As a psychologist, I suppose I should have a lot to say about wellbeing, although it is sometimes difficult to practice what I preach, particularly with two very small sons (Ted aged 2 years, 3 months, and Leo, a sparking 7 month old). I have, however, come across some bits of wisdom from the behavioural and medical sciences, and here are my top nine suggestions toward fostering your wellbeing:
1. Sleep well
A good night’s sleep is probably one of the most underrated aspects of wellbeing. Poor sleep is related to worsening anxiety, depression, pain and a multitude of other unwanted side effects. Marital satisfaction slips, simple mistakes of memory and planning occur. For example, during long periods of night baby-feeding (an attachment behaviour akin to the torture technique of water-boarding), I have found myself putting the kettle in the fridge, forgetting appointments, thinking I had written things in my diary which I hadn’t, yawning rudely during telephone calls and being irritable with my wife. So here are some tips: exercise early in the evening, allowing your body to warm up and then cool down. Have the bedroom slightly cooler than the rest of the house. Do not bring your laptop to bed. Throw out any clocks or at least have the alarm out of arm’s reach, and never look at the time—you’ll just end up calculating how many minutes or hours are left before you have to get up and an adrenaline cascade will have you awake until 20 minutes before the alarm goes off. I write from hard learned experience. Next, for me at least, no caffeine, which means tea, chocolate or coffee after four pm. Coffee has a half-life of 2.5 hours, so that a coffee at 10-00 pm will still be at half strength at 12.30am and at quarter strength at 3am!
If you have a problem with sleeping (insomnia), then do not go to bed earlier. The best way to return to a normal sleeping routine is to anchor your sleep by your wake-up time, and (this is the difficult bit), try to keep to a similar routine at the weekends. It may take them until Wednesday to get back to a normal routine, after a few weekend late nights or lie-ins. (But, obviously I do not have the luxury of lie-ins anymore, anyway.)
2. Don’t prejudge events
Try not to catastrophise or personalise events. Psychologists have consistently found if one jumps to the conclusion, from a small piece of evidence, that something awful is going to happen, it is then very difficult to stop the ‘awfulisation’ process; mountains are truly made of molehills. Where I work, in the Mater Hospital, patients coming in for test results often misperceive the mood of a nurse or doctor as evidence of dire awaited results, anxiously examining the professional’s face for signs of impending bad news.
A problem shared truly can be a problem halved. In cardiac research we refer to some people as having ‘a Type D personality’: those who are experiencing emotional distress, but who do not feel inclined to share or be relaxed socially. They are far more likely to have another heart event or procedure than those who share their problems. Interestingly, when you look at most physical illnesses, those with a wider, accessible social support network tend to live longer and have a better health prognosis. Illness is really a social thing—if one’s husband or wife is sick, it also makes the couple and family sick. (We have learned to invite partners to training events, as it seriously improves outcomes.)
Relax/be mindful: Learn some form of relaxation or mindfulness technique, or pray for fifteen minutes every day. Fifteen minutes has been shown to be the magic figure. People who practise the relaxation response on a daily basis have lower levels of stress and their wounds (such as ulcers) heal more quickly. At a physical level, the alarm system which produces cortisol and stress hormones (e.g. adrenaline and nor-adrenaline) is less active. In addition, pro-inflammatories in the body are reduced and people with painful conditions report that they feel better. I have just taken part in a study using an online mindfulness and stress management programme with fellow researchers, Angeline Traynor and Brian McGuire in Galway. We found that six weeks of relaxation reduces pain ratings in chronic headache and migraine sufferers, and that their quality of life improved, they had fewer headaches and were taking fewer pain medications. Pain medication overuse has been linked to the body developing rebound headaches, just to get the user to take more pain medication. (You can check our website, www.headachemanagment.org, or look at additional information on the International Association for Pain website www.iasp-pain.org. Dr Tony Bates has a number of good books (available in Easons) which contain excellent CDs on mindfulness. He also addresses low mood and depression.)
5. Walk or swim
As we get older, many of us develop aches and pains. Our natural response is to reduce our level of activity when we feel pain, but this is the wrong thing to do. A friend of mine with back pain was told he could have an operation, or he could just walk. When he had stopped walking, he was told to ‘walk some more’. Looking back at the paragraph on sleep, I am reminded of my own recent knee pain. Many analgesics contain caffeine, so the result of using them was less knee pain, but being wired and awake all night! Something else I’ve learned from ‘painful experience’.
6. Water, fibre and wine
Drink water, eat fibre and have a couple of glasses of red wine. Red wine is full of reservertol l which is good for antioxidants and helps to prevent clotting. Most of us do not drink enough water and we eat insufficient fibre, which does not help in the stomach department or further down. Make sure you have at least two days a week without alcohol. Never ever drink and drive, it will cost you a fortune in dry cleaning.
In general, a moods last from 2 to 2½ hours, and they are contagious. In a previous life, when I worked as a director of counseling in the HSE for adult survivors of childhood abuse, between counseling sessions, I often watched a You Tube clip of quadruplets laughing at their father. No matter what had just happened in the treatment room, this clip would bring me back to my normal mood, after a minute of gleeful laughter. (Go on, check it out:If you do not smile at the clip, you definitely need to talk to somebody!)
Laughter and humour allow us to observe the unobservable in our lives. We tend as Irish people to be good at humour: ‘You know, he never looked so well’—a comment I overheard between two men having a fag outside a house after a funeral.
8. Use your employee assistance programme
If your mood is low persistently or you cannot shake of your worries, use your free employee assistance programme. They are great and many organisations allow up to six free counseling sessions. The American Psychological Association declared last year that therapy and counseling have been scientifically shown to be effective for approximately 80 percent of people; the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence in the UK recommends therapy before most antidepressant treatments.
You would be amazed at the number of people who breathe shallowly. Place one hand on your sternum and the other on your belly. Take a deep breath in. If your belly fills like a balloon, then you are breathing correctly, if your chest rises and your belly stays flat, then you are breathing shallowly. Most good yoga teachers andr relaxation and stress management courses cover this. Put little stationery notes around the house to remind you to check your breathing. The trick is to breathe in this new manner forevermore!!! Breathe out for six, then breathe in for four, and then hold this breath for a further four and repeat. Interestingly people who breathe shallowly often also report dizziness, and numbness or tingly fingers. Some people worry that this is a sign of an impending tumour. (Of course, always get things checked out by your GP—I have to say this because my wife is a GP in Galway!)
And so, that’s my top-nine. I personally would also include buying a season ticket to Connacht Rugby, but that may not appeal to everyone. Every Christmas and birthday I ask for presents of deep tissue or hot stone massages. (This does not appeal to many men and it’s not as macho as the rugby season ticket.) Finally, I am firm believer in Rioja, and I was also an avid fan of delicatessen cheeses until I saw the results of my cholesterol test (8.2). Now I believe in a dairy-free diet and a daily dose of Lipitor!