The Bin And The Banana Skin: A Story About The Problem Of Trying To Change Habits

When I was first training to be a Business & Personal Coach we were told the following story during one of our seminars by one of the guest speakers, which I like to call The Bin and The Banana Skin:

moving bananas

‘When I worked in an office, everytime I went into the kitchen I remember thinking that the bin was in a really silly place in the room. It was on the opposite side of where it should be and it made no sense for it to be all the way over in the corner away from everything, and so one day I decided to move it closer to the door as it just made more sense and would be easier to access, so people weren’t dropping their rubbish all over the floor trying to get to it.

However, for about two months after I made that conscious choice to move it to a more convenient place I found myself continually walking into the kitchen during my break, walking straight past where the bin was now located and trying to drop my empty banana skin from my mid-morning snack into the place where the bin used to live’.

This story well and truly stuck in my head because, although the topic of change was about something incredibly small, the outcome and learning from it was huge. I could also completely relate to it, as I’m sure you could too. How many of us decide to move the place where we put our keys/ put our toothbrush / put our gym bag / put our papers on our desk in a certain filing system, and are then forever finding ourselves in the first instance going to the place where we always used to store it, before shaking our head at ourselves and realising we had decided to move it to somewhere else?

facepalm

The Bin and The Banana Skin story has a big lesson within it if you take the time to realise it’s there:

When you decide to make a change for the better, the whole process isn’t done and dusted in that one moment of you deciding to make that decision. You have to continually and consciously remind yourself of this change that you want and the new way that you need to act or think to make it be effective, until your old habit has been superceded by the new habit.

Our brains act on autopilot in order for us to go about most of our daily lives. That’s why in the story above she kept going back to where the bin used to be in the kitchen for two months after she had moved it.

Two months!

Everytime she walked into that kitchen her brain was in ‘autopilot habit mode’ in which the pathway that she had previously built had said ‘the bin is in the far corner of the kitchen’, and so without fail that was where she would end up when she wasn’t consciously thinking about the action she was taking, and then finding herself frustrated looking at an empty spot on the floor and realising she had just walked right passed the bin at the door.

Why Am I Sharing This With You?

The Bin and The Banana Skin fantastically demonstrates the disconnect that occurs throughout our daily lives between when we make a decision of change for all the right reasons because it’s the best thing to do, but then we can’t seem to get it together and consistently act the way we intend and want that’s in line with that decision,

The importance of this story translates into every area of life, no matter how big or small, in which you’ve decided to replace an old habit with a new one. Making any kind of change takes a times, patience and effort and central to its success has to be a consistency in your thoughts and actions as the days and months progress.

Let’s look at the following couple of examples;

Scenario 1:

arguing

You’ve been with your partner for five years and frequently argue, and you know that getting angry and shouting at them isn’t conducive to having a productive conversation for you to both solve the issue. You’ve decided this way of communicating has to change and so when your feel your anger levels rising:

  • You take 30 seconds to do the 7/11 mindfulness breathing technique in order to calm yourself down so you can come back to the conversation with a level head.
  • During the conversation you keep telling yourself to not raise your voice and shout and to remain calm.

Do you think your habit of five years is going to suddenly disappear from that single moment when you were sat down alone thinking about the problem and made the decision to change your behaviour from that point forward?

Do you think you won’t have to consciously think about and tell yourself to stay continuously calm throughout the future conversations you will have with your partner?

Scenario 2:

files

You’re a manager of a team and tend to micro-manage everything and find it hard to delegate tasks because you don’t believe your team can do what you’ve asked of them to the high standard you require. You end up spending lots of extra hours at the office doing most of the work yourself and are constantly tired and stressed. You want a better work/life balance and for this change to happen you’ve decided you need to delegate more effectively and trust your staff and their skills. In moments when you find yourself about to say to one of your team ‘leave it with me, I’ll do it’ you instead:

  • Ask the team member how they will approach the task
  • Set them a deadline and ensure they know they can come to you with any questions, but that they will then go away and complete it
  • Will not offer to do it for them / will not decide to take it off of them and do it yourself

Do you think that because you’ve now made that decision to make this change when you were having a reflective moment sat at your desk that from that point forward your old way of micro-managing your team, which you’ve ingrained in your management style for months or years, will suddenly stop and that you’ll be able to carry out this new way of managing them without a second thought?

