My life used to be super hectic. As a freelance producer you kind of feel like you can’t say no to work. It’s an incremental thing, but your priorities start to become more and more work-based. My phone would ring at 7 a.m. from clients on the east coast and ring until 10 p.m. from people on the west coast. I always felt like I was behind or late before I even started anything. It wasn’t that my work wasn’t getting done, it was the peripheral things: the house was a mess, the laundry was always dirty, there wasn’t any real or fresh food in the fridge, I was neglecting my family, and I wasn’t taking care of myself. I looked at everything in terms of how many minutes it would take instead of whether it would be good for me or bring joy to my life.
I had a couple big epiphanies. First, I had to change the ring tone on my phone because every time it rang I wanted to hurl it across the room. I thought, “This is the sound of the business I worked hard to build—I should love hearing the phone ring.” But instead I felt like everyone had a piece of me, and that’s because I wasn’t taking care of myself. Then I had a moth infestation in my closet, and I felt it was really symbolic of the neglect in my life. If something can grow in your house and you don’t even realize it, you need to stop, slow down and pare down.
I decided to take four weeks completely off work to take a break and clean up my house and put some balance back into my life. I went through my entire house and got rid of the clutter and organized everything. It made me realize that a lot of the stuff you have in your space—even if you don’t see it or if it’s in a closet or drawer—takes energy away from you in one way or another.
I’d always loved knitting, but I only did it when I was traveling and on a plane or in a hotel room. During my time off, I found a little yarn shop in my neighborhood and joined their Friday afternoon knitting group. It’s such a wonderful group of women. Now I just tell people I have a standing meeting on Friday afternoons, and I turn my phone off and just knit and talk. Nothing can make you happier than relationships.
I also started to see a personal trainer and to sleep more and eat better. It’s so much more satisfying and enjoyable to cook and eat real food than to cram something down as you work and splatter food all over your keyboard.
After those four weeks off work I said, “I’m not going back to where I was.” I decided to cut back on my hours and limit the times I would work or have my phone on. I started to listen to my body and its rhythms. And I found that this more balanced lifestyle actually improved my work. I’m more creative, and I focus on one thing at a time now instead of trying to multitask.
I’m just so much healthier and more relaxed now. All you have to do is get a little taste of what it feels like to be organized and to have enough time to enjoy life and you won’t want to go back. This fall I saw the leaves change color. Last year they were just dead on the ground, and I don’t remember ever marveling at their color.
The gift of time is something you give yourself. Now I’m a better person, a better friend, a better daughter. You just don’t realize how happy you can be until you give yourself the time.
Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.
What if you could take a mini-trip into someone else’s mind? For instance, what would it be like to live your normal day but do so through the centered, peaceful mind and open, loving heart of the Dalai Lama? What would it be like to walk through the world in that way?
Or what would it be like to slip your own consciousness into someone else’s life for a day? Maybe you’d be transported into the shoes of that friend whose daily life flows with a balanced rhythm. How would temporarily living in that person’s lifestyle make you feel? Would it bring your own mind and heart into a better place?
Everyone’s experience of life can be so different for many reasons. Your inner world—beliefs, values, thoughts and emotions—is exclusive to you. And your outer world—circumstances, responses, choices and actions—is uniquely yours too.
But the one thing we all have in common is the ability to change ourselves from within and to change our lifestyles in a way that brings us more joy, peace and health.
Even your mind is moldable. The science of neuroplasticity proves that. Circumstances or thoughts can physically change the brain in measurable and meaningful ways.1 You can literally rewire circuits, grow new connections, forge new pathways and create new neurons in your brain. These changes influence the way your brain thinks and reacts and can change your emotional and physical health.2345678 You can also change how you feel in your body by working with the conditioning of your physiology—the patterns and habits of your heart, breath, nervous system and muscles.
In addition to that inner work, there are also opportunities aplenty to shape your external world. In other words, you can also change your lifestyle for the better—and that’s something people usually have a lot more control over than they give themselves credit for. Making thoughtful choices about how you live can make it a whole lot easier to feel good inside: physically, emotionally, mentally, energetically and spiritually.
There’s certainly plenty of room for improvement in our collective inner and outer landscapes. Consider this:
Nearly 40 percent of Americans said their stress levels increased over the past year, according to a recent study from the American Psychological Association.9
Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, and it’s on the rise, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).10 The organization says depression “makes a large contribution to the burden of disease,” ranking as no. 1 cause of disease burden in middle- and high-income countries (and eighth in low-income countries).11
Antidepressant use in the United States increased 400 percent from the years spanning 1988 – 1994 to the years spanning 2005 – 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.12
About 11 percent of adolescents have a depressive disorder by age 18, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. 13
More and more children and adolescents are being treated with prescription medications for depression, anxiety or behavioral difficulties.1415
About 18 percent of the U.S. adult population deals with anxiety disorders, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.16
In a 2013 United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) study looking at child well-being in rich countries, the United States doesn’t even crack the top 25.17
Life doesn’t have to be this way. Although our fast-paced culture, the rapid rate of change and the complex issues of modern life aren’t exactly working in our favor, experts say we still have a lot of control over whether our lives tip more toward stress and angst or more toward resilience and contentment.
