This blog post was written by Liadan Gunter, Life Coach at Nivati. You can see more of their content on the Nivati platform and on the Nivati blog. If you want to learn more about Nivati, click here.
I can’t go online and not see the topic of wellbeing at least once. If it’s not an article telling me the five quick hacks to a better me, or an Instagram reel listing out some self-care tips, it’s a YouTuber telling me about his morning routine and why celery is the most important ingredient in his smoothie and why I should start doing the same immediately. But, how many people are actually talking about the science behind wellbeing?
This topic is everywhere. However, can a smoothie, the right workout, or even the right self-care routine really make a noticeable difference in my wellbeing? I couldn’t help but wonder. I don’t believe that there is only one answer. In fact, we can gain understanding of how to support our wellbeing by looking at the science and what is happening in our bodies physiologically.
According to neuroscience, there are brain mechanisms that support our wellbeing. Our neural correlates can help shed light on why some people experience greater wellbeing than others. Wellbeing is supported by the normal functioning of specific brain regions and their networks. Additionally, individual variability between people affects how we experience wellbeing.
The individual factors that influence our wellbeing are:
- Personality traits
- Social relationships and communities
- Lifestyle factors
When it comes to wellbeing, several brain regions interact together to create our experience of wellbeing. These regions evaluate whether an experience is pleasureful, positive, or punishing. They are also responsible for our motivation to seek these experiences in the future.
Brain Areas Involved in Wellbeing
- Portions of the frontal cortex
- Reward system structures
Now, these brain areas influence individual factors such as our personality traits, age, social relationships, etc., by their difference in structure, function, and how they are connected—all of which combined have a crucial role in wellbeing.
Lucky for us, our brains are plastic, which means our brains can adapt, grow and learn. No matter the state of your current wellbeing, there are always ways to improve it. What we think, feel, and do can change our brain's physical structure. Structure and function happen to be linked, so the changes in form of the brain can lead to functional changes in different brain circuits. The good news is this means we have the ability to reshape our brains to improve our wellbeing.
However, just as we can change our brains for the positive, our brains are also susceptible to negative changes depending on what factors it’s exposed to. The most significant danger to our wellbeing is chronic stress. In fact, chronic stress can lead to illnesses like anxiety and depression.
“But how do I avoid stress? Life is just stressful sometimes.” Great question. Yes, life is sometimes just stressful, but there is such a thing as good stress. There is also a thing as bad stress. The main driver of this difference is the temporal delivery of stress. Acute stress is stress that occurs over short periods and is considered to be the good kind. It’s commonly referred to as the basic fight-or-flight response and can benefit people’s health by strengthening the immune and cardiovascular systems. Whereas chronic stress, the bad kind, is stress that tends to extend over longer periods. Generally, there’s little end in sight to this kind of stress.
Ultimately, I’m not saying eliminate all stress from your life as acute stress can work as an advantage if leveraged well. It’s the chronic type of stress we need to watch out for.
How does it work? Well, both acute and chronic stress activates the body’s stress response. This causes the brain to produce cortisol, the main hormone associated with stress, and other hormones and neurochemicals.
In the case of acute stress, this cortisol works to boost our memory formation. So, if you’re taking a test or preparing a critical presentation, for example, this type of stress can help you in promoting your memory of the material. It serves as a boost!
Now, in chronic stress, cortisol is produced over long periods. This has the opposite effect and can damage the brain. Specifically, it damages the hippocampus and causes it to shrink, making it more difficult for you to form memories. Luckily, this is reversible, so once your exposure to the chronic stressor has stopped, your hippocampus can recover. You won’t always be memory-impaired, but likely you’ll have trouble remembering things from that stressful period.
Chronic stress also causes changes to the amygdala, the brain's emotional center. It becomes larger and more connected. This makes you more emotionally sensitive, which is why you may tend to feel more emotional or be more emotionally reactive during periods of chronic stress.
Additionally, this change in the amygdala tends to reduce activity in the pre-frontal cortex, which is the brain’s executive control center. This makes it more difficult for you to plan, organize and execute behavior. This may be why during these periods of chronic stress, you may have trouble controlling your reactions to your emotions and may find it more difficult to accomplish tasks when you’re under periods of prolonged stress. The issue is that these effects aren’t as reversible in the amygdala. The amygdala doesn’t just bounce back once the exposure to the chronic stressor has stopped.
If it’s not already clear from this, chronic stress can really have damaging effects on your brain and, ultimately, how you feel. These changes in the brain can lead to the development of anxiety, depression, PTSD, and other mental and physical illnesses. Many of the brain changes I mentioned above are also present or are characteristic of these illnesses. Therefore, chronic stress can profoundly affect our wellbeing, and may be the most important factor adversely affecting wellbeing. This also means that the inability to deal with stress may be dangerous and have significant consequences for both our physical and mental health. How we cope with stress depends on our personality traits and the coping mechanisms we utilize. The good news is we can learn to cope better and develop more positive personality traits to support us when we face these big, harmful, chronic stressors.
One avenue to increase your wellbeing is to protect yourself against chronic stress. Below are some tips to protect yourself against stressors that may come up and some more information on the science behind wellbeing.
