Category: Stress Management
I’d argue that mindfulness is one of the biggest health trends of our time. It promises less stress, more inner peace, and a solid dose of self-awareness. It’s also a multi-billion-dollar industry, from apps that dole out guided meditations to full-on retreats in tropical locales.
But before you download the paid version of Headspace or investigate roundtrip fares to Bali, ask yourself this important question: Am I ready to stop operating on autopilot, repeating the same less-than-healthy patterns over and over again?
I’ll let you ponder one that for a minute.
What Is Mindfulness, Anyway?
Mindfulness is a 2,500-year-old practice. It’s the ability to be fully present, where you’re totally tuned into what’s happening, what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it — in the moment and without judgement.
A lot of my health coaching clients are convinced they’re being mindful when it comes to their eating habits, yet somehow, manage to polish off a bottle of wine or wheel of cheese without realizing it. Now, I’m all for hedonistic behaviour, but if your choices leave you full of regret, shame, and guilt, it’s probably worthwhile to pursue a different strategy.
Mindfulness isn’t for the faint of heart. It also isn’t great for perfectionists (if you’re determined to “get it right”), those with limited patience, or anyone looking for a temporary fix. Or if you don’t believe change is possible.
Growing up, I was always fascinated by the part in the Odyssey where Odysseus and his men land on an island populated by the “Lotus eaters,” a group of humans who live entirely by eating the fruit of the lotus flower. In the story, some of Odysseus’ men explore the island and encounter the lotus eaters, who offer the sailors some to try. They accept and become addicted to the lotus, wanting nothing but to lie around and nibble on the flowers. When Odysseus comes to retrieve his men, they refuse and weep and try to remain, and he’s forced to remove them from the island and shackle them to the ship until the madness has passed. This part always made me wonder. What was so beguiling about the lotus?
I had no idea about drugs or addiction or anything of that sort. I was too young. So I assumed it was that the lotus just tasted really, really good.
Turns out that it may have been based on a real lotus flower with psychotropic effects—the blue lotus.
In part one of this series on improving vagal tone, I explained that the vagus nerve is the information superhighway of your autonomic nervous system. It connects your brain to organs and glands throughout the body and acts as the main conduit of your parasympathetic (“rest-and-digest”) nervous system. Vagal nerve activity touches just about every system in the body, including respiration, immunity, cardiovascular activity, digestion, and the gut microbiome.
The term “vagal tone” refers to how active your parasympathetic nervous system is. Ideally, we want high vagal tone, because that indicates a generally relaxed state where the body can focus on growth and repair. When vagal tone is low, the sympathetic (“fight-flight-freeze”) nervous system is dominant. That’s no good. The sympathetic nervous system should kick in when we need to respond to an acute threat or stressor, but we don’t want it running in the background all the time.
Unfortunately, a chronically stressed, sympathetic-dominant state is the norm for most people nowadays. Scientists are always on the hunt for ways to alleviate that stress and reduce the medical burden associated with it. Some researchers are investigating pharmaceutical means of improving vagal tone, along with protocols for using electrostimulation. You don’t need these high-tech procedures, though. Once you start digging into the science of the vagus nerve, you realize something cool: Most of the things we promote in the Primal community probably improve vagal tone.
Cranial nerve X. It sounds like a pretty rad superhero, or maybe the superhero’s genius sidekick who comes up with all the cool gadgets and never gets credit for being the one who actually foils the villain’s evil plans.
Cranial nerve X, aka cranial nerve 10, aka the vagus nerve, is neither of those things, but it IS pretty rad. The vagus nerve is a cranial nerve complex that runs from the base of the brain down through your trunk, branching out like a tree and sending “roots” out to communicate with your internal organs and glands. When we talk about the undeniable power of the mind-body connection, we’re usually referring to the vagal nerve’s actions.
Stressed, anxious, overcommitted—the unholy trinity the undermines mental health and wellbeing for so many people today. I’d argue that chronic stress is the number one threat to health and happiness. Yes, even more detrimental than modern diets, being too sedentary, overexercising when we do exercise, and all the other ways we mismanage our genes nowadays.
By and large, we accept chronic stress as a standard, even inescapable, part of life. To some degree, that’s true. It’s hard to detach from workplace demands, financial pressure, social media and other time sucks, and the generally frantic pace of modern life. That said, most of us have more control over our daily schedules, environments, and habits than we choose to exercise. We don’t set the boundaries we need, nor take even relatively small steps to mitigate life stressors. Why is this so challenging?
Paradoxically, simplifying life and making it easier almost always involves some investment of time and/or money up front. Don’t let this deter you. This is a short-term investment for long-term payoff, which you deserve.
Wondering why your feed is filled with tips on how to declutter your space? Clean mildew out of the showers. Swap your regular detergent for a better-for-the-environment one? It’s National Cleaning Week, or, as one of my clients put it, national “feeling bad because my house is a mess and I have zero interest in doing anything about it” week.
Even though having a clean, organized space can increase your focus, reduce stress, and sometimes even improve your relationships, most people are far too busy to embrace the decluttering-is-awesome mindset, but is it really a lack of time that prevents you from doing it or is something else at work?
I’m willing to bet there are lots of things in your home you’re not using (hello, burnt up plastic food storage lids), but for some reason, you just can’t bring yourself to throw anything away or even donate it.
Why Can’t You Get Rid of Stuff?
Jean Piaget, one of the founding fathers of child psychology, says the reason we’re so attached to our belongings is due to a psychological phenomenon called the Endowment Effect. Basically, we put more value on items we own versus items we don’t own.
There have been tons of studies on this phenomenon too. Like this one where participants were divided into three groups, then asked to assist with research and given a reward for helping out. The first group was offered two choices for their reward: a coffee mug or a bar of chocolate. Half chose the mug, and the other half chose the chocolate, which suggests that they valued each reward equally. In the second group, participants were given the mug first, then offered a chance to swap it for the chocolate bar, but only 11% took the researchers up on the offer. A third group started out with the chocolate bar, and most preferred to keep it instead of swapping it for the mug, which was offered after the fact.
The participants always put greater value on whichever reward they started off with.
Decluttering Has an Emotional Component
Another reason it’s so hard to part with your stuff? According to this study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, it all comes down to self-worth. Rather than looking at the things you own as “mine” you think of them as part of who you are.
If you value relationships, you might have trouble parting with gifts. Kind of like you’re being disloyal to the person who gave it to you. If you value success, it could be challenging to part with items that serve as a reminder of your accomplishments, like an award at work or a decades-old trophy from your high school soccer days.
Some possessions also make you feel closer to people. Take family heirlooms for example. Maybe you’re having a hard time getting rid of a piece of artwork or jewelry that was passed down from your great grandma, because those items make you feel connected to her.