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What if the struggle in our heads is in fact in our habits?

How simple tweaks to our daily routine can help us to thrive

Most of us know what it feels like when we are having a hard time. The world often seems against us and our own thoughts seem shrouded in a cloud of negativity. In the work that I do as a coach, I meet plenty of people who are finding life really tough. Some appear to regularly be fighting their inner demons and the weight or the world rests firmly on their shoulders. They appear to have a disproportionate amount of stress in their life. It never helps to generalise, because every case is unique, however, there is a very real possibility that the demons that people are struggling with are not so much in their head, but in the habits they have adopted.

For many years I took for granted the importance of my daily habits. I was lucky in that I loved sport, so would readily cycle to and from work each day, as well as hit the gym most days. Yet, I didn’t necessarily think about the food I was eating or the quality of the sleep I was getting. Nor was I conscious of the mental habits I was inadvertently adopting. Yet it turns out that our habits have a huge influence on how we feel and how our brain processes information. They can influence our mental state by an incredible 40%.

Take sleep for example, regularly getting less than seven hours of sleep affects the expression of more than 700 genes across the brain and body. If you are not familiar with the field of epigenetics, you may have been brought up to believe that your genes are fixed at birth – they are not. Across our lifetime, specific genes may switch themselves on or off, as well as ramp up (or down) the production of the proteins they produce, much like a dimmer switch can control the number of watts flowing through a lightbulb and affect how brightly it shines.

Insufficient sleep negatively affects genes associated with our immune function including our natural killer cell activity – one study found that four hours of sleep was associated with a 70% drop in natural killer cell activity, increasing the risk of tumour development. Research has also found that sleep deprivation increases the production of stress hormones and inflammation, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. In addition, studies have found that insufficient or poor-quality sleep is associated with a 60% increase in amygdala activity, which increases people’s propensity to experience stress and negative thinking. Essentially, we become far more emotional and less able to contain those emotions, as the connectivity in our brain is disrupted by changes in genetic expression.

Research in the last 10 years has also found a correlation between poor sleep and an increased propensity to have suicidal ideations. Essentially, getting a bad night’s sleep might make you more prone to having suicidal thoughts the next day. Most people have a tendency to take their thoughts at face value, yet the research indicates that something as simple as a bad night’s sleep can negatively influence the biochemistry of the brain, which can negatively alter the quality of your thoughts and, consequently, how you experience your life.  Practising mindfulness can help see past flawed thinking, but would it not be easier to reduce the risk of those thoughts arising the in the first place, by getting sufficient sleep?

Research is finding similar epigenetic effects with habits such as exercise and meditation. Even the food that you consume has the potential to affect your epigenome and thereby alter the biochemistry of your brain. Your brain’s biochemistry has a tangible effect on how your brain processes information from your surroundings. If you find yourself continually coming up against an onslaught of negative thoughts and emotions such as anxiety or anger, it may feel like there is no end in sight. But it might be that part of the solution, isn’t to keep fighting them, but to take a look at tweaking some of your most basic self-care habits. Some of the best habits you can adopt to improve your mental health include:

  • Give yourself an 8-hour sleep opportunity each night together with a regular sleep/wake time (even at weekends)
  • Prioritise wholefoods over processed foods
  • Make movement part of every single day (brisk walking counts!)
  • Be mindful
  • Make time to relax
  • Make time to disconnect from work and reconnect with loved ones
  • Minimise coffee and alcohol consumption

People will often tell me they don’t have the time or inclination to prioritise those things. When we’re busy fighting the world, it can appear as if there is little room for prioritising our own self-care. Yet, when we realise that many of the battles we are fighting are a biochemical illusion created by our own brain, we learn that to win the war we need to prioritise those things that maximise our brain’s biochemistry and help us to thrive.

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- MARCUS AURELIUS

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