How stress changes your body and mind
In addition to the obvious benefit of feeling happier, there are compelling health reasons to get out of the busy-stressed-worried-tired trap.
“Stress affects virtually everything about how the body works,” says integrative psychiatrist Henry Emmons, M.D., who has a private practice in Minneapolis and is author of “The Chemistry of Joy: A Three-Step Program for Overcoming Depression Through Western Science and Eastern Wisdom” and “The Chemistry of Calm: A Powerful, Drug-Free Plan to Quiet Your Fears and Overcome Your Anxiety.”
“Stress also changes the way the brain works, the way it receives information and processes it and the nature of brain chemistry,” Emmons says. Stress makes it harder for people to assess situations and make decisions, and it blocks their ability to access higher brain function.
When people are stressed, they tend toward one (or more) of three responses: anxiety, anger and depression, says Elizabeth Lewis, a stress management teacher and life coach based Mequon, Wis. These emotions trigger the release of about 1,400 biochemical reactions—neurotransmitters, hormones, and other chemicals—that circulate through the body and bloodstream to reach individual cells.
Each cell in the body (and brain) has an inner intelligence and can communicate with all the other cells. Therefore, the message “threat!” and “stress!” can be quickly relayed to every single cell, kicking any part of the body into a stress reaction and leading to a downward spiral in the function of the immune system, hormone system, nervous system and brain.
For example, one of the major stress responses is the release of the hormone cortisol, which affects the immune, digestive, cardiovascular and reproductive systems and plays a role in memory, weight and growth. Elevated cortisol can stay floating in your body for 12 hours. Sometimes if you’re having trouble sleeping well or you still feel tired even after sleeping well, it’s because stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline—which speeds up your heart rate and blood pressure—are still lingering in your bloodstream. You can have something of a stress hangover where that bath of 1,400 biochemical reactions leaves you feeling “tired and wired,” describes Lewis, even a while after a stressful event has passed.
An information exchange between the mind and body
Since the stress reaction brings about measurable changes that diminish the functioning of major body systems, it makes sense that ongoing or excessive stress is associated with a host of health consequences: aches and pains; anxiety; blood sugar imbalances; cancer; cardiovascular disease; chronic pain; damage to cells, tissues and organs; depression, digestive disorders; fatigue; forgetfulness; headaches; heart disease; high blood pressure, infertility; inflammation; mood swings; sexual problems; sleep problems; a weakened immune system and more. Research indicates that stress may damage health by affecting people’s DNA in a way that promotes disease and shortens life spans.18
One of the ways the brain and body exchange information is through the sympathetic nervous system and parasympathic nervous system. The sympathetic is also known as the fight or flight response, which is designed to help us survive danger. When it’s activated by a threat (real or perceived), or it’s in overdrive, it tells the adrenal glands to pump out stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones shut down certain body functions and rev up others in preparation for a person to literally fight or flee. This response has served an important survival purpose since the beginning of mankind. If you needed to fend off a wild animal or run for your life, the sympathetic nervous system gave you the strength and speed to stand a chance.
Most modern stress is psychological (versus a literal threat to your life), but our bodies do not know the difference. And the sympathetic nervous system is only meant to be turned on briefly in dangerous situations. “The stress response should only last a matter of minutes or maybe hours,” Emmons says. “The problem with modern stress is that it goes on and on for days and weeks and months.”
The other problem is that in today’s culture, those stress responses often float around in the bloodstream without a proper release. In earlier days of humankind, if someone was running for their life, for example, that intense physical action helped dissolve the stress hormones (this is why exercise is so effective for managing stress). Today, people don’t always find outlets to clear stress reactions, which then continue to circulate, linger and cause damage.
On top of that, people don’t often give themselves the downtime needed for the parasympathetic nervous system to do its job: slowing and calming the body processes and helping us recover and rebalance physiologically. This is how, over time, unremitting stress burns out the body and mind, leading to problems such as depression, adrenal fatigue and hormonal imbalances.
But remember that bath of 1,400 biochemical and hormonal releases? When we experience renewing emotions like calm, gratitude, love, passion, excitement, joy or peace, we also experience 1,400 physiological reactions, only this time they’re feel-good, health-promoting responses. They give us an upward swing in the function of our immune system, hormonal system and nervous system, Lewis says. They give us a sense of well being, and we feel more alive and energized. For instance, one of the hormones released by renewing emotions is DHEA (which is known for its role in making repairs in the body, slowing aging and elevating mood).
