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Learning to Self-Induce
A DIY approach to positivity, alertness, and focus.
FROM THE AGES
“If you’re in a bad mood, go for a walk. If you’re still in a bad mood, go for another walk.”
“I think 99 times and find nothing. I stop thinking, swim in silence, and the truth comes to me."
— Albert Einstein
I used to coach kid’s gymnastics, from toddlers up to high schoolers. I had one three-year-old in a summer camp meant for four and five-year-olds. He was big, strong, and agile for his age and rarely had a problem keeping up with the older kids, with one major exception. He was the only kid in the whole group who couldn’t speak well enough to express what he needed. Several times a day his face would contort into a grimace as he tried to find words that he just didn’t have. He knew something was wrong but didn’t have the understanding yet to name it, much less to fix it.
Most of us have seen similar frustration in a child. They know something is wrong but don’t have the tools to express what they feel, much less change it. We pity children in this developmental phase. Yet as adults, we often fall into this same rut.
Many people walk around short-tempered, grumpy, or even downright nasty. When children do this we call it a tantrum and we ascribe it to immaturity. The implication being that mature adults would have cultivated the capacity to transcend these emotions. But while our ability to recognize our emotions is better than toddlers, the list of root causes and solutions that we rely on to improve our state is hopelessly short. In general, we aren’t good at recognizing our emotional states and are even worse at understanding how to improve them.
Anxiety, frustration, low energy, and an inability to focus are not immutable states that we are powerless to changes. Perhaps more than any other trait, the mark of maturity is the ability to self-induce desirable mental states. This doesn’t necessarily mean a complete mastery of your emotions or maintaining a zen calm at all times. It simply means to develop the same sort of relationship to an emotional funk that you have with hunger—to easily recognize where you’re at and then, unburdened by your momentary discomfort, take deliberate steps to fix it. Shifting states always requires action. You cannot fix thinking with thinking. You need to get out of your head and into your body.
Every emotional state has physical traces in the body. When we’re stressed, our heart rate increases, our breathing becomes short and shallow, and our vision narrows. These responses make sense from the evolutionary perspective. The emotional stress of a survival situation induces a physical readiness to help us better meet the danger in front of us. But states of calm, relaxation, and focus also have physical signatures. As we might expect, these are the opposite of stress—deep, rhythmic breathing, slow heart rate, and broad vision.
There is a two-way relationship between our mind and body. The physiological signatures that characterize a certain state can also trigger it. Just as stress incites a specific breathing pattern, intentionally breathing in that way also induces stress. The same is true for calm, focus, and alertness. We can leverage this relationship with specific yet simple strategies to remain calm, productive, and alert all day.
You likely have a few hobbies and habits that make a huge impact on your mood, but there are also universally beneficial practices that you can both structure into your routine at regular intervals (like a morning vitamin) and use when you need a little pick-up (like a snack when you’re hungry).
Understanding the relationship between your body and emotions serves both your long-term health and your daily experience. There is much more to say on this, but, for today, I’ll highlight my two favorite experts on the topic with a sample of their findings and a few recommendations for further investigation.
Dr. Andrew Huberman is a neurobiologist who may be the best source for information about optimizing your internal state. He runs a neurobiology-based podcast out of his lab called the Huberman Labs Podcast. Huberman asserts that:
“Anytime you emphasize exhales, in other words making them longer than your inhales, you are slowing the heart rate down, you're calming your system. Anytime you emphasize inhales - you make them more vigorous or longer than your exhales - you're speeding up your heart.”
Source: The Tim Ferriss Show #521. (I recommend this interview as the best introduction to his work and as one of the most valuable lessons on self-understanding).
Wallace J. Nichols is an author and marine biologist whose book, Blue Mind, examines the effect that being on, near, and in water has on our mental and physical states. I recommend this interview on the Kyle Thiermann Show as a first stop to learn about his work.
“We are beginning to learn that our brains are hardwired to react positively to water and that being near it can calm and connect us, increase innovation and insight, and even heal what’s broken.”
Source: Blue Mind
Thank you for reading this week. Now go take a few deep breaths and find some water!
Life is too short to be normal,