20 September 2021

Take Care Of Your Head & Your Body Will Follow: Learn How To Boost Your Happiness For Lasting Physical Fitness

Mental Health

By Dr Pat Partington

(Click on the Reference Numbers in Blue for More Info)

Mental Health: Introduction

Everyone wants an edge. That thing that will make the difference as you strive toward citius, altius, and fortius as the Romans used to say, or as you and I would say faster, higher and stronger. Yes you’re working hard in the gym, of course you are, but sometimes it’s a struggle, right? Sometimes you’re demotivated because you don’t seem to be getting any faster or stronger and that can have a knock-on effect for the choices you make. But you remind yourself, nobody ever said this would be easy! Feel free to add your own inspirational quote here.

If you think looking after your own health and fitness is tough, you should try being in the business of helping other people get fit or lose weight. Oh you are, OK you’re going to need to stick around to the end because I’m going to share with you a technique that I use every day in my practice of psychological therapy. A practical exercise you can teach your clients that will control the chemistry of emotion quickly, efficiently and effectively. Oh yes, and you can use it yourself as you strive toward your own citius, altius, and fortius.

So, what am I talking about here? Well, there’s a clue in the words psychological therapy, yes I’m going to talk about why you should be taking particular care of your mental health to maximise your physical health. In other words why you should take care of your head so that your body will follow. You’re about to discover how your mental wellbeing can exert a powerful influence over your physical health and the choices you make in the pursuit of such body betterment. But first of all, what is good mental health?


Woman holding a sign saying Mental Health

What is good mental health?

In 1964 during a famous legal case of obscenity, Justice Potter Stewart told the US Supreme Court that although he was unable to provide an adequate definition for hard-core pornography “…I know it when I see it.” This has become one of the most popular phrases in US legal history because ‘I know it when I see it’ is so readily transferrable to a whole range of intangible, hard-to-explain concepts. When it comes to our mental health, given that we are now talking about a lived-experience, the sentiment should be slightly adjusted to ‘I know it when I have it’. But what is ‘it’?

I can easily tell you what it isn’t. It is most definitely not the absence of anxiety or depression. Many who have never experienced such maladies do not enjoy good mental health. Musicians, writers and artists, for example, can struggle to maintain a clear, calm mind, particularly when driven by perfection, but this alone does not signal mental illness.

Researchers (1) define it as “a state of well-being that allows individuals to cope with the normal stresses of life and function productively”, but “normal stresses of life” is a tricky notion – one man’s stress being another man’s challenge and all that. You’ll have your own way of knowing when your mental health is good, and you’ll probably use words like happy, calm, relaxed, focused, content and resilient. The list is endless isn’t it? Yes, you know it when you have it.

Mental health took a big hit during the pandemic. The fear of an invisible killer entering your home through your letterbox or on your groceries will do that for you, not to mention lockdown isolation and financial uncertainty. As much as anything it shone a light on the fact that, yes we may well know it when we have it but we know it even more emphatically when we don’t have it. Oh yes, we know it then. So there are lots of people who need to pay more attention to their mental health simply for the obvious benefits of psychological wellbeing, but there are many others who also need the less obvious physical benefits it can deliver. This brings us nicely to the ways your head can lead your body.


People Smiling in the Gym
How does happiness impact physical health?

By the way, while there are lots of words for poor mental health (anxiety, depression, mood disorder, psychosis, etc) there are no clinical words for good mental health. The best anyone can come up with is subjective wellbeing and, for that reason, I’m going to use the word happy. So here are three keys ways that happiness can have a direct influence over our physical wellbeing.

1. Happy people have stronger immunity. Can you believe it was once thought, even by experts of the time, that emotions were a consequence rather than a cause of good or poor physical health? Yes, the world was very simple back then, and nowhere simpler than in the world of the immune system. However, over the past three or four decades science has discovered so much about this particular aspect of the mind-body connection that we’ve been forced to rethink this simplistic, one-way system of cause and effect.

The shift began in the 1980s when animal studies were showing a strong connection between stress and infection (2). Pioneer researchers picked up the baton and progressed steadily into the world of human studies where they demonstrated that, for example, the immune systems of medical students would take a big hit every year during the stress of their three-day exam period (3). More specifically, their natural killer cell numbers, required to fight infections, took a nosedive leaving them wide open to every nasty bug doing the rounds at the time.

Fast forward to the early 2000s and researchers were elbowing each other out of the way to get to the front of a field called psychoneuroimmunology, or PNI if you prefer, the ultimate appreciation of mind-body science. Lab studies found that stressing people for only a few minutes will result in a reduction of ‘first responder’ cells, which circulate in the blood identifying danger, destroying unwanted bacteria and calling other cells into defensive action in limiting the spread of pathogens (4). So if this happens in minutes, we can only imagine the ravaging effect of long-term stress on the immune system and the physical consequences that will undoubtedly follow. Well, actually we don’t need to imagine because research has shown a deep biological connection for multiple sclerosis (5), type 1 diabetes (6) and cancer (7).