Unless you’re actually a robot, in which case you would of course get all of the above right first time without having to think about it (although I would also hazard a guess to say that you and Arnold Schwarzenneger are also best mates)…

…..as a mere human being you’re going to have to keep it at the front of your mind that after making a conscious choice to make the change, it then needs to be followed up by continual conscious actions and thoughts to re-inforce that decision and to stick to it to make sure your new habit is formed. It could take days, weeks, months and maybe even a few years (depending on how big the habit change is that you are wanting to make), and so perseverence and repetition so you can keep practising to get it right is key here.

Developing Your Strategy For Change

So if you’re wanting to make a distinct change to a habit that you have, then have a go at the following steps:

  1. Take the time to recognise what specific action/reaction you want to change in the first place, and what would the new ideal action/reaction look like.
  2. Work out a simple and easy-to-follow strategy for how you can make that change happen that works for you. This will be dependant on the situation, so for example it could be walking away into a separate room for 30 seconds to calm down if someone angers you / if you normally say ‘yes’ to every request, instead replacing it with ‘I will let you know by the end of the day if I can do that’.
  3. Acknowledge your current reactions and stages of your behaviour, and at what point these actions ordinarily turn a situation into something that is negative and that could have been done differently.
  4. Pinpoint a key time/stage in that process in which you can remind yourself of the change you’d decided to make – perhaps even having a key word as a reminder to snap yourself our of your autopilot and into your conscious thinking space.
  5. Take the chance to put into practise the strategy you’ve devised (point number 2) whenever you can.
  6. Start forming that new habit by responding in this new way over and over again!

However, it is really important to remind yourself that this is a process.

It takes time, and on some days you might take two steps forward and one step back.

You won’t get it right at each and every single opportunity, and thats okay, don’t be too hard on yourself. As long as you recognise when you didn’t react how you would’ve liked and keep being conscious in your actions to change that behaviour the next time then you’re on the right track!

I Should vs I Could

How many times a week do you find yourself saying to yourself, or others, the words ‘I should….’?

  • I should feel happy about this…
  • I should eat more healthily…
  • I should have moved on by now…
  • I should apply for that job…
  • I should try harder…
  • I should be doing more…
  • I should exercise more frequently…
  • I should go to bed earlier…

In this context, when you say those two words, what does the implication of it mean? How do you interpret it? How do you act, or not act? What weight and power does that word hold over you?

Firstly, you set the scene up to sound like you’re on the back foot, that you’re behind where you think you need to be, you’ve let yourself down and that you’re not doing what ought to be done to get there. It feels like you’re in a constant uphill struggle where you aren’t quite hitting the mark.

uphill escalator

Secondly, and most importantly, the ‘should’ has the value of the sentence placed extrinsically – meaning that it’s ultimately developed through a sense or feeling around external consequences, rewards, pressures or expectations on you by others. A saying that can frequently go hand in hand with this is often ‘what will others think or say about this and about me?’

I add the word ‘expectation’ in to the previous sentence very loosely – as normally if you were to ask the majority, if not all, of the people you think ‘expect’ you to do what you say to yourself that you should be doing, they would sprobably look back at you bemused and respond that they have no expecation of you to do that at all in the first place! This could also be applied to the external pressures and consequences too.

Here in lies the problem.

