Psychological Wellbeing: Waking Up from Cognitive Procrastination

Psychological wellbeing is inextricably linked with the physiological wellness of humans. The disorders such as anxiety and stress are a harbinger of fatal diseases such as high blood pressure, stroke and memory lapse. This can be reduced by employing various exercises.

Being a man or woman in uniform is incontrovertibly challenging, encompassing committed office hours and tight deadlines. It not only includes hardcore military commitments of training (Winter Collective Training, demos and Internal Training Cycles etc.), human resource management, internal security (IS) and operational area employment, but also striking a delicate balance between these commitments and family obligations. In this changing and challenging environment, the importance of psychological wellbeing can’t be overemphasized. 
In the simplest way, psychological wellbeing can be defined as one’s level of psychological happiness, health, life satisfaction, and feelings of accomplishment. From this definition, one can easily make out that one of the biggest hurdles in achieving psychological wellbeing is stress, a phenomenon which can resign us into insolubility. This leads to a million dollar question why is a stress-free life important. And a one-word answer is Psychosomatics, a concept which says that all pathological diseases have a psychological root cause. In other words, emotions can cause physiological/physical changes which eventually drag us to the emotional cul-de-sac, i.e., the emotional dead end. In the first part of my article, I intend to acquaint the readers with how our job related stress affects our physical health and how diseases like Myocardial Infarction commonly known as heart attack, hypertension (high blood pressure), stroke, kidney and lung complications, nausea, fatigue, diabetes and even vomiting are caused by stress. In the second part, I will talk about a few mental exercises which can be helpful in dealing with stress and reduce the probability of becoming a victim to the abovementioned diseases. These are simple mental relaxation exercises which one can perform even on the posts and can also be taught to the troops when mired in challenging jobs, be it at FCNA (Force Command Northern Areas), IS or other operational areas. Moreover, I will also touch upon how to achieve a state of mental peace by coping with our hedonic feelings, i.e., pleasant and unpleasant feelings.
Coming over to the first part, how does stress work? For this, we have to understand the concept of Allostatic Load, a load which we all carry every day, in one form or another. Allostatic Load can be understood by a simple example; you must have seen rocky cliffs on a shore, which are continuously hit by the waves of the sea. After a few years, these continuous waves hitting the cliff start eroding it, eventually leading to its extinction. This is exactly what stress does to us; it slowly erodes us from the inside and drags us towards extinction. In more objective terms, Allostatic Load can be defined as, in adapting to repeated stresses, body experiences wear and tear. It releases stress hormones again and again which has an effect on the body1. Now, we will see what kinds of hormones are released when we are under stress and what impact do they have on our health.
We all know that in Pakistan, the number of deaths in young adults due to heart attack and stroke have increased manifold, and if you are wondering what the reason is–the sole reason is stress. But how stress, which is intangible, cause a tangible disease? Here are some clues. When we are in stress, our body needs more energy in the form of metabolic fuels, stored in the shape of lipids or fat cells. Our liver breaks those fat cells free to produces more lipids (cholesterol) called low density lipoprotein, or the bad cholesterol. This production of cholesterol causes fatty patches to deposit inside the artery walls which narrow the arteries. In medical terms, this phenomenon is called Atherosclerosis2 i.e., narrowing of the arteries, which leads to heart attack and high blood pressure. The most alarming side effect of atherosclerosis is the non-availability of oxygen to brain cells which can cause sudden death. So, next time if your colleague shares news about a common friend who was healthy, disease less and young, dying a sudden death without an apparent reason, mark my words, now you know why!

We all know that in Pakistan, the number of deaths in younger adults due to heart attack and stroke have increased manifold, and if you are wondering what the reason is–the sole reason is stress. 

