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!
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.’
Have you realized that you are not the same person you were five years ago? Some aspects of your character and values may have been impacted by unforeseen learning experiences!
Life offers us a continual stream of new possibilities for growth and expansion. There is a good chance that your work, social and personal life requires you to adapt to our ever-changing world.
Ideally you want to acquire relevant knowledge while avoiding all the noise that generates our environment. You can be up-to-date without over-stretching your mind or causing unnecessary anxiety following 5 easy steps.
Embrace the trial-and-error process
When you take on a new challenge, it can be exciting at first, but as you dig in, you might find your self drowning in uncharted waters.
Let’s imagine that you are building a personal or professional website. You might spend a lot of time on figuring out how to create different features, and you will certainly make mistakes. It’s okay to get a little lost in the process and let yourself run into problems and errors. Trial and error is a great way to construct a new, valuable skill set for future use.
The next time you try to build a website, you will know not just what to do, but also what not to do. You have learned from your mistakes, the most fundamental way of learning. Every misstep is an opportunity to learn a lesson, improve, and move forward.
Find the right environment
Take a moment and consider where you focus best and get your job done with ease and pleasure. For some, a coffee house with background music and chatter is ideal, others prefer a quiet place while some people need the pressure of the office environment.
Irrespective of working for yourself or a company, don’t hesitate to personalize your workspace to suit your needs. The days of one-size-fits-all learning (or work) environment are fast fading.
Instead, we now seem to understand that to achieve impactful wisdom, we should value the unique environmental needs and learning styles of each individual.
Reading should become a pleasurable activity. You must acquire the discipline of reading, in print or digitally, while reducing audio or video content. Reading does a few things to help you enhance learning.
First of all, your brain is focused on the information at hand. You let go of superfluous or unhelpful thoughts in order to concentrate. While reading you can either stop and reflect or accelerate and skim through words and sentences. You are actively controlling the information flow, while audio and video learning is a more passive approach.
Secondly, delving into a good book automatically brings fresh vocabulary, ideas and perspectives into the forefront of your consciousness. And more importantly, it helps hone your visualization skills and imagination capabilities.
When you acquire data through the written word, you improve your writing and oral communication skills. Your daily life and conversations can bring out opportunities to express and connect your new perspectives to the world around you.
As you sit down to complete a task, it can be tempting to enforce high expectations to master a new skill in one go. Yes, it’s commendable to have goals, but respect for your mental and physical boundaries should be front and center.
If you push yourself too hard, adverse outcomes can occur, such as:
- Inability to make decisions
- Lack of focus
However, if you incorporate breaks into your learning process, you give your mind (and emotions) the much-needed space to refocus and refresh.
Being mindful of our concentration patterns allows us to optimize our learning style in a significant way. A leader cannot expect his team to perform and be balanced without letting their minds and bodies recharge and relax. The introduction of a mindfulness practice is a way to increase learning readiness in high-performing organizations.
A night of restorative sleep can offer clarity and bring cohesiveness to the learning elements you have acquired throughout the day.
As you problem-solve or attempt to master a new skill, sleep may seem like the last thing you should do. Often, we can feel a strong desire to power through until we figure everything out.
But in reality, ‘sleeping on it’ can bring a valuable boost to our learning curve. A recent study has confirmed that a good night’s rest can protect already stored memories while improving the access and organization of knowledge in the brain.
In essence, becoming a life-long learner requires daily habits that replace intensive data, information and knowledge gathering with a focus on acquiring wisdom with the right coordinates of time and space.
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.
Have you ever seen yourself as a leader, the boss of your life? Wouldn’t be great to coast stress-free through your personal, family and work responsibilities and goals?
Those who lead successfully their life and businesses rarely display stress despite everyday challenges and overwhelming agendas.
To become a truly effective leader with the right mindset, learn and practice how to control your time, actions and spaces.
Focus on one thing at a time
How can you efficiently concentrate on something when your phone is vibrating, and your e-mails are stockpiling?
The key is time blocking. To time block, you section your day into segments of activities. For instance, just between 8-9 am and 4-5 pm you might answer e-mails (then leave them untouched for the rest of the day).
This simple approach will substantially increase your available time for focused work without continually shifting gears, keeping you and your goals on track. Tomorrow will come, and the remaining messages will be answered.
Some benefits of time blocking include:
- Increased focus on tasks
- Balanced workload
- Task prioritization
- Bolstered sense of accomplishment
Work at your peak energy hours
Many people nowadays are able to have flexible work hours. If freedom of time is your case, it’s worth noting whether you are more productive in the morning, afternoon or evening.
Some people thrive when they dig in first thing upon rising. However, some may prefer to enjoy a workout, relaxed coffee, and breakfast with their family before answering calls and handle requests.
Be mindful of your life’s overall values and when you accomplish at your best.
Create and maintain boundaries
When you head home at the end of a long workday, it can be all too easy to stay in overdrive. Instead of indulging in a movie with your kids and being in the moment, you might be tempted to start worrying and acting on your to-do list.
See yourself as a leader who needs to get things done but with the ability to define when, where and with whom to accomplish them. Create boundaries for yourself and others, not just for focused work but also for well-deserved downtime. Often, if someone knows that you are not available after a specific time of day, respect for your boundaries will be formed.
When the space and time of everyone are acknowledged, teamwork and creativity improve. Some problems require solo work, while other tasks can only be achieved through cooperation and convergence of the minds. Let’s be surprised when closing and opening these gates of creativity.
Avoid wasting time
We want to please others, to help others, to work in teams, but we waste precious time without a well-defined purpose when meeting with someone to accomplish a task.
Have you ever sat through a meeting while you know that you would be more productive if you could get back to your desk?
Meetings are the prime example of a time-wasting activity. Meetings are helpful when there is a powerfully clear agenda with an eagle-eye focus on targets. But in reality, meetings can often pull people off track with conflicting agendas, either behind the scenes or in the open.
If you do have a meeting, do your best to keep it short and sweet. In essence, you want to get in, express crucial points, get feedback and decide next steps.
Say ‘no’ often
“The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.” Warren Buffet
See yourself as a leader, a natural born achiever. But control your desire to be everywhere and everything to everyone because it will not help you attain quality leadership.
Remember, it’s okay to opt out. American hedge fund manager, James Altucher, gave this golden piece of advice, “If something is not a ‘Hell Yeah!’ then it’s a no.”
Give yourself permission to prioritize and stick to only that which will serve you best. Keep in mind, you can only give and be productive if your energy is not depleted.
Only if you are in control of your life you will be able to avoid unnecessary stress. A highly effective leader values time, defines boundaries and acts when the iron’s hot. Keep your mind sharp and focused but find time to go home and discover the smoothness and refreshing feeling of a cool iron.