Can you imagine truly enjoying your life, getting through work with a smile on your face even in the midst of uncertainty and stress? Can you imagine sharing love, compassion and gratitude instead of craving for validation, competing endlessly and despairing for unfulfilled expectations?
It can be done, but there is an essential premise, your ability to control excessive release of the hormone cortisol into your body. When you’re in a traffic jam, your jaws are clenched, your shoulders are tense, and you’re just about to scream… your body is releasing cortisol uncontrollably, impacting negatively your mental and emotional reactions while deteriorating your physical wellbeing.
What is Cortisol?
Cortisol is a hormone produced in the adrenal glands, located above your kidneys. Cortisol is considered the “stress hormone” because our bodies release it when we’re facing physical, mental or emotional stress.
However, cortisol does much more than reacting to stress. Cortisol is an essential hormone that, among many other vital functions, balances our blood sugar and blood pressure, helps us form memories, decreases inflammation and regulates our metabolism.
Having too much cortisol leads to weight gain, mostly abdominal obesity aka “love handles”, diabetes, heart disease, a weakened immune system, and mental and neurological dysfunction, such as irritability, depression, anxiety and forgetfulness.
Cortisol, Stress and Relaxation Response
When you’re under stress your body goes into “freeze, flight or fight” mode. It does so by releasing excessive amounts of cortisol. This sudden hormone release increases blood sugar so that you have the energy to run from stressors (e.g. a tiger) while shutting down non-essential functions, such as the immune system.
Problems develop when your body is in continuous stress mode, a hallmark of modern life. Over the long term, over-activation of the stress response decreases the overall mental, emotional and physical health.
On the other hand, being able to induce a relaxation response will reduce the cortisol release and stabilize blood levels over short and long periods of time.
Here are 4 simple ways to naturally lower your cortisol levels and achieve sustainable relaxation:
In today’s busy world, we often put sleep on the back burner. We have so many errands to do, so many to-do-lists to cross off. And modern technology definitely doesn’t help. We’re glued to our tablets and computers, and our cell phones are always on… just in case.
But sleep is extremely important. Not only does your body rejuvenate itself, but it also completes major housekeeping duties while you’re asleep.
So, how can you make sure you’re getting enough sleep? Well, for one, you can start by creating the right environment in your bedroom and developing solid going-to- and staying-in-bed routines. Instead of snacking and drinking, have a soothing tea. Instead of crashing into the couch to watch TV, take a walk with your loved ones. Instead of browsing news and social media, read a nice book. You will be surprised at how fast you doze off!
A number of foods have been shown to lower cortisol levels. One example is dark chocolate, rich in flavonols, shown to drive many health benefits. In fact, dark chocolate has even more flavonols than well-known super fruits such as acai berries and blueberries.
Why is this important? Flavonols have been shown to inhibit 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase, an enzyme that converts inactive cortisol to its active form.
Look for magnesium-rich foods, avocados, nuts, legumes, bananas and consider taking supplements. In fact, magnesium decreases cortisol levels by supressing the release of cortisol.
On the other hand, processed foods, trans fats, alcohol, food additives are considered pro-inflammatory partly due to the excessive release of cortisol.
Do you ruminate on the past and worry too much about the future? Well, the regular practice of mindful framing, mindfulness meditation or even prayer can help you induce the relaxation response.
When you focus on the present moment, either through observation, visualization, concentration, reciting a prayer or mantra, your mind is repealing negative, repeating and circular thoughts. Your mind becomes non-judgemental, living no room for an automatic stress response.
A mindfulness practice not only helps you mentally but can help you physically by decreasing your cortisol levels. A study conducted on medical students found that cortisol levels dropped almost 20% after a 4 day mindfulness meditation program.
Think you’re too busy for a mindfulness practice? Just take a walk in the park, observe the trees and listen how the birds sing. The good news is that you can easily incorporate these practices into your daily activities, even while washing the dishes or just having a short break!
Socialize and Laugh
You’ve heard people say that laughter is the best medicine, and they’re sure right. Laughter decreases your cortisol levels. And it doesn’t even have to be real laughter to work! Even simulated or “fake” laughter helps.
A study done on community members found that participants’ cortisol levels decreased significantly after a series of laughter yoga sessions. Laughter yoga is a mind-body exercise that teaches you to laugh. The premise is to literally “fake it until you mean it.”