This extrinsic pressure is more often than not something that we have created from within ourselves (albeit influenced most likely by experiences that have shaped us in our younger years), and now has nothing to do with anybody else. In fact it is in this projection that we put onto others unknowingly and which we then mirror back to ourselves that fuels the sense of guilt, failure, lack of drive, or inadequacy that we then feel when we ‘should’ have done something and didn’t.

juggling

(This isn’t to say that external pressures from others doesn’t exist, in some cases of course it does, but that will be the focus of a separate blog post).

So what could be an alternative to this use of this phrase ‘I should’? How could you start to look at changing this now self-imposed mindset?

The Power of Could

What if you switched out the word ‘should’ with ‘could’?

I should feel happy about this I could feel happy about this
I should eat more healthily I could eat more healthily
I should have moved on by now I could have moved on by now
I should apply for that job I could apply for that job
I should try harder I could try harder
I should be doing more I could be doing more
I should exercise more frequently I could exercise more frequently
I should go to bed earlier I could go to bed earlier

The power of the subtle shift from ‘sh’ to ‘c’ is a huge one.

When you say ‘could’ you hand the power back to yourself.

Where ‘should’ implies an expectation from others, ‘could’ reminds you that you’re in control, that ultimately you’re the one deciding why you have or haven’t done something based off of your own reasons.

I could =

  • Possibilities of change ahead by looking through a positive lens
  • Regaining power of the action or inaction
  • Opens up options that there is more than one way to approach the situation
  • Puts you in the driving seat to analyse properly why you haven’t done what you ‘could’ be doing and decide whether it’s for a legitimate reason, if there are other competing priorities or if there’s another, deeper reason why you aren’t doing it.

It also puts the ball firmly in your court for deciding and exploring options of how you want to move forward, and that whatever choice you make it is your terms and is your choice, and that you are 100% responsible for it.

ball on beach

Why Am I Sharing This With You?

Language is hugely powerful, and if you aren’t consciously paying attention to how much the small details within words can affect your thoughts and determine your actions by the weight and messages that they subconsciously hold you will struggle to find your real sense of power and harness it to achieve what you want.

If you really desire long-lasting change in your actions and habits then searching for the right words to tell yourself have to be the first place you start doing something differently.

wordsearch

It takes time, and sometimes lot of practise depending on how engrained the behaviour is, but if you want to move forward with shifting something in your life then the small bite-size changes added into your daily routine, along with some perseverence, means these language choices will soon become something you don’t have to consciously think about doing, they will just happen – then watch as the matching positive actions from yourself start to follow suit.

How To Add ‘Could vs Should’ To Your Daily Language Toolkit

As with any change to habit, it’s important to start small and then build up from there;

  1. Focus on 1 -3 key sentences where you find yourself frequently saying ‘I should…’
  2. Write them down on a piece of paper or on your phone / laptop / tablet.
  3. Then re-write them with ‘I could….’ instead, and write down all the ways that the sentence(s) change because of that.
  4. Write down or think about the difference in how you feel when you switch ‘should’ with ‘could’
  5. Put the paper somewhere prominent where you will see it every day. If you’ve saved your sentences electronically its a good idea to put your list as your screensaver so you see it frequently.
  6. Anytime you find yourself saying in your head or out loud to others these 1 – 3 focus sentences you’ve chosen, ensure that you stop yourself and change the ‘should’ to ‘could’ – repeating the corrected sentence out loud is a good way to start solidifying this new language use.
  7. Repeat point number 6.
  8. Re-read number 5 often.
  9. Repeat point number 6.
  10. Repeat point number 6.
  11. Re-read number 5 often
  12. Repeat point number 6.
  13. Repeat point number 6.
  14. Repeat point number 6.
  15. I think you get the jist of where there rest of the list is going!

From that point forward then keep adding more phrases once the ones you have been working on are said as  ‘I could…’ without having to consciously think about it or correct yourself.

This is where change starts.

Understanding your power and realising where it currently lies and who else you have given it to (knowingly or unknowingly).

Take that power back, from your words having control over you, to you having control over you words.

