Controlling your outlook just got easier with a little myth-busting and a lot of fact-checking.
We’ve all heard, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” This motivational quote, nice as it is, doesn’t offer us guidance on applying its wisdom. Thankfully, science can. Researchers have discovered dependable ways to intentionally tweak your mindset. Whether you’re aiming to reduce stress or anxiety, be more productive or improve your mood, there is knowledge that can assist you. So, let’s use that knowledge to our advantage. We’ve put together some evidence-backed approaches (and debunked some myths along the way) to help you get into the right frame of mind for reaching your highest aspirations.
Fact: Green spaces are a stress remedy
Need stress relief, right now? Few things do it faster than nature. According to a study from Frontiers in Psychology, just 20 minutes outdoors helps to lower stress hormone levels. People who participated in the study either sat or walked in back gardens, parks or other green spaces for 10 minutes or more, and saliva samples showed their levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, plummeted. Those who spent 20 to 30 minutes in nature saw the biggest benefit. Stress often feels like something completely out of your control, but stepping outside for a short walk might leave you with a clearer focus, feeling refreshed and ready to take on tasks.
Myth: Idleness is the enemy of productivity
Yes, you read that right. There are quite a few benefits to being still. A study published in Consciousness and Cognition found that letting our minds wander without paying attention to a productive task leads to more focus on long-term goals. Constant busyness can lead to more negative feelings and concerns, consciously or unconsciously. Instead, set aside time for uninterrupted, freely associative thoughts for a boost to your mental health. If that’s not convincing enough to set aside time on your calendar, free time can often lead to sudden solutions for problems you’re struggling to resolve. Think of Newton and his apple. It’s often in the times when we least expect it that inspiration strikes.
Fact: You should make time for self-care – even in the midst of chaos
It may seem counterintuitive, but a study of nearly 900 medical students found that those who took time away from their strenuous educational programme to engage in regular self-care reported feeling less stress and having a higher quality of life. While medical training is often associated with high rates of burnout, anxiety and depression, this study proves there’s a simple antidote. Addressing personal needs, including nutrition, physical activity, interpersonal relations, spiritual growth, and health and stress management – rather than powering through – provides a greater overall benefit. Self-care looks different for everyone but can include simple, affordable activities, like listening to a podcast, taking a bubble bath or calling your best friend. The bottom line: it’s worth it to pause.
Myth: Taking a cold plunge is a cure-all
It may be a hot topic on social media, but can a jump into an icy tub fix our problems? The research has a long way to go before it can answer definitively, so you may just have to make that call for yourself. Do proceed with caution because there are risks, and it’s best to speak to your doctor before taking the plunge. Proponents claim an icy blast can improve your mood as well as boost your immunity, improve circulation and increase energy levels. The best evidence-based benefit of taking a cold soak is reduced muscle soreness. “Nobody knows exactly why it even helps you,” said Dr Tracy Zaslow, a physician writing for the Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute blog. “Maybe it’s changes in adrenaline or cortisol – or even dopamine. There are a lot of hypotheses, as opposed to data.” This method gets the cold shoulder until further research is conducted.
Fact: Visualisation gives you hope
The pandemic, economic uncertainty and global unrest have tested our resiliency over the past few years. Luckily, there is a way to build up positive emotions that can act as a buffer against future stress. It’s called the “best possible self” exercise. Here’s how to do it. Imagine your life going as well as it possibly could, then write about this ideal state. Afterward, close your eyes and envision your best possible self for five minutes, activating all your senses. If you’re not up for this exercise due to heightened emotions, consider visualising your life a few years in the future instead. Studies showed those who participated in this exercise increased positive emotions and reduced goal ambivalence. The effect was immediate and lasted up to a week.
Myth (sort of): Meditation will immediately make you calm and clear your head
While its effect will be different for everyone, meditation may make a person feel uncomfortable at first. Thoughts or feelings that arise in our meditative state are not always easy to confront. Although it isn’t a quick fix, meditation does have benefits. Regularly practicing meditation has been proven to reduce anxiety and improve stress reactivity and coping skills. Some research shows mindful meditation reduces cytokines, which are inflammatory chemicals that the body releases in response to stress – possibly affecting our moods negatively. And if you’re trying to create positive change in your life, meditation has been shown to increase self-awareness and lengthen attention spans. Positive results have been recorded for those who meditated just 13 minutes a day for eight weeks.
We often feel defenceless against our circumstances or environment, but science tells us otherwise. With a little bit of effort, we can take back control and improve our mindset more than we realise. Not all of these methods will work for everyone, and some require practice, but they’re all rooted in science and are certainly worth a try.
You don’t have to meditate in the lotus position for hours. Nor do you have to be perfect to make progress. There are many simple activities you can practice to stay present. Try these:
• Breathing exercises
• Colouring or painting
• Listening to music
• Time with pets
Sources: health.harvard.edu; marieclaire.co.uk; cedars-sinai.org; nesslabs.com; inc.com; sciencefocus.com; forbes.com; pubmed.ncbi.nlm. nih.gov; ncbi.nlm.nih.gov; healthline.com