Our exceptional yoga therapists go forward in their careers via many different paths, and we are always keen to check in on their progress. One of our graduates, Shweta Panchal, is involved in a number of wellbeing organisations, in addition to conducting research, and practicing yoga therapy with a specialisation in perinatal mental health. Below, she updates us on her recent psycho-education workshop at the London headquarters of professional social network LinkedIn. 

I was honoured to be recently invited by LinkedIn to speak to the London office about “Optimising Psychological Wellbeing: The Science and Practice”, as part of their Wellness InDay.

The session was very well received with facilitated activities, thought experiments and plenty of audience participation. One attendee came to speak to me at the end and said,

“I came in stressed out and I’m leaving knowing it was because of how I was thinking”

It’s great when people leave my sessions feeling calmer and more relaxed, but my work is most rewarding when people make discoveries of their own thought and behaviour processes and patterns. Through insights and awareness comes ownership, which ultimately gives us power to understand ourselves and gives us the choice to respond to our circumstances rather than react to them.

The World Health Organisation famously said:

“There is no health without mental health”

This session was about promoting a better understanding of mental health through the latest scientific understanding and research, and through activities, creating opportunities for the attendees to better understand varying factors which contribute to personal mental health.

Here is a summary of the presentation and the key takeaways:

  1. We all have mental health in the same way we all have physical health. Our mental health will fluctuate in our life much in the same way our physical health will. Stress can affect both physical and mental health so it is important we actively work to strengthen our mental resiliency in the same way we might work on our physical strength and fitness.
  2. Not all stress is bad. For example, the stress hormone cortisol needs to be high in the morning for us to be able to get out of bed. We need healthy amounts for motivation and to get sh*t done in our lives.
  3. When experiencing acutely stressful situations our nervous system is sympathetically activated (i.e. fight or flight mode). Through a complex and very fast acting series of responses our bodies will intelligently switch into a temporary emergency setting to ensure survival. Interestingly our bodies experience physical and psychological stress in the same way. Suddenly moving out of the way of a motorcycle while crossing the road or receiving a difficult performance management review could be experienced by the body as the same. It is an exhausting state to be in and our system needs time to recover.
  4. Chronic stress is a state where the body constantly experiences low to moderate levels of stress. This is also an exhausting state to be in. Over time the physiological and psychological impact of being in this state will build up and can result in long term damage to mental and physical health. Through the facilitated activities the attendees were provided an opportunity to gain understanding of how they may be creating chronic stress for themselves. The activity and thought experiment revealed inner dialogues, narratives and insights into how personal interpretation of events and situations can unconsciously contribute to elevated stress levels.
  5. For optimised wellbeing our bodies need to be in the default parasympathetic (rest and digest) state. In this mode the prefrontal cortex is in charge (the logical thinking part of the brain). This exerts a calming, regulating effect on the emotional part of the brain – especially on the amygdala (the brain’s fear centre). It can be useful to imagine that pre-frontal cortex is like a competent, caring adult which can soothe the distress of the ‘frightened-child’ amygdala.
  6. Every thought has a physiological response. We can become ‘stressed’, not just by the stuff that happens to us, but how we unconsciously speak to ourselves and how we react and respond to seemingly harmless everyday situations, tasks and challenges. We may be in the sympathetic mode (fight or flight) rather than (parasympathetic) without even realising it!

So what can be done?

  • Breath practices are an extremely powerful way to calm the nervous system and to alter mood. I have assisted individuals during severe panic attacks and one of the most effective ways to work with them is with their breath. Breath practices can be tailored to lift energy levels when required and to calm the nervous system when it is elevated.
  • Movement based practices – 80% of the nerves of the parasympathetic nervous system send messages from the body up to brain. So it is more effective to calm the mind and body through working with the body than vice versa. Yoga or any other mindful movement practice, long deep stretches, as well as appropriate cardiovascular work are great ways to improve mental health.
  • Mindfulness based practices – Mindfulness through breath, movement or enquiry is a powerful way of gaining insight into habitual psychological patterns which may contribute negatively to our mental health. The practice of mindfulness shifts entrenched neurological pathways and exposes our negativity bias.

After a long stressful week it can be tempting to ‘relax’ through different modes of distraction i.e. TV, social media, gaming etc… and whilst there is nothing wrong with these pursuits in and of themselves, it may be worth checking your reliance on them. Although it may sound like an oxymoron, we need to actively relax!

Mindfulness enquiry can provide insight and help us to build non-judgemental awareness of our unconscious processes giving us the tools to manage our mental health in a way which is more conducive to our overall wellbeing. Our mental health is in our hands much in the same way our physical health is so be mindful of the choices you make in the name of relaxation and take the time work on your mind and your body.

“The mind should be allowed some relaxation, that it may return to its work all the better for the rest.” – Seneca

Shweta Panchal is a Yoga Therapist for Mental Health (www.mindedyoga.com). She is supervisor and a lecturer at The Minded Institute, an Active Birth Pregnancy Yoga Teacher, an Ambassador for the Pre and Postnatal Depression and Anxiety charity PANDAS. She is currently designing a qualitative research study on the PsychoSocial factors influencing emotional wellbeing in the Perinatal Period and has recently completed a summer school training in Perinatal Mental Health at Kings College London.

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