The power of using the correct ones will make all the difference.

We See What We Want To See

You’ve finally made the decision that you’re going to buy a new car, and have decided on the make and model of the one you’re going to purchase. But you can’t decide on the colour; you’re leaning toward the red as it’s your favourite colour, but you also like the white.

Over the following few days until you go to back to the car dealership to make a final decision you notice that there seems to be nothing but red cars around you everywhere you go.

You leave your house, there’s a red car…

red car 4

You walk up to the shop, there’s another one…

red car 5

You drive across town to visit your parents and you end up counting thirty red cars driving in the opposite direction….

No matter where you look you can’t escape it. Look left, look right, look up, looks down, it’s all red cars….red cars….red caaaaaaaaaars!

red car 9

You take a second to think about all of this clear evidence of what you’re seeing and you come to the conclusion that this must be ‘a loud and clear sign’ that you’re making the right choice.

There’s no doubt.

This has to be the universe’s way of showing you that the car you’ve chosen has to be in red.

red car 1.gif

But come on, is it really the universe wading in on the decision? Or is it simply a small example demonstrating how your mind is playing out your cognitive biases?

I’m going to go with the latter.

Your Reticular Activating System

Within the depths of our brain is a bundle of nervers at our brainstem called our Reticular Activating System (RAS). One of its key aspects is that it acts as a gatekeeper, selecting particular information that is then filtered into your conscious mind from all of your different sensory channels that are constantly receiving masses of information every second.

For example, as I sit here typing this blog post there’s a man outside mixing cement in a nearby garden. When he first started scraping his spade on the floor as he mixed it, my brain took note of the sound and actively diverted my full attention away from typing on my laptop and tuned it into this sharp sound, and caused me to be momentarily alert to it. After I had become accustomed to the sound, knew what it was, and ultimately decided it to not be something that was important to me, my RAS took the wheel again. From that point forward it effectively stopped my conscious mind from receiving this particular sound as a priority piece of information to focus on, and my attention went back to typing. Therefore, although I know the man has been steadily mixing cement for the last three hours, I can only recall a couple of occasions when I actually heard him doing it.

Why Is This Important To Share With You?

It’s necessary to understand the pivotal influence your RAS plays regarding emotional experiences, the effects this has on your daily life, and your subsequent thoughts and actions that flow from it. Not only that, but the role that your personal belief system plays in the selectivity of information your receive, and the positive and negative effects of this.

flashing brain

The combination of these factors means a group of people can go through the exact same experience, but their personal perception of their reality and the world means they will all be reflecting on that experience from different viewpoints, resulting in different responses and outcomes.

“Just like a computer, your brain has a search function–but it’s even more phenomenal than a computer’s. It seems to be programmed by what we focus on and, more primarily, what we identify with. It’s the seat of what many people have referred to as the paradigms we maintain’

(Getting Things Done – Book by David Allen)

Your RAS And Your Belief System

When your belief system, or certain aspects of it, is rooted in mostly positive outlook, your reticular activating system can work fantastically well in your favour by focusing your mind into reinforcing that positivity.

If you envisage achieving a goal you’ve set yourself, your brain continually picks out messages and information throughout the day that further strengthen your internal message to yourself. This in turn will help motivate and drive you on to keep working towards what you set out to achieve, and the likelihood of you attaining your goal will be heightened, and more likely accomplished.

For example – you want to write a book, and you believe you can do it:

  1. You start writing your book.
  2. You find yourself coming across and reading articles of other people who have achieved this, and your RAS highlights the quotes where they explained how they overcame their difficulties in the writing process.
  3. You believe you can do it too.
  4. Your RAS also highlights the motivating phrases the authors used on themselves to keep them on track.
  5. You implement similar phrases as you go back to your writing desk.
  6. You keep writing your book.
  7. You believe you have the ability to do it too.
  8. You happen to come across meeting a couple of people who are published writers, listening to them talking about their highs and lows of writing, but your RAS highlighs the strength of their persistence to keep putting themselves out there when they were being rejected by some publishers.
  9. The motivation from their experiences keeps you motivated, even when you’re struggling.
  10. You read success stories of a few more authors and your RAS highlights that they didn’t give up.
  11. You believe that will be you one day.
  12. You continue to write your book.
  13. You eventually finish writing your book.
  14. You knew you could and now you start to think of new ideas for writing another one.