So yes, low mood and stress weakens the immune system, but can we strengthen our immunity with happiness? Well, we certainly know that happy people show a reduced vulnerability toward catching colds and chest infections (8), (9). This was tested by researchers (10) who took more than 300 healthy people and administered nasal drops containing the common cold virus. The least happy people were almost three times more likely to develop the common cold compared to those with higher levels of happiness. In another study, researchers (11) gave 84 university students a vaccine against hepatitis B, a virus that attacks the liver. Results showed happier students were nearly twice as likely to have a high antibody response, a sign of a strong immune system, compared to those with poorer mental health.

Please note, this does not mean that happiness will offer complete protection from coronavirus. Just saying.

Always Positive Thinking

2. Happy people make better decisions and they make them move quickly (12).

This is true both in their personal lives, such as drinking less alcohol and smoking less, as well as in their professional lives, such as behaving in more positive ways with colleagues and securing more job interviews (13). In line with the ability to make better choices, research (14) has shown that happy people have better self-control and coping abilities. You don’t need me to tell you that this has significant implications for the way we engage with exercise and diet, which often trades on self-discipline and moderation.

No surprise, then, that mood has a direct influence over our eating behaviours (15). Intuitively we know that when we are sad, down or low we eat comfort food – I think it’s safe to say nobody ever fancied a salad after being dumped or made redundant. Conversely, happy people eat healthier diets, for example, a study (16) of more than 7,000 adults found that happy people were 47% more likely to consume fresh fruits and vegetables than those who were less positive. The same study also found that happy people were 33% more likely to be physically active, with 10 or more hours of physical activity per week, compared to their less happy counterparts.

Of course, you might very well expect people who exercise regularly to be happier, given the wealth of research evidence in favour of the association, but have you ever considered what comes first, the exercise or the happiness? Well, there’s good research (17) from Harvard to show that people who have a happier and more optimistic disposition are more likely to exercise regularly than their less happy counterparts. The researchers also found that exercisers who had the highest levels of happiness were the least likely to become inactive over the study’s 11-year lifespan.

3. Happy people feel less pain, both clinically and experimentally. Do you have a painful training injury that’s taking longer than you would expect to calm down? Consider this, the only part of your body that produces pain is your brain. Yes, I know what your thinking, “Tell it to my shoulder mate!” But let me quickly explain. Nerve endings around your body are on the lookout for danger and when they find it they send signals up to the brain to let it know what’s going on down there. These nerve endings are called nociceptors (from the Latin ‘nocere’, which means to harm) and the whole process is called nociception. Once these signals reach your brain one of two things can happen, your brain can agree with your body and produce pain to motivate help-seeking behaviour (e.g. take meds or get treatment) or it can disagree with your body and produce little or no pain at all. In short, then, and in the words of the clinical neuroscientist Lorimer Moseley (18):

“Pain is an output of the brain that is produced whenever the brain concludes that body tissue is in danger and action is required.”

Here’s the thing, your brain takes many things into account before it reaches this “conclusion” about whether pain – the ultimate motivator – is required and chief among them is your emotional state. One of the world’s leading pain science research teams, led by renowned professor of neuroscience Vania Apkarian, is of the firm opinion that ‘emotion is the bridge between nociception and pain’ (19) and there’s a wealth of evidence to support this.


Back Pain

For example, researchers (20) took 55 people with low back pain and got them to sit down for a few minutes before asking their individual ratings of pain. In research, this is rather ingeniously referred to as a measure of “pain at rest”. By the way, there is no other way of measuring pain, all we can do is ask. These people were then split randomly into three groups: one group was asked to listen to upbeat, happy music (the “elated” group), another group was asked to listen to downbeat, miserable music (the “depressed” group) and a third group didn’t listen to any music at all (the control group). They were then required to perform tasks of heavy bag-lifting, something you would normally want to avoid with low back pain. So, what did they find? Those who were happy reported much lower levels of pain both at rest and while lifting compared to those with unchanged mood, while those who were “depressed” reported much higher levels of pain. This relationship between mood and pain holds equally for clinical scenarios as it does for this type of experimental lab setting.

The fact is that those with clinical anxiety or depression have lower pain thresholds – the point at which something such as pressure or heat, for example, causes you pain – compared to those without such mood disorders (21). So, could we go as far as to say that your mental health is a more significant factor in pain than your physical health? To understand this better we need to take emotions out of the picture for a moment and have a look inside the body. Surely MRI scans, the height of modern diagnostic capability, will tell us everything we need to know about pain, wouldn’t you agree? Hold that thought.