So, go ahead and start laughing. Watch some comedies, play with your loved ones, or even do some laughter yoga. Your body and mind will thank you.
Life is too short to be tense, agitated and stressed out. By naturally lowering your cortisol levels, you improve both the longevity and quality of your life and those around you. Take control of your life, teach your mind and your body how to relax. Start today!
Can you imagine your life without emotional peaks and valleys? Sounds impossible, right? What’s possible is to increase your emotional control through enduring changes in lifestyle.
When you wake up relaxed and energized from a good night’s sleep, ready to take on the day – that’s serotonin kicking in.
When you feel depressed, overwhelmed by your daily responsibilities and challenges, you may have a deficit of serotonin.
What is serotonin?
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that carries messages between neurons. It plays an important role in regulating your mood, controlling your appetite, helping your blood clot, helping you concentrate, regulating your body temperature, and ensuring a good night’s sleep. As a result, when we have normal levels of serotonin, we feel emotionally balanced and alert.
On the other hand, if we have low levels of serotonin, we may have trouble remembering things, feel depressed, crave sweet or starchy foods, feel anxious or irritable, have trouble sleeping or have feelings of low self-worth.
What is the link between serotonin and depression?
Researchers have linked low levels of serotonin in the brain with depression. Back in the 1960s, researchers hypothesized that low levels of serotonin in the brain led to depression. However, this hypothesis has now been debunked.
Instead, it appears that several other factors are also involved in depression. These include:
- Having a family history of depression
- Having a hectic lifestyle and having a high level of stress in your life
- Your relationships at home and in the workplace
Nevertheless, if you have low levels of serotonin, you may be at increased risk of depression. This is where SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) may be helpful. SSRIs are medications which increase the uptake of serotonin in your brain.
Too much of a good thing is bad for us though. Serotonin syndrome is a potentially life-threatening condition that can occur if you take too much of an SSRI or if you take many SSRIs at the same time.
If you are looking to recharge your batteries, and need a little extra boost, here are 4 simple ways to naturally boost your serotonin levels:
Bask in bright light
When you go outside for a stretch or even just to gaze at nature, you may have noticed that you tend to come back recharged and better able to concentrate. This is because our brains produce more serotonin when we spend time in bright sunlight.
Is it cloudy outside? Still head outdoors! Even on a cloudy day, the light intensity is still typically brighter than your typical indoor lighting. Alternatively, invest in a high-intensity luxe lamp that simulates bright sunlight.
Eat a healthy diet
Adding more fruits, vegetables and legumes can contribute to a healthy gut. But did you know that having a healthy gut can also boost your serotonin levels?
More than 90% of our serotonin is produced in our digestive tract. Thus, by eating fiber-rich foods which promote gut health such as fruits, vegetables, and legumes we are naturally boosting our serotonin levels.
Foods that are high in tryptophan can also boost your serotonin levels. This is because tryptophan is converted to serotonin in your brain. What foods tend to be high in tryptophan? Protein containing foods such as nuts, lentils, tofu, chicken, fish and eggs.
However, boosting your serotonin levels is not as simple as incorporating protein-rich foods. This is because tryptophan has to compete with other amino acids, in particular the branched chain amino acids for access to our blood-brain barrier, before it can be converted to serotonin in our brain.
How can one overcome this obstacle? Eat more plant-based proteins such as seeds and nuts. Plant-based proteins contain less branched chain amino acids, hence they are better absorbed through the blood brain barrier.
Engage in regular exercise
It can be hard to get into exercise mode, particularly if you are down in the dumps. Everything seems like a struggle, particularly working up the motivation to break a sweat. When we exercise, both aerobic and strength, the activity of serotonin in the brain is revved up and the levels of tryptophan in our brain rise.
If fitting exercise into your daily routine seems too difficult, begin with baby steps. Commit to just 5 minutes of a vibrant walk a day for one week. Then the next week, increase it to 10 minutes. Before you know it, you will have built up to 30 minutes of aerobic exercise a day, and reap not only increased serotonin levels but numerous health benefits as well.