However, for negative beliefs, your RAS becomes part of a vicious cycle; it filters through to your subconscious mind pieces of information that feed your believed negative narrative about a situation (eg yourself, other people, the world around you), which then continues to keep that belief at the forefront of your mind. Then when another piece of information that perpetuates that narrative is received by your brain, your RAS will automatically bring it to the front of your attention, seemingly only to prove further that what you negatively believe about that situation is correct.

By default, other information that you’re receiving, which may be in contradiction to this perceived belief, will be left on the conveyor belt of information you brain is receiving. Instead of picking it out to balance your negative belief, it passes right under your nose without you even noticing, as you’re too busy focusing, ingesting and internalising your own version of truth and reality.

factory line

This is where we tend to then find ourselves using catastrophising language such as words like ‘all’ and ‘every’, as that’s the narrative you are allowing yourself to believe. And so the vicious cycle continues on, as the use of these extreme words keep the negative way of thinking in full swing, continually feeding the RAS to further pick out more ‘relevant’ information.

“We notice only what matches our internal belief systems and identified contexts. If you’re an optometrist, for example, you’ll tend to notice people wearing eyeglasses across a crowded room; if you’re building contractor, you may notice the room’s physical details”

(David Allen)

If we were to revisit the above example of writing a book, but through a negative belief system which is being fertilised by your reticular activating system then the process might look like this:

.You start writing a book, but you don’t believe you have the ability to do it:

*Notice the catastrophising language that has also seeped its way into the thought process as you read through the following…*

  1. You start writing your book.
  2. You find yourself coming reading articles of other people who have achieved this, and your RAS highlights the quotes where they detailed how much of a constant struggle the writing process was.
  3. You believe you will struggle too, and it will be too hard.
  4. Your RAS highlights the struggling phrases that were in the article , such as the authors ‘wanted to give up’
  5. You implement similar phrases as you go back to your writing desk and become disillusioned.
  6. You put off writing your book for that week.
  7. You believe you don’t really have the ability to do it.
  8. You happen to come across meeting a couple of people who are published writers, listening to them talking about their highs and lows of writing, and your RAS highlights all of the parts of the conversation where writing seemed to be a never-ending barrage of rejections from every publisher, and how emotionally draining the entire process was.
  9.  The seemingly endless struggle of their experiences starts to confirm that this is all too difficult.
  10. You read success stories of a few more authors and your RAS highlights that their success is only related to a few, rather than the masses.
  11. You believe that you won’t be one of the few.
  12. You put off writing your book for another two weeks.
  13. You then stop writing your book altogether.
  14. You look back years later and frequently find in conversation to others saying; ‘If only I had finished writing that book I started, I always wonder where it would have taken me….’ 

How To Make Your RAS Work In Your Favour

Did you know that you can actually physically change your brain cells to help you realize your dreams? Whenever you repeat an affirmation or visualize something using a lot of passion and emotion, new neural pathways are formed. Intense emotional experiences actually stimulate the growth of additional spiny protuberances on the dendrites of brain neurons, which result in more neural connections and stronger memory and retention of that thought.

