Cultivating Control in uncertain times

Before we get into things, I just want to preface that; there is A LOT of information out there bombarding our minds; from the latest death tolls, to ads trying to make us buy things for new hobbies we all of a sudden need to take up. If you are feeling bombarded by emails and information, stop reading this now. I give you permission to stop reading an email in the beginning, stop that puzzle you started, stop watching that netflix series you’re halfway through and let yourself off the hook for all the things you feel like you should be accomplishing. Just because you have time, doesn’t mean your productivity needs to be through the roof.

I feel like everyone would agree that it is an interesting time we’re living in at the moment, and as a whole it can be categorised by a lack of control, or the illusion of a lack of control. 

We hoard toilet paper and groceries, shift around our finances, wash our hands 30 times a day, wear face masks, read new books, speak to our loved ones more than usual, feel anxious and take up new hobbies. Why? Well, yes we have more time on our hands… But we also do this to gain control. Our brain craves control. When we have control or the illusion of control we feel at ease. 

Maslow famously states that the basic human needs are firstly for our physiology, meaning; food, water, air and shelter and secondly; personal security, health and shelter. There is no wonder what we resort to in times of crisis are the ‘basics’, and when we get that last roll of toilet paper on the supermarket shelf, we feel in control and like we just won the europa cup.

Whether you think COVID-19 is the worst infection to affect the modern world, or a big conspiracy theory to do with 5G or politics and the economy, you can’t argue that people are dying and that the virus is real. So how about we switch our focus to one that is both good for our mood and our health. 

When we talk about any form of infection; whether that is bacterial, fungal or in the current time a virus we call these pathogens. There are many more types of pathogens and even more probably around you at this very moment. I don’t say that to scare you, I say that to empower you. 

You see humans have evolved over 315,000 years and over that period of time we as a species have survived many external forces, including external pathogens (infection causing organisms). How? 

Our body has its own defense system called the immune system, which has shown its effectiveness by you being able to read this now. This concept is summarised in scientific circles by the phrase: ‘It is the strength of the host, and the virulence of the pathogen that determine the severity of infection’

Meaning; while yes, some infections behave differently and can be easier to pick up, or transmitted differently, that is only half of the picture. The other half, ‘the strength of the host’, that’s the part we have control over. 

So what can you do to help your mind and body cultivate control and help the world at the same time? Focus on your own immune system.

Stress hormones decrease your immune system function (so much so that they are used therapeutically by doctors to suppress inflammation. Ie. after transplants and autoimmune condition). By regulating your stress pathway (HPA-axis) you are doing one of the single most important things for your immune system. 

I know what you’re thinking, and no I’m not just going to tell you to ‘stress less’, I’m going to show you how you can alter the messages to your brain through; physical, chemical and emotional triggers and ultimately allow your brain to cultivate control and your immune system to flourish. 

It’s all about controlling these triggers…

  1. Physical triggers; We often think of this in terms of just exercise and movement, and whilst these are absolutely crucial from a brain and hormone level, there is also something else you may not be aware of… Posture. When we see someone sitting slouched, as opposed to someone sitting upright and tall, we know the person who is more likely to be feeling better, happier and healthier is the upright person. But why is this? It has to do with the activation of a part of your brain called the prefrontal cortex. This part of your brain is an absolute gem because it calms down the anxious and fearful part of your brain that triggers your stress response called the Amygdala. So a couple of easy things you can do to improve your posture and activate the good part of your brain are;
  1. Chemical triggers; There is no wonder our food choices and chemicals around us affect our immune system. When we’ve been eating terrible food we tend to get sicker more readily. All vitamins and minerals are important for our immune system function and when we’re talking about food to boost your immune system there is loads of information… What I want you to focus on is removing inflammatory foods that put unnecessary load on, and cause dysregulation of your immune system. No surprise that the key players to avoid are; wheat, processed sugars and dairy products. 

Sometimes we can over complicate our food… Basically go back to basics, make sure you’re getting plenty of variety in colour, fruits and vegetables, some protein and a bit more natural fats. The aim is for balanced blood sugars because these affect our immune system, and create a well fed microbiome (good bugs in our gut).

  1. Emotional triggers; We are definitely not short of these at the moment. To start with if you notice you’re being triggered by the news, or social media, turn it off. You have the remote control, so you have the power to turn it off. If it’s emotional triggers like; still needing to get work done but the kids need attention too, your finances have taken a big hit or something else that is out of your immediate control, I want you to try two things: 
    • Make small goals, like tiny ones… On your list of goals write something you have already completed, this is a nice trick to get the momentum going. This could mean calling the bank, making the bed, replying to that email stuck in your inbox or getting out and playing with the kids.
    • Practice compassion for others and yourself. Compassion activates the pre-frontal cortex of the brain and suppresses the stress response. I started to practice compassion by integrating this one thought into my life last year, and as a person that likes to get things done, I can tell you it has helped my relationship with myself and others. 

‘Did I [they], do the best I [they] could, with the tools, environment and knowledge I [they] had?’

We all want it to get back to normal, but the fact of the matter is no one knows when that will be. All we can do is Keep Calm and control the controllable… Which by now is more than you think. 

Dr. Anthea xo

References: 

Lelic, D., Niazi, I. K., Holt, K., Jochumsen, M., Dremstrup, K., Yielder, P., Murphy, B., Drewes, A. M., & Haavik, H. (2016). Manipulation of Dysfunctional Spinal Joints Affects Sensorimotor Integration in the Prefrontal Cortex: A Brain Source Localization Study. Neural Plasticity, 2016, 1–9. https://doi.org/10.1155/2016/3704964

Davis, J. S. (2016). Effects of Your Emerging Identity. In Building a Professional Teaching Identity on Social Media (pp. 51–55). SensePublishers. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-6300-702-3_8

Kox, M., van Eijk, L. T., Zwaag, J., van den Wildenberg, J., Sweep, F. C. G. J., van der Hoeven, J. G., & Pickkers, P. (2014). Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and attenuation of the innate immune response in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(20), 7379–7384. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1322174111

Lutz, A., Brefczynski-Lewis, J., Johnstone, T., & Davidson, R. J. (2008). Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise. PLoS ONE, 3(3), e1897. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0001897

Pfennig, K. S. (2001). Evolution of pathogen virulence: the role of variation in host phenotype. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences, 268(1468), 755–760. https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2000.1582