Be mindful of your thoughts
Just like the saying goes “You are what you eat”, you also become what you think! In a study conducted on healthy participants, those who were told to recall happy memories showed increased serotonin production in their brains. On the other hand, those who were told to recall sad memories showed decreased serotonin production in their brains.
It can be very tempting to ruminate on sad events when we are suffering from depression. But by finding happy things to focus on, we may be able to achieve a happier state of mind.
To think happy thoughts, begin a gratitude journal, practice mindfulness, focus on your strengths rather than your perceived weaknesses, and reminisce about the good times in your life.
Life has its ups and downs. By naturally boosting your serotonin levels, you will be able to experience more “highs” than “lows”. Start right now on the path to feeling happier, more alert, and refreshed every day.
We may not even realize it, but dopamine rules the roost when it comes to our sense of wellbeing. How is one neurotransmitter so crucial to the feeling of joy?
When you first wake up in the morning, and you smell that fresh pot of coffee brewing, you probably feel excitement. This anticipation is dopamine.
If you receive a raise at work, your sense of accomplishment will most likely be accompanied by a set of pleasant psychological and physical sensations – that’s dopamine.
When you enjoy your favorite music, laughing with friends, or experience an immense rush of adrenaline while playing a sport, dopamine is kicking in.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that sends signals between neurons and is a precursor of adrenaline. It plays an important role in a range of brain and body functions that are critical for your success, including motivation, memory, attention, focus, learning, creativity, and mood. When we experience the positive effects of dopamine, we feel well, excited and energized.
However, if we experience low levels of dopamine, we can become fatigued, apathetic and can suffer from addiction. poor memory, disrupted sleep, and even Parkinson’s disease.
What is the link between dopamine and addiction?
In the 1950s, scientists designed an experiment where they placed electrodes along the dopamine pathway in the brain of rats. When the rats entered into a particular corner of their cages, they received an electric shock. The discomfort of the shock therapy led scientists to believe that the rats would avoid entering the area where the shock occurred – but just the opposite happened.
Rather than avoiding the shock, the rats craved the dopamine so severely that they continued going back to experience the shock up to 700 times in one hour.
This compulsive behavior can be seen in people, too. Take substance abuse or gambling for example. Doing anything in excess may not feel good after the fact, but the dopamine rush can be so intense that a person will crave for more.
Quick dopamine fixes are tempting and appear everywhere in our modern world. Some examples for sources of a dopamine rush include caffeine, alcohol, video games, social media addiction, impulsive eating, mindless working or compulsive shopping.
To achieve mental, emotional and physical wellbeing, we should boost our dopamine in healthy and balanced ways that nourish our sense of self-worth and reinforce our connections with others.
Have you ever felt that warm tingling sensation of love and compassion take over when you feel gratitude for someone or something happening in your life?
Being grateful for all of the blessings you have in your life is a simple, inexpensive and practical way to enhance your dopamine levels. It also works to keep your life in perspective when times get tough.
One way to easily maintain a momentum of appreciation is to keep a daily gratitude journal. Remember, when difficult storms arrive, and you have troubles finding things to appreciate, it’s okay to be grateful for simple pleasures like a snuggle with a pet or a smile from a stranger.
Focusing on the present moment and practicing self-reflection offer us enormous amounts of benefits. When we pay attention to the environment, calm our thoughts and center ourselves, we experience a relaxed state-of-mind, so that we can fully relax and recharge.
Not only does the practice of mindful framing and mindfulness help us to let go of stress, but studies have shown the potential to increase the release of dopamine.
It can be tempting to reach for a junkie TV show to distract yourself from daily problems instead of retreating into pondering and reflecting about our ideas and experiences. In the long run, embracing a ritual of self-reflection will increase your dopamine levels in a positive, more profound way.
There’s no need to sign yourself up for a spin class that you are going to dread if spinning isn’t your thing. But finding an outlet to exercise that you genuinely enjoy can increase your dopamine and boost your physical wellbeing.
Whether you take up martial arts, dance or play fetch with your dog, your mind and body will thank you. Dopamine is released when you get your heart pumping.
For an extra rush of healthy dopamine, combine your activity with reaching a goal (such as increasing steadily you daily steps).
Exercise brings many other fantastic side effects into your life. Perhaps you lose a couple of pounds, look healthier and meet new like-minded friends during your activity.
