The more I work with people using energy systems, the more I realize that one way into our experience is manipulating our “work” load. As we work on pushing up against our anaerobic threshold we can learn to expand our arousal level and increase our ability to self regulate.
This is the model I orient my psychology work from. Blending my two careers into one has taught me that the body and mind are not separate and that I can address experience through both to help heal dysfunctional physical or psychological patterns.
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Ever think about your purpose? Wonder how it helps your life? Why it matters? Builds energy? Helps you be more healthy? Having a life purpose can lower stress, enhance well-being, and increase cognition1,2. Lately, we have been hearing a lot about purpose in the psychology world. It has become a buzz word because it is so important to living our best lives.
Find Your Purpose
It is time to get serious about your purpose. Purpose is about finding something that matters to you and brings something good to the world2. A wise soul visiting my office told me finding purpose means:
“having some connection to hope and future impact. It’s about feelings of ability to make things happen. A sense of connection ‘a gift to somebody’. A need to socialize the experience and a recognition that the gift is in its authenticity and sincerity”.
As you consider your purpose consider your contribution in relation to how committed you are to making things happen. Without a personal commitment to make something happen purpose is just a dream. The reason we want it to be personal is because when it has a personal underpinning, it becomes about making meaning for your life. Meaning is important to our psychological health. I can have a thing to do – stick the widget in the box – however if I find no personal connection to why it is important to get the widget in the box, it won’t have purpose for me, it’s just another task on my to do list. As you work, find the personal meaning in the tasks that need to be done. Then make sure they understand how this task relates to the larger whole.
Having Purpose Helps Your Physical Health
A study done noting the relationship between a sense of purpose and declines in physical health found that older adults who had a sense of purpose had less physical decline in grip strength and walking speed2 . These are important because as we age our slower pace is linked to more disability and less quality of life.
Fogel & Canahil found purpose helped us recover from stress1. Stress is something we all need a little of, however if we have too much for too long our physical system becomes inflamed. Inflammation wreaks havoc on our structures. It causes joint pain, brain fog, digestive issues, heart issues, and more. In their study, having life purpose was linked to a faster recovery from a stressful situation test.
As we move through life, having purpose in our lives appears to help us handle the costs of too much stress. It was also noted in the studies above that those who had purpose reported more engagement in taking care of themselves and using proactive strategies like staying on top of routine health care needs2.
Greater Than Me
Another component of purpose is the way purpose connects to something bigger than ourselves. If my goal doesn’t bring connection to others and offer a positive “gift” then I have just accomplished a goal. Purpose is like my goal on steroids.
That’s why we see so many fundraisers to run a 5k for a cause. I could go out and run 3.2 miles any day. I could do it just because it makes me happy, gets me on the trail, out of bed, off the couch. However, most of us don’t, unless it’s helping another. Then we are all about 5am headlamp runs. When you consider how you are creating a sense of purpose for yourself, find the way the task or goal becomes service to something larger than you.
If we want to inspire others to build and follow their own purpose we need to consider how we engage with others. Do we provide opportunities for those around us to hone their sense of belonging to our cause or project. Transformational leadership posits that we influence those we lead, and that this style of leadership enhances wellbeing in those who follow us4. Leadership doesn’t have to be a formal title, it can be found in our everyday living when we decide to engage with those around us. We have an opportunity to help others capture the benefits of purpose and drive more engagement in our communities.
Well-being definitions are broad and incorporate various aspects of physical and psychological health. They include a lot more than just the absence of disease. Transformational leadership is about influencing, inspiring, intellectually challenging, and honoring each person’s individuality with appreciation for what they bring to the team4 . Do you bring these items to those working with you? Live with? Hang out with?
Reflect on Your Strengths and Values
To help you create a sense of purpose, consider where you have been. Remember, part of purpose is looking toward creating something positive in the future, having a common goal, that helps others or contributes something good to the whole. This means we have to know where we’ve been. There is an element of reflection that is needed when we consider creating purpose rather than just a task list. We want to assess what we are good at, what we’ve been able to do before, and then link our values and hopes into the project that creates a new future.
5 Exercises to Help You Build Your Purpose and Cultivate Meaning
There are a few things to consider when working to develop a consistent focus building purpose into our lives. Here’s a few fun ways to do this:
- Evaluate your values. There are many options for values inventories online. Here’s a good one to use.
- Consider your future self. Visualize your future self and imagine sitting down to have a conversation with them. Ask them about what is important, what they were excited to have accomplished, and what they hope for. Let the future you impart wisdom to the today’s version. Listen and then set some goals to accomplish those aspirational aspects of yourself.