(www.britmilfit.com)

If I was to ask you where you were when you saw the twin towers collapse on 9/11 I’m confident you’d be able to describe an incredibly vivid picture of that moment. For myself, I was at secondary school and had just got home. I walked into the living room and saw the towers on fire on the news. I remember thinking it was a film at first because what I was witnessing was so powerful I couldn’t quite process what I was seeing. The power and emotion of that visual is now permanently etched vivdly in my brain seventeen years after that event happened.

brain strength

If we take that example and apply that strength of memory to a goal you wish to solidify in your mind in order to achieve then here are a few steps you can work on:

  • Immerse yourself in that visualisation: how it will look, feel and sound when you achieve your goal – write it down, or make a voicenote! Capture this moment where you are allowing yourself to be free in thought of what you can achieve.
  • Know Your Why: Bring it to life with that passion and emotion of why you want to achieve it.
  • Five positive affirmations: Write them down so that they counter the negative thoughts your RAS might be feeding you, put them somewhere you will see them everyday (next to the bathroom mirror is a great place) and say them to yourself out loud at least once a day if you can.
  • Focus on it: Make this goal your priority. Give yourself the best possible chance of success by channelling positivity into fuelling your drive and motivation to see it through.
  • Write down and acknowledge your mini-milestones: As you reach these moments make abit of a song and dance of it! This is hugely important to combat any lurking beliefs that your goal is out of reach. You can challenge your negative beliefs bit by bit through using that piece of paper to remind yourself (constantly if needs be) how step by step you are achieving what you set out to do.

Why Sleep Is Vital For Keeping Your Emotions In Check

If you live to the ripe old age of ninety years old, then thirty years of your time on earth will be spent asleep (based on the recommended eight hours of sleep you should get a night).

Thirty years!

What’s happened in the last three decades of your life?

For myself, I hit my 30th birthday milestone a couple of years ago, and so rewinding the clock back is pretty much spanning the entirety of my life – learning to walk and talk, start and finish primary and secondary school, learn to drive, go to university, travel to different parts of the world, complete my Masters degree, start and work my way up the career ladder, travel to even more parts of the world, starting my own business…

When you look back on your last thirty years it might also include getting engaged, getting married, having children, buying pets, training and competing in the olympics, having grand-children, retiring and playing lots of golf…the list goes on.

So take a few seconds to think about it.

Now imagine sleeping through the entirety of that time….

For something that we spend doing for nearly a third of our entire lives, we know relatively little (and think even less) about the importance of sleep, the plethora of health benefits it brings, and the necessity behind having plentiful sleep every night.

Now, thanks to huge advancements in brain scanning technology, more and more of the brain and the effects of sleep are being discovered and shared. Importantly, for the purpose of coaching, it means there is now further depth and understanding around neuroscience and the link of sleep to our behaviours and actions.

So what’s the impact of a lack of sleep on how we react to situations in our daily lives?

Lack Of Sleep & Your Emotions

A structure located in the left and right sides of the brain, called the amygdala – a key hot spot for triggering strong emotions such as anger and rage, and linked to the fight-or-flight response – showed well over a 60 percent amplification in emotional reactivity in the participants who were sleep deprived. It was as though, without sleep, our brain reverts to a primitive pattern of uncontrolled reactivity. We produce unmetered, inappropriate emotional reactions, and are unable to place events into a broader or considered context.

(Matthew Walker – ‘Why We Sleep’)

How many of us can relate to that? *raises hand up to be counted*

Let’s set the scene:

alarm clock

You have a couple of nights in a row of shortened or disrupted sleep (or potentially months if you’re a new parent!) Your alarm clock goes off and you wake up feeling really groggy, and if you’re bed could talk it would be screaming at you; ‘Come back, get more sleep, finish what you started! It’s warm and cosy under this duvet!’ But life and its requirements and commitments means you have to get up and press on with the day. The hours tick by and at 8:30pm that evening you finally get to slump onto the sofa and put your feet up. Now, with your cup of tea in hand, you have a chance to take a few minutes to reflect about how your day went, and parts of it seem to have been rather emotionally charged:

