To celebrate Mental Health Month, we were fortunate to have Sue Langley, an expert in Positive Psychology, Neuroscience, Emotional Intelligence and CEO of the Langley Group, present us with evidence-based tools and techniques for boosting your mental wellbeing. A summary of her presentation and access to the recording can be found below.
We all know that eating well, regular exercise and a good night's rest are fundamental to our mental wellbeing, so why don't we just do it?
Whether you realise it or not, it is emotions that play a key role in determining if you will or won't go for that gym session tomorrow morning and if you are going to spend the night in front of the television with a beer in hand or go to bed early for a good dose of 'deep sleep.'
"So, when we think about mental health, what we've got to think about is it's not just the physical, mental and social – it's being able to do something with our emotions, because if we can manage them, then we can do more activities to boost the others," says Sue Langley, CEO of Langley Group, an expert in Emotional Intelligence, Neuroscience and Positive Leadership.
Our moods and emotions influence everything from what we put into our mouths to how much we socialise and exercise. To understand how our emotions work and how they impact all aspects of our daily lives, we first need to understand what emotions are. We also need to understand how our brain works, what it consists of, what it runs on, and what we can do to make sure we get the most out of it by learning to manage our emotions intelligently.
Emotions are data – that is all
When people think about emotions, many of us think of emotions in a negative context, or we tend to think of someone prone to 'getting emotional'. Yet emotions are just data, the information our brains send through to tell us something.
Sue believes thinking of emotions as data can be a beneficial way of helping us label and handle the emotions we feel more effectively.
"I find it so much easier to go, 'Oh – look, I'm having some data, how interesting…' than I am to go 'Oh God, I shouldn't be feeling this, or, this is terrible!'
Emotions are there for a reason – they build resilience
All negative or positive emotions are good, valid, and beneficial – particularly the uncomfortable ones because they support our mental health and wellbeing. Emotions are there for a reason; they help us build resilience. If you can recognise and acknowledge the emotions you feel, you can accept them and choose what you do with them.
"Whenever we talk about emotional intelligence, we are never talking about trying to push those emotions away; pretend we are not feeling it, we should be able to handle it, come on – I'm better than this, I can push through – that's not a good way to handle emotions, and there is a neuroscience reason behind this," says Sue.
Understanding our brain, to understand our emotions
Our brains are made up of two systems: the limbic system and the pre-frontal cortex.
The limbic system is the part of your brain responsible for a lot of the automatic processes. Neuroscientists often call this part 'system X' because of its automated nature. It runs efficiently and effectively on very little fuel. Your habits, memory centre and emotional centre all sit in this part of the brain. So, the limbic system controls and generates things like bringing up memories, ensuring you keep repeating your habits (good and bad), and all your emotions.
On the other hand, the pre-frontal cortex is the part of your brain that is responsible for higher-order thinking. Neuroscientists call this part of the brain system 'C' – meaning 'reflective' because it's the part of your brain that allows you to reflect on the past, present and future. The pre-frontal cortex is where things like; strategic thinking, problem-solving, decision-making, paying attention, and self-regulation sits, and it's the part of the brain that needs a lot of fuel to run.
Dopamine - #1 brain fuel
When we talk about fuel, we are talking about chemicals in our brain and body that make our bodies and minds work. When they are in our brains, they are called neurotransmitters, and when they are in our bodies, they are called hormones.
So how do emotions fit into all this? Well – different emotions produce different chemicals within our bodies. For example, negative emotions produce adrenalin and cortisol, while positive emotions produce dopamine which, surprise, surprise, is the #1 fuel your brain needs to work well – particularly if you need the pre-frontal cortex part of the brain.
"Whenever I talk to people about mental health and wellbeing, I let people know that if we do not have the fuel (dopamine) in our brain to manage our emotions as they come up; to think clearly, to self-regulate, to make decisions – if we are not fuelled up, we will not be able to do these things.
"So, for me, personally, when I think about my mental health and wellbeing, I'm looking at how do I keep my brain fuelled so I can make better choices…" says Sue.
What you can do to increase dopamine levels in your body and brain
Now that we know dopamine is your brain's primary fuel source let's look at two things we can do to increase our dopamine levels, which will allow the brain to function at optimal levels.