- Learn emotional regulation skills. This is so important. It’s a skill we all recognize should be taught in kindergarten, however many of us only got the cliff notes. Cultivating emotional regulation and the ability to shift your focus from what isn’t working to what is working is an advanced skill and takes practice. You must hone your ability to recognize, label, and accurately act on your emotions as they present themselves. Emotions are just a part of your built in intelligence system, however most of us are limited in our ability to recognize and label. This impacts our ability to accurately act. As a result, shifting perception – which is an action – is limited to our narrow version of what is happening in our view of the moment.
- Practice visualization and what is known as the miracle question or magic wand in Solution Focused therapies. This exercise asks you to visualize and report in detail your perfect day/situation/outcome/etc. In this exercise we get very specific about what you see, think, feel, and how you act. Step by step we walk through your prefect scenario and focus on what you want. A big piece of this exercise is how you feel. Do not skip over cultivating how you will feel during each step of the day.
- Be of service. Get outside yourself and your goals. When you can figure out how you can contribute you’ll have a better sense of what the world needs and how you fit into the solution for problems. This allows you to hone your own skill set and offer all that you have already learned for the benefit of someone else. Here you get to recognize your strengths and review how you learned them. You can review your life to this point and assess where you went right, wrong, and what you learned.
Consider the above and practice these exercises. They’ll give you a gold mine of options for find your next purpose.
1 – Fogelman, N., & Turhan, C. (2015). ‘Purpose in life’ as a psychosocial resource in healthy aging: An examination of cortisol baseline levels and response to the Trier Social Stress Test. Nature Partner Journals, Aging and Mechanisms of Disease, 1, 15006, doi:10.1038/npjamd.2015.6
2 – Kim, E. S., Karachi, I, Chen, Y., Kubzansky, L. D. (2017). Association between purpose in life and objective measures of physical function in older adults. JAMA Psychiatry, 74(10)l 1039-1045, doi: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2017.2145: 10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2017.2145, PMCID: PMC5710461,PMID: 28813554
3- Greater Good Magazine. Science based insights for a meaningful life. definition of purpose: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/topic/purpose/definition#what-is-purpose
4 – Arnold, K. A., Turner, N., Barling, J., Kelloway, E. K., & McKee, M. C. (2007). Transformational leadership and psychological well-being: The mediating role of meaningful work. Journal of Occupational Health Pscyhology, 12(3), 193-203, DOI: 10.1037/1076-89220.127.116.11
Hello, I am Dr Stacy Reuille-Dupont. I was an exercise scientist who turned into a clinical psychologist when I realized being healthy was about more than working out. Now I study how your body is changed by thought and emotion and how thought and emotion impact our physical systems. Here are some of the ways mental and physical health impact each other and 3 ways you can use exercise to optimize your health.
For example your heart has its own electricalsystem1 that keeps it beating in rhythm, we strengthen it through cardiovascular exercise. This is things like running, biking, swimming, walking, anything you do with your big muscle groups for a period of time that makes your heart beat faster and breath rate go up.
Equipment like treadmills, recumbent bikes, and elliptical machines are used to help people raise their heart rates indoors and get an effective cardiovascular workout done on limited time.
When we workout doing cardiovascular exercise we help our mood too. Our serotonin 2 endorphins, domaine, oxytocin, acetylcholine, all increase. These are the feel good hormones in our bodies. Doing just 2 – 30 minutes aerobic exercise sessions per week for at least 7 weeks is as good as taking a Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitor (SSRI) anti-depressant medication for depression3.
These feel good hormones do more than just make us feel good, they also regulate other processes in our bodies and decrease inflammation throughout our physical system. This is important because inflammation 4 wreaks havoc on our tissues. It creates brain fog, digestive issues, joint pains, weight gain and makes us feel more stressed out.
When we feel stressed out everything is harder. It’s harder to learn, our relationships are more difficult, often because we are more irritated, it is harder to relax, and harder to get excited about doing fun things, which is exactly what we need to do if we are going to feel better. So it’s a double whammy of struggle.
When we feel stress we are feeling the increases of chemicals in our endocrine system. Specifically through what’s called the HPA-axis, this is our hypothalamus, pituitary, and adrenal glands. They work together to shift us into high gear and stay alive through a threat. However if we don’t move those chemicals out of our system they keep us inflamed and don’t help our tissues relax. And our body mind can’t tell if the threat is really happening to us or just something we saw on TV or in our video game5. We feel it in our physical system and then we respond as though it is happening to us even if we are just watching it or playing a game.
Exercise is also considered a stressor and it works with the HPA-axis 6 too, but it gives us a mechanism to metabolize and use up those chemicals as our muscles, heart, lungs, and bones are working to move faster, lift heavy things, and challenge our fitness levels. So when we move our bodies and challenge ourselves we are building a stronger physical and mental system that works together 7.