Choosing contentment: what the science says
It’s important to remember, Lewis says, that “emotions are not good or bad—they all provide information we need to know. But it’s also true that some emotions deplete us and others renew us.”
“There’s been a lot of recent research that shows happiness is something we choose and something we have to continuously and consciously cultivate,” she says.
In the book, “The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want,” researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, professor of psychology at the University of California—Riverside, explains that about 40 percent of a person’s happiness is within his or her control, meaning that it has to do with lifestyle choices, beliefs, thought patterns and mindset. We can maneuver within that 40 percent “to increase or decrease our happiness levels through what we do in our daily lives and how we think,”19 she writes.
Lyubomirsky adds that, “The happiest people do have their share of stresses, crises and even tragedies. They may become just as distressed and emotional in such circumstances as you or I, but their secret weapon is in the poise and strength they show in coping in the face of challenge.”
And so the long-term solution to stress, Emmons says, “has to do with working with your mind and your thoughts and your emotions. This will greatly affect the way you perceive and react to stresses that come up.”
Empowering yourself with inner change
The reason people vary so widely in how they respond to life events and situations is because they have different emotional styles, says neuroscientist Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D, in his book, “The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live—and How You Can Change Them.” Your emotional style is the consistent way you generally respond to experiences in your life.
Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin—Madison and founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center based in Madison, Wis., is a pioneering researcher in the field of affective neuroscience, which is the combined study of the nervous system and the psychology of personality and emotions. Davidson has found there are six dimensions of emotional style that can be seen through brain imaging with measurable patterns and properties in the brain:20
Resilience: how slowly or quickly you recover from adversity.
Outlook: how long you are able to sustain positive emotion.
Social intuition: how adept you are at picking up social signals from the people around you.
Self-Awareness: how well you perceive bodily feelings that reflect emotions.
Sensitivity to Context: how good you are at regulating your emotional responses to take into account the context you find yourself in.
Attention: how sharp and clear your focus is.
Davidson writes that although DNA influences our emotional traits, mental training makes significant changes that can correspond with positive changes in emotional style.
Consider this research on the moldable brain:
People with moderate to severe obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) who practiced a form of mental training for 10 weeks reported afterward that they felt less controlled by the disease. Brain scans taken before and after showed that activity in the area of the brain identified as the “OCD circuit” had decreased significantly.21
At the conclusion of an 8-week class in mindfulness meditation, meditators showed decreases in anxiety and “significant increases in left-sided anterior activation,” which is associated with positive emotions and resilience, as compared to non-meditators. When the meditators received the flu vaccine, they produced more antibodies, indicating their immune systems responded more effectively.22
One study had a group of people practice a simple piano piece for a week while another group only imagined playing the piece. Neuroimaging showed that after that week, the brains of people in both groups expanded in the area correlating with the movement.23
Clearly, the mind influences the brain and the body. Davidson summarizes how powerful this is, writing: “Emotional Style affects how we feel about ourselves and those around us, how we behave, how susceptible we are to stress, our cognitive function, and our vulnerability to particular psychiatric disorders. But Emotional Style also affects physical health. It has physiological consequences that in turn have important downstream effects on the function of our respiratory, immune, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, and endocrine system—in short on health below the neck.
“In fact, I would go so far as to assert that in all the forms of human behavior and psychological states, the most powerful influence on our physical health is our emotional life.”
A sampling of studies shows the ways our mindset influences our health.
More than 300 healthy volunteers were assessed for their tendency to experience positive emotions such as happy, pleased and relaxed, and depleting emotions such as anxious, hostile or depressed. Then they were given nasal drops containing the common cold. Those with the highest positive emotional style were almost three times less likely to develop a cold.24
College students with mild asthma were evaluated once during a low-stress period and a second time during a high-stress period. Researchers collected student samples of a molecule that indicates lung inflammation, and then they had participants inhale a small dose of an allergen. The participants’ inflammatory markers soared 27 percent higher during the high-stress period, indicating stress was associated with a bigger physical reaction (heightened asthma symptoms).25
Researchers reviewed 70 studies, including studies of healthy people and of sick people, and found that positive psychological well-being was associated with reduced mortality for both groups.26
Empower yourself by changing the way you live
Our mindset and lifestyle influence, complement and reinforce each other. So when someone makes positive inner changes by working with their mind, emotions and heart, their lifestyle naturally transforms in a helpful way. Likewise, when people change the way they live for the better, it becomes easier to make inner improvements.