#1 Brain-Body Basics – Eat, Sleep, Exercise
It's that 'tell me something I don’t know' part we mentioned earlier in this piece. Eat, sleep and exercise are the three brain-body basics that influence almost every aspect of our wellbeing – whether it be mental or physical.
Eat – Your brain needs you to eat well. And it turns out that saying, 'You are what you eat' – isn't far from the truth. Research over the last few decades has discovered a link between our gut and brain, where changes in one can lead to changes in the other.
On top of that, more recent research in the last five years has also found humans produce 95 per cent of serotonin in the stomach. And this is important because serotonin is also known as the 'happy' hormone, which stirs up positive emotions.
So, if we feel happy and content because of increased serotonin levels, our bodies will automatically increase the dopamine levels to fuel our brains.
Sleep – A good night's sleep is essential for dopamine production. There are two things you need to know when it comes to getting a good night's sleep.
Firstly, deep sleep, which usually happens in the first half of your sleep, is crucial because this is the time your brain cleans itself – literally. Each day, as your brain processes all sorts of information, it accumulates roughly seven milligrams of toxins. So, if you don't get your deep sleep, your brain doesn't get to clean itself. Now, while the short-term effects of this are cognitive decline in the form of not being able to think clearly, reflect and make decisions, in the long-term, lack of deep sleep can contribute to dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
Secondly, when it comes to how much sleep is enough, it's different for different people but generally speaking, 70 per cent of the population needs between 6-8 hours per night. And because your deep sleep happens in the first half of the night, it would be ideal to make your mid-point of your sleep cycle between 12-3 am. So – head to bed early; you will be glad you did.
Exercise – Physical activity produces dopamine. Many people assume exercise is only beneficial for our physical health, so if we aren't trying to lose weight, tone up or get fitter, we don't need to get out and about. The fact is, our brains need us to move for a minimum of 30 minutes a day.
Firstly, physical stress in the form of exercise helps our bodies manage general stress levels by lowering stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine.
Secondly, habitual exercise has been shown to improve mental health, with many experts believing routine physical activity is as powerful in treating anxiety and other mental illnesses as antidepressants.
#2 Positive Emotions
There's a sense of logic to it, isn't there? If negative emotions cause dopamine levels to drop, then surely positive emotions will cause dopamine levels to rise – right? Correct.
So, how do we bring up positive emotions? Firstly, you need to know what brings a smile to your face, what brings you joy and makes you feel content. Of course, these can be different things for different people. Still, in general, things like practising gratitude, mindfulness, savouring, smiling, connections, and kindness are all things research has found to boost positive emotions.
To ensure you have a never-ending source of dopamine-producing positive emotions, create some daily habits and rituals to generate positive emotions and keep refuelling your brain. For example, it might be acknowledging what you are grateful for each night before you go to sleep or blocking a time out in your diary to simply call a friend and have a laugh in the middle of the working day.
"Every time we put a habit in that generates a positive emotion, or looks after our eat, sleep or exercise – it is absolutely going to help us,' adds Sue.
"Wellbeing is not a spectator sport; you can't just know it; you have to do it" – here are some daily habits you can put in place to help manage your emotions and refuel your brain throughout the workday -
Follow a schedule – create habits and routines
Plan your day 90 mins on, 15 mins off
Do 45-minute meetings
Put triggers in place to promote positive habits and prevent negative ones
Turn off emails for focused work
Do activities to generate dopamine periodically
Connect with others
About the Langley Group
The Langley Group offers a range of services designed to help you and your teams perform at their best.
Virtual Learning - Leading and Motivating in a Virtual World, Mindfulness at Work, Cultivating a Growth Mindset
Training - Emotional intelligence, Positive Leadership, Strengths-Based Leadership
Psychometric Testing - Work on Wellbeing, Emotional Intelligence, Strengths
Personal Learning - Learn with Sue Online Community, Learn with Sue Walk and Talk Podcast
Keynotes - Stress Management, Emotional Agility, Brain Hacks for Happiness, the Upside of Stress
The Mental Wellbeing Boost - presentation for Trojan Recruitment Group