White sugar and fast food can be highly tempting if you desire a surge in energy. But the mood-elevating spike caused by these foods is short-lived and often comes with an energy crash.
Our earth is abundant with fresh fruits, veggies and fiber for us to indulge in daily. And did you know that a healthy gut seems to be directly related to balanced dopamine levels?
Some foods that can support your dopamine levels are apples, bananas, beets, chicken, eggs and cheese. So start your day with a delicious cheesy omelet or fresh fruit salad to elevate your mood early on.
Life is dynamic, a steady source of experiences and ideas, and dopamine mobilizes your brain and body to be motivated, creative and achieve peak performance. Don’t waste this precious elixir by disrupting the fine-tuned alchemy of neurotransmitters and hormones. Be gentle with yourself and let the natural processes in your organism take over without ‘artificial sweeteners.’
A true leader goes beyond the daily routine and takes a step back thinking about the consequences of every human interaction.
When you share ideas, proposals, or concerns, are you aware of their emotional impact on your team?
If you keep your thoughts to yourself, do you realize that they can take a toll on your own emotional balance?
Leaders want to be heard and valued, want to promote an atmosphere of positivity and productivity. This can be achieved more easily through self-awareness and empathy.
Leaders who are empathetic earn the trust of employees, who in turn are more productive. The right approach to empathy can go a very long way in promoting positivity at work.
What is empathy?
According to Gustavo Razzetti, author of Stretch for Change, there are two kinds of empathy: Emotional and Cognitive.
- Emotional Empathy is activated by mirror neurons, which allow us to feel another person’s feelings in a passive manner.
- Cognitive Empathy is also known as ‘perspective taking,’ when we are aware of your own insights and make an effort to understand others.
In the early 1990s, neuroscientists discovered that we have specific brain cells that become active when someone else is suffering. In essence, we can feel someone’s pain and move toward a closer understanding of them.
Of course, as a leader, it’s imperative that you understand where an employee is coming from on a topic without being triggered into an emotional response or unhelpful decision. Maintaining a clear, yet compassionate approach can be better achieved with Cognitive Empathy.
How can empathy help you be a more effective leader?
A skill that can be worked on and finely tuned with practice, Cognitive Empathy is invaluable for organizations because it:
Builds Team Culture. Making an effort to understand how someone thinks, behaves, and feels can offer you essential insights and allow your co-workers or employees to feel valued.
Diversifies Thinking. Not only does empathy create a feeling of connection among peers, but taking the time to understand someone else’s perspective increases diversity and convergence of ideas, explains Razzetti.
Impacts Communication. In her recent article, Prudy Gourguechon, Psychiatrist and Psychoanalyst, explains that empathy allows you to understand if you have fully reached and connected with those around you.
Inspires Loyalty. With empathy as a regularly used tool in your leadership belt, you can build your team, inspire followers, nurture leadership in others, and elicit loyalty, notes Gourguechon
What if you’re not naturally empathetic?
Empathy is an innate trait that’s in all of us; however, like anything else, it runs on a spectrum of weak to strong.
If you’re not naturally inclined to empathy, you can still harness its power through a few simple tactics:
Think before you act. For instance, if an employee needs time off during a busy peak, before you say ‘no,’ take a moment to consider what your decision will mean to the person.
You don’t need to say ‘yes’ if the answer should be ‘no.’ But showing you understand where the person is coming from goes a long way in keeping up morale.
Practice mindfulness or seek advice. If you’re not strong in the empathy department, you don’t need to change who you are. First of all, being aware of it allows you to fill in the gap with someone who compliments your weakness, notes Gourguechon.
Can you be too empathetic?
Imagine spending your whole day feeling the ups and downs of everyone around you. Sound fun? Not at all.
Being highly empathetic is a superpower in so many ways, but it can also hinder your ability to function as a leader if you’re pulled in too many directions.
Perhaps you’re managing a small team of recruiters who often have disputes with one another. As the team leader, you want to keep your eye on the goals, so that you can make deadlines and expand your recruitment services.
If you spend every afternoon feeling emotionally charged thoughts unrelated to the big picture goals, then your vision and effectiveness as a leader become muddied. Of course, it’s imperative to explore workplace disputes and aim to resolve them, but it’s also your job to keep a compassionate, yet targeted eye on the prize.
