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How can I look after my emotional health outside the therapy room?

Updated: Feb 27

Obviously, I am going to advocate coming to therapy, but, much of what we do in therapy takes time, it involves commitment and an acceptance that progress, growth and recovery are not always linear and/ or straightforward. Therefore, this post outlines some of my favourite tried and tested strategies that you can add to your self-care toolbox for quick, real-time results in the here and now.


I’ve split them into things you can do in the short-, medium- and long-term, but my first tip is to focus on the basics: sleep, food, exercise, and connection. Fundamental to being able to self-regulate is making sure that you have eaten, slept, moved and seen someone recently.

Therapy room in Surrey
My therapy room

In the short term


For calming down – The Physiological Sigh

“It is very hard to control the mind with the mind, especially when we are in heightened states of activation, stress or tired.” (Huberman, 2021a)


The acute, short-term stress response involves the sympathetic nervous system. When we experience a stressor (something that causes stress), acetylcholine is released which causes our brain to focus and our muscles to twitch. Adrenaline is also released which increases blood flow to certain areas of the body e.g., the heart and reduced blood flow to other organ systems e.g., our digestion or reproductive organs. Both these chemicals prime our body for fight or flight. The best way to move out of this state is to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. The fastest way to do this is the physiological sigh.


The physiological sigh involves breathing out slower than you breathe in, in order to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. To do this, do two quick inhales through the nose, followed by a long, slow, exhale through the mouth.


When we are stressed, carbon dioxide builds up in our system, as the small air sacks in our lungs called alveoli stop working, and this excess of carbon dioxide makes us feel agitated. The double inhale of the physiological sigh increases the alveoli’s capacity, and the long exhale expels the carbon dioxide, resulting in a calming effect.


For boosting mood and alertness - Deliberate cold exposure (DCE)

DCE is a great tool and personal favourite for boosting mood. (Huberman, 2022) cites studies that have found DCE can elevate catecholamines (adrenaline, noradrenaline and dopamine) up to 250-500% over baseline (Šrámek et al., 2000). Dopamine is known to elevate mood and make us feel energised and focused, whilst adrenaline and noradrenaline boost mental alertness and concentration. DCE, thankfully, doesn’t increase cortisol at the same time, meaning that the quality of stress created in the body leads to positive health outcomes instead of negative ones.


How should I do it?

  • In the shower (unless you have an ice bath then go for that!)

How cold does it need to be?

  • Uncomfortable but safe (this will depend on your tolerance).

When should I do it?

  • As it helps you to feel more awake, it is best performed in the morning to set you up for the day. Doing it at night might disrupt your sleep.

How long for?

  • Vary the length of time and temperature like you would sets and reps in the gym e.g. you might be in the shower for longer at a slightly warmer temperature and shorter for a very cold temperature.

  • Aim for 11 minutes maximum per week across 2-4 sessions.


For boosting mood and improving sleep – light

Get outside. Dr Samer Hattar (2021b) suggests 5-30 minutes of viewing sunlight outside as soon as possible after waking. The length of time for an effective does will vary depending on cloud cover; the more overcast it is the longer you might need. Not only does this boost mood by releasing catecholamines, but it also regulates our sleep-wake cycle, and we all know how vital sleep is in helping us to regulate our emotions.


In the medium-term


Huberman (2021a) defines medium-term stress as anywhere from days to weeks and argues that the best way to combat medium-term stress is to increase your capacity to cope with it. What might that look like? This would involve placing yourself in situations where your adrenaline is elevated and then training your mind to calm down until you became comfortable with that response.


For example, you might use DCE to build your stress resilience by challenging yourself to do it when you don’t feel like it, staying in when you have the urge to get out, or doing mental arithmetic at the same time, so that your brain adapts to being “online” whilst your stress response is activated. Huberman (2022) describes these challenges as “walls” to overcome. You can set measurable goals by setting the number of “walls” you want to overcome that week and recording your progress.


Soon, what once felt hard will become manageable and you can set further challenges.


In the long-term


Huberman argues that when you are no longer able to achieve good sleep you have moved to long-term or chronic stress. To mitigate or reduce long-term stress, he advocates exercise, trying to attain better sleep and social connection. There isn’t enough space here to discuss strategies for improving sleep. I will however recommend heading over to Huberman’s website and listening to his podcast series on sleep. Matthew Walker’s book: Why We Sleep is also a great read.


Exercise, exercise, exercise

We all have times when getting ourselves to the gym, class, swimming pool, or outside for a run is a real struggle and we find ourselves googling: How to increase motivation. The truth of it is, there is no magic formula to motivation. People who are always exercising haven’t cracked the motivation code. They just go. And keep going. The first step is always the worst, once you get into a rhythm and feel those post-exercise endorphins, the next time you go will be easier. That said choosing to exercise will be easier if you’re doing something you enjoy. Morris dancing, curling, cycling, rhythmical gymnastics – whatever it is, just do it.


Social connection

Loneliness creates a molecule in our body called tachykinin which impairs our immune systems and makes us feel paranoid and fearful (Huberman, 2021a). Feeling like we are connected and that have a sense of belonging suppresses tachykinin.


Whilst connecting to other humans is good, it doesn’t have to be human connection that we seek; connecting with someone or something that brings us joy leads to the release of serotonin, which makes us feel content, bliss, trust, and comfort (Huberman, 2021a). That might be a pet, knitting, walking in nature, or playing the bagpipes.


Another practice for reducing long-term stress via the production of serotonin is developing a gratitude practice, the topic of my next blog post!


I hope this was helpful. Let me know in the comments your best tips or tricks for looking after your emotional health.


References



Šrámek, P., Šimečková, M., Janský, L., Šavlíková, J. and Vybíral, S., 2000. Human physiological responses to immersion into water of different temperatures. European journal of applied physiology, 81, pp.436-442.


Huberman, A. (2021a) Tools for Managing Stress & Anxiety. [Podcast]. 8 March 2021. Available at: https://hubermanlab.com/tools-for-managing-stress-and-anxiety/ (Accessed 1 January 2023).


Huberman, A. (2021b) Dr Samer Hattar: Timing Light, Food & Exercise for Better Sleep Energy & Mood. [Podcast]. 25 October 2021. Available at: https://hubermanlab.com/dr-samer-hattar-timing-light-food-exercise-for-better-sleep-energy-mood/ (Accessed 2 January 2023).


Huberman, A. (2022) Using Deliberate Cold Exposure for Health & Performance. [Podcast]. 4 April 2022. Available at: https://hubermanlab.com/using-deliberate-cold-exposure-for-health-and-performance/ (Accessed 10 January 2023).



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