  • You left the house, jumped in the car, got down the road and realised you’d left your lunch on the kitchen counter. You’re already late so drive back to the house frantically to get it. You pass your partner who is putting the kids in the other car to get them to school before going to work too, and who jokily says ‘you forgot your lunch again? Maybe you need to superglue a post it note to your head in the morning to remember to bring it with you’. You don’t see this as a joke and you fly off the handle. This isn’t the time for jokes, you’re late. You then proceed to start a bickering argument with your partner on the driveway. By the time you’re done, all of you are now running late (and you’re really late).
  • As you’re driving to work another car cuts you up on the motorway. You decide the driver must have done it on purpose and you start making hand gestures and calling him/her every name under the sun. You also angrily speed up to overtake the car to really make your point and make one last hand gesture and shout as you drive past.

road rage 2

  • You get to work and the morning seems to fly by, you end up having a good few laughs with your colleagues and feel like you’re on cloud nine.
  • Just after lunch your boss says she wants to see you – although you have no reason to think it’s to discuss anything negative, your thoughts and emotions run away with you, and you spend the next hour before the meeting sitting at your desk worrying and stressing about what you may have done wrong, and somehow end up at the conclusion that she must want to fire you. As you sit down in front of her you’re already working out how you’re going to explain losing your job to your partner, you have a whole speech prepared. It turns out the boss only wanted to chat to you about some ideas for marketing a new product.
  • During the afternoon presentation, you fluffed up on one of the slides and spend the car journey home beating yourself up about how you got it wrong and the embarrassment of it all in front of your colleagues. You can’t stop replaying what happened in your head, and keep adding in additional thoughts such as ‘I’m awful at public speaking, I always mess up something’ and ‘I won’t ever be asked to do another presentation by the boss after making a complete arse of myself in there’.

beating self

Looking back, it seems like it was quite a roller coaster of a day, where emotion was taking you on the ride, and reason had gone off for the day on its own, to spend some time away from you.

Why are emotion centers of the brain so excessively reactive without sleep?

After a full night of sleep, the pre-frontal cortex (the region of the brain that sits just above your eyeballs…is associated with rational, logical thought and decision-making) is strongly coupled to the amygdala, regulating this deep emotional brain center with inhibitory control. With a full night of plentiful sleep, we have a balanced mix between our emotional gas pedal (amygdala) and brake pedal (prefrontal cortex). Without sleep, however, the strong coupling between these two brain regions is lost. We cannot rein in our atavistic impulses – too much emotional gas pedal (amygdala) and not enough regulatory brake (prefrontal cortex). Without the rational control given to us each night by sleep, we’re not on a neurological-and hence emotional-even keel.

(Matthew Walker – ‘Why We Sleep’)

Our brains are primarily built from a stand-point of self-preservation and to protect us from harm. As we evolved, our pre-frontal cortex came into being and acts as the ‘manager’ for our minds. Its job is to look at any given situation through the ‘bigger picture’ lens, adding logic and rationale, in an effort to balance out the noise that our raw emotions are making about the situation in the heat of the moment (who by the way, are a noisy and strong bunch to quieten down as they’ve had a few hundred thousand years headstart in runnning the mind and growing in strength before the pre-frontal cortex came along). Without this ‘check-and-balance’ part of our brain being present we’d be constantly letting out our emotions through fist fights and shouting matches with everyone and anyone who has done something that we deem as a ‘threat’ to us. This would be over even the smallest of things, such as someone making a joke about forgetting your lunch.

watching you

Therefore, when you don’t sleep enough your amygdala is not kept in check by your pre-frontal cortex, and it effectively runs wild. You seem to be making decisions and acting off of your emotional reactions, of which these feelings are further exacerbated by your lack of sleep. Everything you experience has much more of an extreme feel to it, such as a feeling impending doom, and feeling like it’s the ‘worst day ever’.

Subsequently, what you’re also saying to yourself when you haven’t slept enough will be through your ’emotions lens’. Comments which demonstrate you’re not keeping the situation in context, such as ‘I always get that wrong’, ‘why don’t I just give up’, ‘why does things like this always happen to me?’ can be a good indicator that your amygdala is running the show.

