The year of 2020 has been one big meditation. Never before have been so many been forced to sit still for so long as a result of being subject to lockdown measures of one form or another. During this time, I have observed my own mind – the highs and lows, the ups and downs, and the periods of normalcy in between, with the ‘object’ being my London apartment. From this period, I have realised what affects my moods and sense of wellbeing. So I want to share with you what I’ve learnt and how you can be improving your mood naturally during the time of COVID-19, and in life generally.
Better moods means ‘feeling good’, and that’s what we are all striving for in life aren’t we?
Introducing ‘Psychoactivity’ & Mood
The interesting thing about mood is that it is a roller coaster. Some days you feel great. Other days you feel quite low. If you think about it, the quality of your moods often relates to a certain level of ‘psychoactivity‘.
When you think about things being ‘psychoactive’, we immediately think of illicit drugs, such as amphetamines, cocaine and other hallucinogens. There is a mind-altering aspect to these drugs. People who take these substances often report feelings of euphoria, yet also irritability and depression as the effect of the drugs wear off.
Yet, there are many things you also do in life that are ‘psychoactive’. Some of these are legal, natural and affect our moods in a positive way. Think about the time you rolled out of bed feeling tired after a poor night’s sleep, and you then went for a run. How did you feel afterwards? Perhaps felt re-energised and focused. In the mere matter of half an hour or so, your mood has gone from being irritable to one of being happy and content. What’s changed? You’ve done something on the bio-psycho level that has changed your physical state, and ultimately your mind.
Mood itself is directly correlated about how we feel about life. Too high and the life becomes manic and unstable. Persistent low mood is at risk of depression. A stable mood is where you aim to be, but by gently stimulating or giving your mood a light ‘lift’, you can really add to your experience of wellbeing.
To this extent, I propose to offer a new definition of what is deemed to be psychoactive beyond the realm of mere substances. It is this:
“Any thing or activity that produces a bio-chemical effect within the body and stimulates or rejuvenates the mind.”
Now, such definition is broad in the sense that it could conceivably encapsulate any activity. The power behind framing any activity that is deemed to be psychoactive means that if the end result of doing or undertaking such activity has a positive effect upon the mind, the reward mechanism becomes stronger.
That is, if you know that whatever you do is going to have a positive effect upon your mood and subsequently how you feel during the rest of the day, you are more likely to be motivated to do or perform it.
The feeling of positive wellbeing is undeniably life-enhancing. Yet, rarely do you think like this. It’s rather like threading the needle and sowing the seeds for what is to be produced or to come in the future. You have to imagine the end result first, before it manifests.
Often that reward comes through initial effort such as in the case of exercise (which may be stressful), but the benefits last longer. Too often in life though, you do not think of the consequences of your actions. They often can have negative consequences (take drinking too much alcohol for example).
We need a smarter way.
Here’s some of the things I have learnt where you can be improving your mood naturally through boosting your levels of psychoactivity.
1. Drink coffee (or tea)
Caffeine is known to be psychoactive, and is probably the world’s most frequently consumed drug. Whether it be coffee or tea, or especially designed energy drinks, the level of focus, drive and connection increases as the effect of the caffeine affects the level of dopamine signalling in the brain. Caffeine assists with energy levels and along with the medically reviewed health effects of drinking coffee over a long period, whether it be through improving liver function or reducing the risk of Parkinson’s disease, coffee is a proven winner when it comes to lifting moods.
The downside of course with caffeine consumption is the connection to sleep. For many who are sensitive to caffeine, consuming it too late in the day means a disrupted night’s sleep. A poor night’s sleep can often be the difference between a good day and average day leading to grumpiness, undoing all the good intentions of that cup of coffee or tea the night before. As we shall see, sleep is one of the things that you should be prioritising in terms of cultivating good psychoactive habits.
Of course, if caffeine gives you the jitters, then perhaps it’s not for you.
2. Exercise frequently
The connection between fitness and mental health is well recognised. Exercise, whether it be in the form of a brisk walk, run or swim, yoga or pilates will boost your mood. Through the release of hormones such as endorphins, GABA and anandamide, you may feel blissful and can result in reduced depression. You may feel refreshed, alert and focused. There is no doubt, after exercise you generally feel good. Countless studies showing the benefits of exercise upon mental health are being produced on a regular basis as well on a cognitive level, driving performance at work.
Yuval Norah Harari in his book, Homo Deus, describes humans as organic, bio-chemical algorithms. The idea of free will is often debated, but there is no doubt, that you make better decisions and you feel much clearer in your mind after exercise.
Overall, exercise is the one of the greatest tools you have at your disposal to improve your wellbeing. Make a habit of it!
3. Watch your diet
Diet is one of the biggest single factors that can affect our moods. Eat foods that are fresh, natural & free from processing and the effects upon your mental health will become clear, even in the short term.
Of course, diet is a tricky business. With everyone being different from a biological perspective, no one food type is going to work for everyone. But there are some things you can keep in mind that everyone can apply. These include eating foods high in omega 3 fatty acids, whether that be from oily fish, nuts or seeds, which serve to reduce inflammation in the body and improve brain function.
It also includes eating foods that result in stable blood sugar. So if your foods include products that tend to be highly processed, then they may be packed with added sugar, which will result in an insulin spike and subsequent blood sugar crash, affecting your mood making you feel tired and less energy.
Even that chocolate bar which you think you deserve, may wreak havoc with your blood sugar levels, leaving you feeling tired and lethargic (even the next day). I’m not saying don’t eat chocolate, but maybe think about the sugar content. Perhaps aim for dark chocolate, which tends to have less sugar per 100g, and is rich in antioxidants, phenethylamine, magnesium and iron, all of which will improve energy levels.