Researchers (22) scanned the spines of 98 pain-free people as well as 27 people with long term back pain, then gave the MRI scans a shuffle before presenting them to experts, asking them to pick out those with pain. A simple enough task surely? But no, what they actually found was the MRIs of more than half of those without pain showed disc bulges and protrusions that ‘should’ have caused pain but, of course, did not. So if we return to the earlier explanation of pain, the bodies of these people were sending signals of ‘damage’ information to their brains but, for whatever reason, their brains were not interpreting them as danger. In other words, nociception without pain, and while there were likely other factors at play, one thing we know for sure is that anxious brains are better at acknowledging danger than happy brains. This is why discerning health professionals work to the maxim, “treat the man, not the scan”. Interestingly, the MRI scans of many people with long term back pain were completely free of any such spine abnormalities. The researchers wisely concluded that “abnormalities of the lumbar spine by MRI examination can be meaningless if considered in isolation”. This type of research has been repeated many times with similar outcomes (23).

The fact is that there are thousands of people out there right now with spine abnormalities that have the potential to cause pain, but because their brains are disagreeing with their bodies, they are completely pain-free. We’ve seen that mental health has a significant influence in the agreement process, so let’s nip back to that training injury that’s taking longer than you would expect to calm down. Now I’m not saying you should train with an injury however happy you might be feeling, that would be reckless, but for pain control you could do a lot worse than turn your attention to your mental health. It can reduce your pain and it can help your injury to heal more quickly (24), increasing the effectiveness of any other form of treatment you might be receiving.

Before we move on to how you can learn to change your emotions very quickly, remember what I said earlier, that good mental health is not simply the absence of anxiety or depression. This is important to bear in mind because, looking at all the benefits listed above, you might just assume that these are yours by right because you don’t have a mental health condition. However this isn’t true, they come from good mental health, which could mean happiness, contentment, enjoyment, appreciation, gratitude or confidence.

Now, wouldn’t it be great if you could control your emotions at critical times in your life such as before a job interview, a performance, a competition or when you find yourself getting stressed or anxious in everyday situations of life more generally. This would have a massive impact on your overall mental health, wouldn’t it? Well, you can and I’m going to tell you about it now.

Mental imagery

There are two things you need to know about the brain before we start this exercise. The first thing to know is that all emotions are chemical. Threat or danger, for example, will reliably activate the amygdala, an ancient survival-biased structure of the brain that, in turn, initiates the chemical choreography that we experience as fear and anxiety (25). Of course, fear and anxiety will always result in escape-and-avoid behaviour and, well, so far so good. I invite you right now to close your eyes and think back to a time when you were nervous. Are your eyes closed? You might notice that when you do this, a little of that nervousness returns to your body, and this is because your brain can’t tell the difference between reality and imagination. The better you can use your imagination for this imagery exercise the stronger the nervousness in your body, which brings us on to the second thing to know about your brain.


Imagery Written in the sand

Imagery and reality use the same structures of the brain, a fact well established in clinical neuroscience (26). Imagining piano practice is as effective in altering the brain’s motor cortex – essential to learning and developing new motor skills – as physical piano practice (27). Imagining taking basketball shots can be as effective as physically practising basketball shots (28). Imagining muscle-strengthening exercises can increase muscle strength (29) although its main benefit comes from magnifying the effects of physical training (30). I’m only telling you all of this to establish the fact that if we can imagine something well enough, as far as the brain is concerned it’s really happening.

We are now nicely teed up for the exercise, so let me walk you through the eight steps, which are very straightforward but will take a little practice. At the end of this exercise, you’ll have a tool, based on brain-science, that you can use to quickly and reliably take control of your emotions. More specifically, you’ll perform a physical action, which psychologists refer to as an ‘anchor’ that will fire up the chemistry of calm relaxation.

8 Steps to cue-controlled relaxation
Read these instructions a couple of times so you are quite sure of what to do, then have a go for yourself. Once you have done this have another quick read through to check that you did it correctly, then do it again. You won’t be perfect at the beginning but the more often you do it the better you’ll get, particularly if you practice every day.

1: Mental imagery is easier when you are relaxed, so that’s where we’ll start. Make yourself comfortable in a place where you won’t be disturbed for 5-10 minutes and focus your attention on your breathing. Make sure you are breathing from your stomach, taking longer to breathe out than to breathe in and just allow yourself to be aware of the movement of your stomach. Each time you breathe out you can choose to say a relaxing word, such as ‘calm’ or ‘relaxed’ in your own mind. Now scan your body from your head down to your toes and notice any feelings of tension or discomfort. Each time you breathe out allow some of that tension to leave your body, so you are using your breathing to help you relax. Move on to the next step when you feel ready, which is when you become aware of how your body knows you are feeling calmer.