After one or two nights of good and adequate sleep you’re are able to restore a more balanced view. You end up looking back on the exact same situations that had caused such reactionary and highly emotional response, and find yourself quite bemused at just how angry/upset/worried/enraged/ you were by it all.

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We are now in such a health conscious society, where there are endless documentaries, articles and conversations around the importance of healthy eating, exercise, and being thoughtful about what we put into our bodies in order to live healthier and longer lives. Sleep is the central foundation for which all those other health actions and benefits rest, and yet as a society we are choosing to not prioritise it, which is to our own detriment.

So What Can You Do About It?

  • Buy the book ‘Why We Sleep’:

This is the most fact filled 340 pages I have ever read, and its all dedicated to findings from sleep research and studies. Writing this blog post in fact stemmed from how the book has hugely impacted me on a personal level regarding how I view my own sleeping habits, because it’s taught me so much necessary and vital information about what the human body needs from sleep that I previously had no idea about. Even if you don’t have time to read it in its entirety, look at the chapters list and find those sections that are of most interest to you, such as topics around:

  • The different stages and types of sleep that are needed for babies (also in utero), children, teenagers and adults,
  • Sleep deprivation and the MANY negative effects it can have on your physical and mental health (cancer, heart attacks, ADHD, alzheimers, shorter life span)
  • The difference in NREM (deep) sleep and REM (dream) sleep and why you need both in sufficient amounts
  • Dreams and creativity
  • The impact of caffeine, alcohol and drugs on your quality of sleep
  • Sleep disorders and medication
  • The impact and damage blue LED lights from our phones and ipads are having on our sleep
  • Looking at the purpose of why we dream
  • If you’re a night owl or an early riser and the problems that a 9 – 5 work structure causes regarding our levels of productivity
  • The importance of your circadium rhythmn (linked to your internal body clock that tells you when its time to sleep and when to wake up)

why we sleep

 

  • Getting the right amount of sleep:

The recommended sleep needed for adults is eight hours, so do your best to allow yourself adequate time for a good bed time routine in order to have the best chance of getting those forty winks of sleep that you need. (Before you say ‘I only need five hours!’ or ‘We don’t need eight hours sleep’ – I would strongly urge you to read the book, and if you still insist on that viewpoint then take it up with the author, who is a renowned scientist with endless sleep studies under his name proving his findings). If you have children then getting this amount of sleep every night might be next to impossible, especially if they’re very young – but knowing what you need to aim for means that any little steps you can take to maximise the sleep you’re able to have each night is a big step in the right direction.

  • Naps:

If you get the opportunity to take a short nap in the day then go for it and grab those extra minutes kip on a daily basis when you can! The benefits to your health and productivity are greatly increased when wake up from these twenty winks. When I was younger I vividly remember making fun of my dad when he, without fail, would doze off for twenty minutes on the sofa during weekend afternoons. Now when I go back to visit my parents, I sit on the comfy recliner chair next to him and nap too. He had it right all along.

  • Continue to grow your sleep knowledge:

Keep yourself up to date on any new findings that come out and continue to educate yourself and your family, friends and community – but please be cognisant about the source – following renowned scientists and sleep researchers is the way to go. For articles in newspapers, please take these with a pinch of salt. Depending on the publication, certain journalists/tabloids frequently only extract parts of findings to further a point/arguement they are trying to make or prove. Ensure that what they’ve written gives the entire picture of the findings. If you can read from original source they quote thats always a good idea, to see if it’s reputable.

sleeping fast

Taking our sleep seriously and treating it as a matter of priority is key, not only for our health, but also because it has a direct impact on how we make our decisions, which will affect our immediate and long term goals and plans. Only those decisions, actions and behaviours which have a strong balance and connection of emotion alongside rational and logical thought are the ones we know we can trust to be in our best interest to take.