Also, highly processed foods tend to be stripped of their nutritional and therapeutic value, where many of the essential vitamins and minerals are lost in the manufacturing process.
Finally, it also involves eating foods in a way that promotes healthy digestion. This includes eating foods which work for your body, not eating too early or late in the evening (when lower levels of stomach acid are present and may in the evening, affect our sleep) and of course taking the time to eat food mindfully (easier said than done of course!), with the constant distraction of social media and the news.
I would also add that whilst I am a proponent of rewarding yourself from time to time with ‘junk food’, the end effect I have felt the next day – with poor digestion, energy levels and mood means that I now question whenever I get the urge to indulge in pizza or other low quality foods. Is the trade-off it really worth it in the end, just for a few moments of pleasure?
A useful tip I learnt recently was to consume a glass of water when the craving for junk food arrives. Remember, life is a series of moments put together through our conscious awareness, so cravings do pass. There are plenty of ways in which we reward ourselves with healthy food, that also tastes good. I’ll leave the ‘internet of things’ for you to explore and find many great recommendations.
Overall, being conscious of how and what I eat has made a significant difference to my energy levels and has contributed towards improving my overall levels of wellbeing.
4. Reduce alcohol intake
I have to put my hand up and admit that I enjoy a glass of wine, especially after a long week of working and teaching. Yet, I also know that if I consume too much, I may feel unmotivated and tired the next day. To this extent, I classify alcohol as ‘psycho-depressive‘.
Alcohol may feel like a relaxant, but it is really a stressor at the end of the day, especially upon the liver, which as a noun, is defined as ‘one who, or that which lives’. Although alcohol may help us to unwind, anything that taxes your organ of life is not something in my opinion that is truly relaxing, compared to other more holistic activities, such as receiving a massage. All that alcohol achieves is to numb your mind, which if you speak to anyone who has suffered from depression, is its most defining characteristic.
Alcohol also has the ability to affect your quality of sleep, reducing the ability of the brain to experience REM sleep. Sleep may be shorter, and disrupted.
So my message is to drink alcohol in moderation, or better still, knowing when there is a period of time in your life when adopting a care-free attitude to life is warranted – on holidays or maybe on weekends, depending on your circumstances. As always, listen to your body and notice when your level of alcohol consumption starts to affect your fine inner compass.
5. Take natural herbs
Although I do not always believe in taking substances to enhance mood, if you are at risk of depression or suffer from seasonal affective disorder, there are some things that you can take that may be psychoactive, and help you feel good. One of them is a common over the counter product such as St Johns Wort, which is promoted as a way of lifting mood, reducing the effect of stress and anxiety or other mood disorders. My own experience of taking St Johns Wort, when at times when my mood has been low and I have needed something that would give me a gentle ‘kick’, has been noticeable. That said, seeking medical advice is always advised when low mood is persistent.
Others may wish to take things known as adaptogens, which aim to bring homeostasis to the body. These include common herbs as such as Ashwagandha, Asian Ginseng and Turmeric, amongst others. Working with a medical herbalist can help find the right herb that works for you.
6. Prioritise sleep
We all know the importance of sleep. So much as been written and talked about it, do I need to say anything more? For me, it’s about working out what affects my sleep. This means the quality of my mattress, the amount of time I spent on line and what I do before bed, the temperature of the room etc… All of these things are personal and can affect your sleep. I know people who are super sensitive to EMF (like me), but others who can blissfully surf social media and put the phone down and hop into bed without thinking twice about it.
Whilst I am not necessarily recommending developing a sleep routine, I am very mindful of what affects my sleep and I work around it. Sometimes I take a walk around the neighbourhood, other times I’ll take a warm bath with magnesium salts. I might do some gentle yoga. What I definitely don’t do, is be active before bed (and that includes reading about things I love, including yoga & mindfulness). It means switching off and preparing for the mind to rest (ie the opposite of ‘active’). Nature documentaries, books and fiction are the perfect remedy in that respect.
The link with psychoactivity is obvious. Sleep well and feel refreshed and you are ready to launch into your day. Sleep poorly, and your day can feel very lethargic and downbeat. Poor sleep over time can really start to affect your mental health.
7. Spend time in nature
There is something about a walk in the park, by the beach, in the mountains. It revitalises you. My daily walk around Kensington Gardens in London has become a part of my routine, allowing myself to become immersed by the elegance and beauty of the park – the trees, the light and all the variety of ducks, swans and geese.
Even connecting with local wildlife during this year has been a revelation. My moods have instantly lifted whenever I see local birds and through feeding them. There is a connection made, even on the finest subtle level. We are social beings after all and social wellbeing is an important part of our overall levels of wellbeing generally. If you are lucky to live by the ocean, river or even a lake or pond, the ‘blue mind‘ effect, of being near, in or underwater can be tranquilising.
Conclusion: Think bio-psycho
Lockdown has provided a unique opportunity to focus on our wellbeing. To some extent, becoming mindful of our wellbeing has become so important in order to get through the unique challenges that the pandemic has brought. Thinking on a bio-psycho level can define how you relate to the world and what things or activity will affect your mood. If knowing that by doing thing will ultimately feel good in yourself, then you are more likely to do it. Connecting the dots and thinking of wellbeing as a jigsaw puzzle can be a useful way of thinking about it – the end result is always satisfying and there is a real sense of accomplishment.
The good news is there are plenty of things that can be done to improve your mood naturally. Ultimately, as Jocko Willink says, ‘discipline is the path to freedom’.