2: Go to a ‘safe place’ in your mind. This might be a place you’ve been to in the past – maybe a beach, a garden, a room from childhood, it could be anywhere. It might be a place you’d like to go to or it might be an imaginary place. To get more regions of your brain involved, imagine that you are really there, so that means that you are seeing things as if you are looking out through your own eyes in that scene. The important thing now is to make use of all of your senses.

3: Look around with your mind’s eye and notice everything you can see in your safe place. Be aware of the colours of all the things you can see there, everything that reminds you of being calm and relaxed. Notice what happens when you make the colours brighter and stronger and the outlines clearer.

4: Now notice the sounds that you can hear, those close by and those further away in the distance. Maybe there are people with you and you can hear them talking or laughing. Try making the sounds louder and notice what happens. Turn it down a little and feel the change, adjust the volume to find out what works best.

5: What about the smells and tastes? Can you smell the sea, flowers, home cooking or maybe perfume? Take a moment to enjoy the smell. Is there a taste that reminds you of this safe place? Use your imagination to be aware of it.

6: Now for the physical sensations. Notice where in your body this feeling of relaxation is strongest. Notice how your chest and shoulders feel. What about your legs and your stomach? When you notice where the feeling of calm relaxation is strongest do your best to have this feeling spread through your entire body.

7: Now you’ve maximised the sensations we need to perform the action that will eventually become neurologically connected to the safe-place chemistry you have just created.

Here we go:
Squeeze a fist tightly as you take a deep breath in…
Hold your breath for three seconds. One… two… three…
As you breathe out say a word that relates to how you feel: “calm” is usually good.

8: Now use a few slow out-breaths to sink deeper down into the feelings and take a moment to enjoy them. Check how you know that you are relaxed: scan your body from your head to your toes and become aware of all of the sensations that let you know you are feeling safe and secure. Emerge gradually from the exercise: count slowly from one to five and allow yourself to become more alert and refreshed with each number that you count.



You have just anchored the feelings of calm relaxation to the physical action, that we’ll now refer to as an ‘anchor’. So whenever you need to feel calm and relaxed you can ‘fire’ your anchor – in other words squeeze your fist tightly as you take a deep breath, hold your breath for three seconds, then say the word “calm” as you breathe out – which will bring back those feelings of calm relaxation. This happens because of something called neuroplasticity, which I could have mentioned in the ‘things to know about your brain’ part, but I thought it best to avoid information overload.

As you performed this exercise and your brain’s limbic system activated the chemistry of calm relaxation, there were other parts of your brain being activated to process the clenched fist, the breath and the word ‘calm’. Neuroplasticity is based on the scientific principle that ‘neurons that fire together wire together’, which means that as the clusters of neurons from each of your brain regions ‘fired together’, they became ‘wired together’ and you now have a new circuit in your brain. This becomes activated every time you fire your anchor (perform the action), reliably reproducing the feelings of calm relaxation.

Possibly the best thing about the anchoring technique is that you can use it for any positive emotion, particularly confidence, something that always takes a knock when we are anxious. You simply need to replace a safe place with a confident place, which means you can just imagine yourself doing something that you are confident in doing, and again this could be anything.



Mental Health – In Conclusion

How often is your training interrupted by colds and viruses that hang around for too long, stopping you from getting the most out of your training and slowing your progress to the next level of achievement? Well, your new anchoring technique might just make you three times less likely to suffer in the winter months to come and maybe this will give you the edge you’ve been looking for. Perhaps you sometimes struggle with motivation or you can fail to consistently make the best decisions at crucial times, again, holding you back from the progress that your hard work deserves? Say hello to a new, clear-minded, decisive and motivated you. And what about pain? I think we could all do with a little less of that and a little more of the benefits that come from… safe to say, if you take care of your head your body will follow.

So you now have a technique, derived from good old-fashioned brain science, to reliably and effectively elicit positive emotion whenever you need it most. Practising every day, which is important for keeping the connections in your brain strong, also provides a therapeutic intervention in its own right, giving you some time off from the stresses of everyday living. The fact is that the more you engage with this exercise the happier you become and the more of these physical health benefits you’ll accumulate. And not only will you get all of those physiological improvements, but your mental health is going to get a powerful boost toward a happy, confident, focused and resilient state of mind. Just as surely as Justice Potter knows it when he sees it, you’ll know it when you have it because it’s going to make such a meaningful difference to your life as you move toward faster, higher and stronger.

If you would like to improve your own mental health, or you are a fitness professional who would like to share good mental health with your clients, visit my site www.goodmentalhealth.online. You can also download a free audio recording of this anchoring exercise, along with two other hypnotherapy recordings that will increase your confidence and your happiness.