Three Unique Ways to Support Your Wellbeing According to Science
Next, we will delve into the three areas in which the science behind wellbeing can help your overall health. Here they are at a glance:
- Know when to engage with a stressor and when to avoid a stressor
- Develop an optimistic mindset
- Develop high self-esteem
1. Know when to engage with a stressor and when to avoid a stressor
There are two main approaches to dealing with stress.
- Attending to it by focusing your attention on the stressor
- Rejecting it by turning your attention away from it
Now, both strategies can be useful, but it depends on when you use them. To decide, it depends on how long the stress lasts.
When the stress is chronic, the best strategy is to focus on it and work through it, as it produces better physical adaption in the long run. However, if a stressor is acute or occurs over a short period, it’s more advantageous to avoid the stressor as it produces a reduced physiological reaction.
For example, let’s say you’re climbing a mountain and you have a fear of heights. This principle would advise you to turn your attention away from the stressor. Essentially, the advice would be to not focus on how high up in the air you are.
Additionally, controllability is also a factor. How controllable a stressor is makes a difference. The rule is: if a stressor is uncontrollable, it’s better to avoid it; if a stressor is controllable, it’s best to attend to it.
I advise taking these principles into account when trying to cope. If we avoid stressors that we should attend to, science shows that it can make matters worse for us in the long run. In fact, it can even increase the fear of the stressor. So, these principles can help make a difference.
Sometimes, though, stressors can be both chronic and uncontrollable or acute and controllable—essentially falling into both categories at once.
In conflicting cases, a combination approach is advisable. Keep in mind that just because something is within our control, though, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better to focus on it. When deciding in these conflicting cases, I would suggest focusing on what you can control, but only if it’s important to you, and don’t focus on what you can’t control, especially if it’s not important to you.
2. Develop an optimistic mindset
Optimistic mindsets have been shown to positively impact wellbeing. Optimism is a mindset where one expects positive outcomes about the future. Generally, optimistic people tend to have a cheerful demeanor and may look on the positive side of things. Whereas pessimism is a mindset where one tends to focus on the negative and may view the future negatively.
Having an optimistic mindset is beneficial when facing adversity. Additionally, it promotes wellbeing because when one expects to do well, they are more likely to increase their persistence, increasing the likelihood of achieving their goals.
It may also serve as a protection against stressors. In fact, when looking at optimistic individuals' brains, they were found to be associated with greater volume in reward-related areas, which has been shown to play a protective role against anxiety!
A vital thing to note is that we need to balance our thinking. It’s impossible to be optimistic about everything all the time. That’s not what I’m suggesting. Over-optimism can be dangerous if you’re overly confident in areas you shouldn’t be. For example, you could be optimistic about flying an airplane, but if you’ve never taken a lesson and have no idea how to fly a plane, getting into one alone to fly is not a great idea—no matter how optimistic about it you are. Therefore, yes, optimism is great, but it needs to be based on reality.
Also, it’s important to remember that we all have bad moments. Just because we do so doesn’t mean we aren’t optimistic. There’s a culture condemning those moments right now, but we must look at the overall picture. It’s perfectly normal and healthy to experience negative emotions or pessimism in some moments. Don’t label yourselves in those moments. The real crux of the matter is: what is your tendency? This may help you determine your mindset.
If you are struggling to think optimistically, I would suggest rewiring your thoughts. You just need to strengthen your optimistic network of neurons. All you have to do is: notice, shift, and rewire.
First, notice your negative thought. Try to catch yourself when you have a negative thought or mindset. Then, attempt to shift the narrative from a negative to a positive. You can do this by practicing gratitude. This could be gratitude for things that are going well in your life. However, if you’re struggling with a particular circumstance, it may be advisable to try to think of some positives about that specific circumstance versus trying to distract yourself with another topic, as it will only come back stronger later. The point is not to distract yourself but to try to view things more positively. Yes, the negative is there, but try listing some positives too. That’s this shift.
I also recommend that you do this shift after you have let your initial emotions or reactions settle. It’s important to leave space for your initial emotions so that they are validated. Once you are calmer, trying to work through this shift intellectually is much easier.
Finally, rewire. To do so, try thinking about this new way of thinking for about 15 seconds. This allows it to seep in and get this optimistic network of neurons used to firing more, making it more likely that next time you think about this challenging topic, this optimistic network will be activated instead of the negative one. So, the more you think of these positives, the more the positive network is strengthened, which makes it more likely you’ll continue to think that way in the future.
Related: How to Get Out of a Health Rut
3. Develop high self-esteem
Self-esteem is the overall attitude one tends to have about themself. Self-esteem is derived from three sources: one’s personal attributes and talents, one’s relationships with others (family, friends, romantic partner/s), and one’s membership in social groups. Ideally, we want to derive our self-esteem equally from these sources.
Now, having high self-esteem is associated with higher wellbeing. Additionally, higher self-esteem is linked to a greater hippocampal volume. Do you remember how I previously mentioned that chronic stress contributes to hippocampal shrinkage? This means that self-esteem can also protect you against stress.
To protect yourself against stress, I recommend working to ensure that you are balanced in the three categories from which we derive our self-esteem.
Ultimately, if you want to improve your wellbeing, keep these key points in mind. The science behind wellbeing can act as a roadmap allowing us to hack our way to a better life, one that you’re truly satisfied with. If you need any support, consider hiring a life coach or therapist.
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