With the right amount of awareness and insight, you can feel out another’s perspective and understand the social and emotional landscape of your work environment. Use empathy to create well-informed decisions, to inspire loyalty, and to communicate as clearly as possible.
You hear it all the time – to be happier and more productive you should balance your work and life. But in practical terms, what does this mean?
Take a moment to picture an average day in your work and personal life. Let’s imagine you are a parent who works from 9-5 and still manages to find time for healthy meals and downtime with your children. Work and life seem to be clearly separated by the time allocated to each activity. Right?
Wrong. Interconnectivity and the way our brains are wired make this separation impossible. This parent cannot simply forget the kids from 9-5 or ignore work responsibilities after 5.
For many, a thriving career serves as a powerful motivating force that provides life’s meaning through goals and satisfaction. For others, work provides the means to pursue personal goals.
There is a middle ground. Rather than striving to separate work and life, an effort that can lead to anxiety and stress, why not weaving them together? Follow these 3 rules for a seamless work-life integration.
Reconsider your occupation
It’s a given that no matter what’s your profession, there will be always be pros and cons for your chosen career, ups and downs in your workplace.
Wouldn’t be amazing if most people could enjoy the profession they chose and their current workplace? Moreover, wouldn’t it be nice to feel a natural inclination or urge to complete the tasks at hand – instead of dreading every assignment.
Start by taking a look at your profession and career path to see if it feeds and nourishes your passion for excelling and expanding. Let’s imagine you work in a publishing house as a staff writer, if you love your work you may be naturally inclined to wake up and write.
On the other hand, you may hate sitting in front of a white screen ready to write a new piece. This doesn’t mean you need to start thinking about a career change, just take some time to evaluate what your honest heart’s desires and potentially refocus towards a new path.
With renewed motivation, you can certainly begin writing and publishing daily. Small steps everyday go a long way when changing the course of your career’s direction.
When you are satisfied with what you do, it’s a joyful process to incorporate work into your life with ease.
Realize that it’s okay to love what you do
At times, we feel an urge to work in an exciting project in our personal time, even sacrificing a well-deserved weekend or vacation time. We need breaks, but we also need to feed our desires to excel and achieve. Sometimes you will feel a strong momentum and sense a powerful life force that requires our full attention and effort. Go for it!
There are also times when our personal life should be a priority. For instance when a family member needs support or we need to take care of our health.
Integration means not feeling guilty when answering emails late at night and tying up loose ends from work after spending a time with your family or unwinding. These few minutes will make your next day more streamlined and efficient. It’s okay to work your job into your home life and to consider personal matters while at work.
Modulate your energy
It takes a lot of effort and stress trying to draw a distinct line in the sand between work and life. The two mingle together often, so rather than creating unrealistic expectations, why not finding ways to recharge your energy throughout your day?
Every single one of us has energy spikes, dips, and times when we coast. It’s entirely fine to feel down and without motivation. It will pass.
Being aware of our energetic mood helps us to realize where we are at emotionally, physically and mentally.
In an article from McKinsey & Co, Gila Vadnai-Tolub explains that we have different energy modes: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Each type of energy offers us a unique form of fulfillment, but we can’t expect to be highly functioning for all of them every moment.
It’s okay to realize that during work, you might need a moment to watch a fun YouTube video so your brain relaxes. And at home, your may want to spend time thinking on a new project from work.
Being aware of what we need in each moment to achieve emotional and energetic satisfaction helps us to meld both work and life together.
Vadnai-Tolub suggest 3 approaches to leverage our energy levels:
- Allow yourself the time and space to not always be in high energy mode. It’s okay and desirable to find time to slow down and relax. Be lazy some times!
- Choose to see the good. Remain attentive toward what is going right in your life and work. We all have room for improvement. Take it with a grain of salt, improve when you can, and keep moving toward goals with optimism.
- Boost your energy. If you work at a desk all day, maybe you can go outside during lunch hour and appreciate the fresh air, even dedicating some time to thinking or resolving personal matters. Also, you can find moments of inspiration by letting your mind wander towards what you appreciate and love in life.
Life doesn’t have to be cut and dry. Our modern lives call for modern solutions. This may mean that it’s time to stop trying to draw lines and create compartments in our lives. Let’s discover what we love to do… and do it!