There are tons of easy ways to change a lifestyle for the better (read the rest of this book for hundreds of ideas). For instance, you can spend more time in nature. You can give more time, thought and energy to building healthy relationships. You can begin or deepen a meditation practice. These aren’t just fairy-tale ideas about how to live better. Research has shown they’re important for our well-being:
Nature is shown to improve concentration, behavior, self-esteem and mood; reduce aggression and violence; lower rates of disease, including anxiety and depression; and improve stress recovery.272829303132333435
Healthy, positive relationships protect against physical and mental illness and help people live longer.363738
Meditation changes the brain in a way that activates positive emotions and strengthens cognitive, emotional and sensory processing; meditation lowers blood pressure, cholesterol and cardiovascular risk; it can relieve anxiety and depression, reduce pain, improve irritable bowel syndrome, clear psoriasis, boost quality of life for people with asthma, lower psychological distress among breast cancer survivors and reduce side-effects in people who receive organ transplants.3940414243444546
Slow down for more guidance
So where do we start when we’re looking to make improvements, internally or externally?
“It all begins with awareness,” Lewis says. “When we become aware of something that creates happiness for us or that isn’t working for us, then we can assess the situation and take action. But our culture isn’t set up for awareness. We’re a busy, busy culture, and we don’t give ourselves the quiet time to listen to our inner voice.
“True happiness comes from listening to that inner voice and to what your body, spirit and emotions are telling you. True happiness comes from within,” she says.
Why is it so hard to slow down and to hear that helpful inner voice?
In part it’s because “activity has become, for many people, an addiction,” says Kim John Payne, M.Ed, co-director of the Simplicity Project, based in Northampton, Mass., and author of “Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids” and “The Soul of Discipline: The Simplicity Parenting Approach to Warm, Firm and Calm Guidance. From Toddlers to Teens.”
Consider Payne’s definition of addiction: an increasing and compulsive tendency to replace inner development by creating external stimulation. Any form of addiction is, at the root, about avoiding pain, loneliness, boredom or silence by masking it with some outer activity. And like any addiction, being hooked on busyness stunts personal growth, health and happiness.
A hyper-scheduled, hectic, over-stimulated, distracted lifestyle (which is sadly being pushed into childhood as well), doesn’t allow the downtime needed for self-knowledge, creativity, innovation, adaptability and awareness, Payne says.
Fortunately, Payne sees more people who are saying “no” to the whirlwind life and are actively seeking more balanced, meaningful, peaceful lives. They’re cutting back on scheduled activities, events and commitments; building a comforting, thoughtful rhythm into their home lives; reducing consumption and clutter; and filtering out media and screen time.
“Increasingly, people are beginning to understand that there needs to be a balance between engagement with the world outside oneself and engagement with the world inside oneself.”
It’s not always easy, but the good news is you have a lot of power over how you handle both of those worlds. All the little choices you make every day are like stitches that are weaving the expansive tapestry that is you, and your life. Be thoughtful about how you want it to come together. Whatever your circumstances, you can increasingly align your true self with the way you live and create a life filled with deeper levels of health and happiness.
7Schwartz JM, et al. Systematic changes in cerebral glucose metabolic rate after successful behavior modification treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Archives of General Psychiatry. 1996;53(2):109. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8629886↩
8Chiesa A, et al. Mindfulness-based stress reduction for stress management in healthy people: a review and meta-analysis. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2009;15(5):593. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19432513↩
21Schwartz JM, et al. Systematic changes in cerebral glucose metabolic rate after successful behavior modification treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Archives of General Psychiatry. 1996;53(2):109. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8629886↩
23Pascual-Leone A, et al. Modulation in muscle responses evoked by transcranial magnetic stimulation during the acquisition of new fine motor skills. Journal of Neurophysiology. 1995;74(3):1037. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7500130↩
37Berkman LF, et al. Social networks, host resistance, and mortality: a nine-year follow-up study of Alameda County residents. American Journal of Epidemiology. 1979;109(2):186. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/425958↩
40Walton KG, et al. Review of controlled research on the transcendental meditation program and cardiovascular disease. Risk factors, morbidity, and mortality. Cardiology in Review. 2004;12(5):262. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15316306↩
42Davidson RJ (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live—and How You Can Change Them. Plume / the Penguin Group. London, England.↩
43Zernicke KA, et al. Mindfulness-based stress reduction for the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome symptoms: a randomized wait-listed controlled trial. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine. 2013;20(3):385. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22618308↩
44Kabat-Zinn J, et al. Influence of a mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction intervention on rates of skin clearing in patients with moderate to severe psoriasis undergoing phototherapy (UVB) and photochemotherapy (PUVA). Psychosomatic Medicine. 1998;60(5):625. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9773769↩