Another consequence of stress is that it activates our endocrinal glands and if you are wondering how it works, then here are the clues. In stress, Hypothalamus (endocrine gland in the brain) releases a hormone called corticotrophin which stimulates our pituitary gland (endocrine gland just at the base of the brain). Upon stimulating, it releases adrenocorticotropic hormone that acts further on our adrenal glands (endocrine glands sitting on our kidneys) thus releasing the following substances in our blood: (a) adrenaline/epinephrine, (b) cortisol, and (c) catecholamine.
Adrenaline/epinephrine increases the concentration of platelets in blood, due to which you may  end up at a hospital. The reason is that the increase in platelets causes blood clotting. This blood clotting causes fatigue, nausea, lethargy and vomiting. It also causes complications in kidneys and lungs besides heart attack, high blood pressure and stroke. Recent studies have shown that signaling by epinephrine to epinephrine receptor in T cells (cells which fight viruses, etc.) can cause autoimmune diseases (conditions where the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy body cells). An increase in cortisol and epinephrine is related to decreased activity of T-Cells and B-Cells (which fight invaders like viruses) against antigens (toxins or other foreign substance). In simpler words, stress reduces the capability of our immune system to fight the diseases. 
Another research says that stress also affects our memory and learning capacity. In stress, adrenal glands also secrete cortisol which affects brain cells in hippocampus (a part of the brain). Hippocampus is related to long-term memory and learning. In a nutshell, stress affects our learning capacity and recalling ability. Stress also has an impact on neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to make new neurons and connections. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to heal after injury through learning and adapting. Chronic stress impairs neuroplasticity.
Cortisol, which is released in stress, also encourages the liver to release glucose and fatty acids to help give the body the energy it needs to deal with stress, so it increases the sugar level in the body. On the other hand, cortisol decreases the insulin secretion from pancreas (an organ near the stomach which contains juices that aid in digestion). Chronic stress can lead to prolonged high levels of cortisol and ultimately, a lowered insulin secretion in the long-run. This makes stress dangerous for both, those with diabetes and those with a possible risk factor for its development.3

In a nutshell, stress affects our learning capacity and recalling ability. Stress also has an impact on neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to make new neurons and connections. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to heal after injury through learning and adapting. Chronic stress impairs neuroplasticity.

With this scary premise, I will move on to the second part of the article that is how can we cope with stress. When we talk about coping with stress, we have good news and bad news. The good news is that psychological therapies/mental exercises are not nonscientific mumbo jumbo or pretentiously scientific mechanical attempts to change behavior–they actually do work. And the bad news is that psychological therapy is not a brief period of wonderment in which you will achieve an insight, causing the problem to go away like melting of ice and you will walk away framed in the light from the setting sun, and assured that relief and everlasting joy has been attained. Naturally, you must be thinking which news should you believe in? Should you believe in the good news that psychological therapies work or believe in the bad news that psychotherapies might not work instantly? The answer lies in the quote of Henry Ford which I came across a few days ago and it says, “Whether you think that you can, or you think that you can’t, you’re right.” Similarly, whether you think therapy will work, or you think therapy will not work, you’re right”. The outcome depends upon your faith, belief and conviction with which you carry out psychotherapy and mental exercises. Remember that these mental exercises are not a joke; they have been devised after a lot of deliberation and research. Here are a few mental exercises which might help you to reduce stress. 
Binaural Beats: As per research, listening to binaural waves can be instrumental in reducing stress and anxiety. One can also enjoy them on his mobile with headphones even on isolated posts. Before I move on to how to use these musical beats to reduce stress, let’s see how do they work first. The binaural beat that a person perceives is the difference of frequency between the waves entering the left and right ear. For instance, if the left ear registers a tone at 190 Hz and the right ear registers one at 200 Hz, the binaural beat is 10 Hz (the difference between the two frequencies). Somehow our mind actually “tunes” itself to this newly encountered frequency, and this influences our brain's activity. In other words, when the brain hears these two separate frequencies at the same time, it hears and interprets them as one vibrating tone. In essence, the brain is creating a third frequency.
The next logical question could be that how do these beats affect the brain’s activity? To answer that question, here’s a little more insight. Our brain is filled with neuron cells that process and communicate information through a network. Whenever these neurons are active, they produce a very small amount of electricity/frequencies. This is the same electricity which is picked up on an electroencephalogram (EEG) when electrodes are placed on the head. The brain is constantly producing frequencies/brainwaves and these have a close link to how we feel. In particular, when a brainwave frequency is low, we feel restful, calm and sleepy. On the contrary, when a brainwave frequency is high, we feel focused and alert. Binaural beats change your brainwaves, helping you get into the state which is the most useful to you at the time. If you’re not sure where to start, look for music that plays at about 60 beats per minute. Researchers say that this tempo is best for encouraging the alpha brainwaves that signal a relaxed and conscious mind. There are three different patterns of frequency4:
▪     Alpha pattern. These beats have a frequency of 7-13 Hz and are used for relaxation.
▪     Beta pattern. Beta beats are used for concentration and alertness and have a frequency of 13-30 Hz.
▪    Theta pattern. These beats have a frequency of 4-7 Hz and are used to improve meditation, creativity, and sleep.5
After putting ourselves wise on how binaural beats work, let’s see how to use them to our benefit. Take a peaceful corner of your house at a time which is the most convenient for you. Sit in a comfortable sofa with your head resting on comfortable pillow. Put on the headphones, close your eyes and start listening to the beats for 15 to 30 minutes. As per keen observation, many clients have reported reduction in stress after listening to alpha beats twice a day (in the morning before the start of the day and at night before going to bed) for 30 days. For an increase in concentration, you can do a mini experiment which worked out quite well for many. Take a book which is not of your interest, and start reading it. After reading ten pages, close the book and listen to the binaural beta beats for 15 minutes. After listening to the beats, read the same book for another ten pages and see the difference in your comprehension and concentration level. You will feel a marked difference in your comprehension ability. Some researchers have even recommended beta beats to be listened to in the background while you are reading something in order to improve concentration and comprehension.

