of calm, the healthier you will be. But this is something we learned (or didn’t learn as children) and if we’re not equipped with the tools to self-soothe we will often reach for booze or food, Netflix binging, Instagram, PlayStation or whatever other vice distracts you from the discomfort of this state. The good news is we can teach ourselves how to come back down...
Once your body feels that the threat is over, your cortisol levels lower, helping to relax you, lift your mood and reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.
So the key is learning to talk yourself down from stress, to reframe the threat, and to get safe. Through activating your vagus nerve you can help yourself to be more in control of your mind, your body and its reactions to stress. Something we could all do with right now!
Some ways you can help it activate are:
1. Get safe: do you know the things that help you feel safe? I’m talking emotionally safe as well as physically safe. Where and when do you feel safe? Do you have the grown up equivalent of a blankie? Are there lovely sounds (birdsong for me) or scents (Fig as it reminds me of special people in my life) that soothe you? Do you have a favourite candle? Build a mental health safe box.
2. Get into nature: forest bathing and the natural phytoncides emitted by trees help to calm us down. Use your daily exercise hour to get outside and head for a green space. Ground yourself and sit under a tree if you can. Surround yourself with the colour green.
Take a moment to try this exercise: 5-4-3-2-1
Stop + notice where you are in this moment.
Close your eyes + when you open them find:
things you can SEE
things you can HEAR
Things you can SMELL
Things that you can TOUCH
Thing that you can TASTE
Keep your attention on the here + now
3. Meditate. Focus on your breath by practicing Square Breathing (on your boxcards in your supplements) which is all about taking and holding deep breaths right down into your diaphragm - place your hand on your stomach to feel it.
Square Breathing. This can be done wherever you like - while at your desk, when you boil the kettle, at a red light or pacing as you walk, run or climb steps.
Breathe in deeply
Hold your breath
4. Yoga poses. Practicing an inversion for a couple of minutes a day can also help with unwinding and grounding. Just lie close to a wall on the floor, then prop your legs up the wall, forming an L shape. Straightening your spine allows your nervous system to flow.
Or curl up into Child’s Pose to help you focus within and feel safe.
5. Nutrients. Feed your brain by boosting your GABA neurotransmitter with brightly coloured foods and take some B vitamins, glutamine, theanine, magnesium and probiotics (try Calm Me).
Your brain needs the right ingredients to produce plenty of calm brainwaves and to recharge, helping you relax and sleep better.
Take a warm magnesium salt bath.
6. Distraction. Audiobooks and Podcasts can transport you and shut down intrusive stressful thoughts, sending you straight to rest and digest using an ancient part of your brain. Find a funny story or become engrossed in a conversation, an adventure or romance to boost your serotonin and escape your daily worries. Human beings have told stories for hundreds of thousands of years and there’s a reason why a bedtime story sends us to sleep (the readers as much as the children!).
For me, February is the start of Spring. Even with the mud and the snow tree leaves are in bud, the daffodil bulbs are pushing through, the snow drops are out, the afternoons are lighter, hope and energy are rising.