As per research, listening to binaural waves can be instrumental in reducing stress and anxiety.
The binaural beat that a person perceives is the difference of frequency between the waves entering the left and right ear.
Somehow our mind actually “tunes” itself to this newly encountered frequency, and this influences our brain's activity. 

Imagery Technique: If the cause of stress is anxiety about the future, then here is the most tested psychological exercise to abate your stress. Find the most peaceful and quiet corner of your house and sit there, preferably on a comfortable sofa. Close your eyes and take five deep breaths in a way that it should take five seconds to inhale, five more seconds to retain the air in your lungs and another five seconds to exhale. After breathing, think about the situation which is causing anxiety. Then imagine yourself in that stressful situation, and imagine yourself doing well in it. Practice this imagery three times a day. This technique is being widely used by sportsmen who have a problem handling their match anxiety6. For example, a batsman who has anxiety about an important match the next day or an anxiety of facing a certain fast bowler can be told to sit down, close his eyes and imagine himself hitting sixes to that bowler. The same mental exercise holds true for handling daily life anxieties. 
Tabula Rasa and Pep Talk: Tabula rasa is a Latin term that describes our mind as a blank slate at birth. This slate becomes filled with each new experience which determines our traits and habits. Some ascribe this concept of Tabula rasa to Aristotle, some to John Locke and some to Ibn-e-Tufail. But does it really matter? What really matters is the understanding of the extension of this concept that traits and habits are formed due to writing on a blank slate (mind) and anxiety is also a trait. So, the logical question that arises is, can we undo that trait? The answer is yes, we can undo this trait by a process called pep talk. You must have seen a sportsman talking to himself on the ground. In stressful situations they are taught to do self-talk, such as, “you have done it before, you can do it now”. The concept is that since the mind controls all the functions of the body, signaling the mind by self-talk can influence its function for the desired positive outcomes. It is like telling your mind or writing on the blank slate (mind) a new message to enforce a new trait. Another type of this technique is self-pillow talk; let’s see how it works. Just before going to sleep at night, lay in your bed and take deep breaths with your eyes closed. Imagine every breath coming inside your body through your nose and getting absorbed in your lungs and finally in your blood stream. Now tell yourself “Every day, in every way, I am getting better, better and better”. Repeat these lines or any other message you want to give your mind at least seven times. You have to utter these words or the message you want to give to your mind along with the breathing. Imagine the desired message to be riding on every breath you take in, and imagine these words are being absorbed in your body as you inhale the air. Many clients have reported this technique to be very effective and resultantly, a vivid change in just fifteen days.
Modeling: This technique works on selecting a person whom you idealize or envy for his calmness or stress coping capability or for any other quality. We will call that person a model. When you are encountered with stress, just close your eyes and imagine the stressful situation you are in and then think how your model would have acted in the same particular demanding situation. After figuring out how your model (the person you envy) would act in a given demanding situation, try to behave in that manner. After a few stressful demanding situations, modeling will help you alter your behavior.

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1.   Reference Manual Psychology 408 Health Psychology, p 47.
2.   Reference Manual Psychology 408 Health Psychology, p 127.
3.   Angelica Bottaro, “Can Stress Cause High Blood Sugar”, Very Well Health, April 20, 2020.
4.   Andrew Gonzales, “What are binaural beats, and how do they work”, Medical News Today, September 30, 2019.
5.   Ibid.
6.   Reference Manual Psychology 407 Sports Psychology, p 59.

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