Another big way exercise helps us is through our breathing. When we workout we breathe harder. Our lungs are one of four organs that help us get toxins out of our bodies. Exhaling even helps us lose weight8.
Breathing is directly tied to our nervous system. When we breathe in we impact our sympathetic system, this is our high energy creative doing and fight/flight side of our nervous system. As we breathe out we impact our parasympathetic nervous system side9. This is our rest, digest, stay, and play, creative inspiration, feel good side. We want to be here more. This is where we feel safe and connected to people around us and something larger than ourselves. This tells our brains we are ok and the world is ok. We don’t have to be afraid. We have help and support when we need it. All humans need these feelings. When we are here our bodies and minds work better.
So getting enough exercise is really important in our overall health. It helps our bones and muscles get stronger, helps our heart and digestive systems work better, and helps our minds learn faster, our moods feel more positive, and increases our self-confidence.
Here’s 3 exercises you can do help your body-mind get the workout it needs.
Running – Running is great because it asks the large muscles of our body to move over time – also known as cardiovascular exercise. Plus it’s hard for most of us and creates a mental game we must play if we are going to keep with it. It teaches our body how to function more effectively and our minds how to stick with boring things.
Strength training – Strength training is about challenging your muscles to be stronger than they are now. There are lots of ways we can build our strength. So we can usually find something where we don’t get too bored. We just have to pick lifting, pushing, pulling things that are just a little bit heavier than what can comfortably do now. However it’s hard to lift heavy things. This challenges our muscles, builds our bones, and helps our minds remember we can do hard things.
Yoga – Yoga asana or postures are known for its ability to help us regulate our nervous systems through repetitive movements linked to our breathing. Remember above I talked about how our breathing is tied to our nervous system? This is part of why yoga works so well. Plus it asks us to contract and lengthen our muscles in a rhythmic pattern that helps our muscles stretch and become stronger under stretch. This is important for our range of motion – how much we can move a joint on our body – and keeps us moving throughout our lifetime. Yoga teaches us to be present to each experience as it happens and to just witness it, let it go as it has happened, and move to the next moment. We do not have to hold onto our judgment, frustration, fear, or joy because things are always changing. Yoga teaches us that change is ok and that we can make it through any changes, good or bad.
If you have a healthy and developed nervous system and strong mind you can handle anything that comes your way. Even the hard stuff, the boring stuff, the wanted and the unwanted stuff. A solid nervous system helps you regulate your emotions better and helps us stay present to our experiences which make our relationships, confidence, and ability to impact our world better.
Today think about how you can move your body and help control your mind using movement. Challenge yourself to do hard things, lift more, run / walk further, or stay present to your breath. Use your body to experience everything that comes your way today.
What you do today, impacts what you can do tomorrow. Many won’t be willing to put the effort in today to have the life they want tomorrow.
Be willing to do the hard work of creating the life you want. This is called living an embodied life.
Want help incorporating these ideas into your mental and physical fitness routines?
Check out our integrative clinic at Studiob.life
We work with people online and in person to learn more about how you can live more embodied everyday, understand how you can cultivate good feelings through simple movements and breathing exercises, and look closer at the science behind what’s happening in your psychology and physiology?
1 – Silverman, M. E., Grove, D., & Upshaw, C. B. (2006). Why does the heart beat? The discovery of the electrical system of the heart. Circulation, 133, 2775-2781. https://doi.org/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.106.616771
2 – Peluso M. A. M., & Guerra de Andrade, L. H. S. (2005). Physical activity and mental health: The
association between exercise and mood. Clinics, 60(1), 61-70.
3 – Wipfli, B., Landers, D., Nagoshi C., & Ringenbach, S. (2011). An examination of serotonin and psychological variables in the relationship between exercise and mental health. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports, 21, 474-481. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0838.2009.01049.x
4 – Dandekar, A, Mendez, R, & Zhang K. (2015). Cross talk between ER stress, oxidative stress, and inflammation in health and disease. In Christine M. Oslowski (ed.), Stress Responses: Methods and Protocols, Methods in Molecular Biology, vol. 1292, (205-214). Springer Science+Business Media. DOI 10.1007/978-1-4939-2522-3_15
5 – Cunningham-Bussel, A. C., Root, J.C., Butler, T., Tuescher, O., Pan, H., Epstein, J., Weisholtz, D., S., Pavony, M., Silverman, M. E., Goldstein, M., S., Altemus, M., Cloitre, M., LeDoux, J., McEwen, B., Stern, E., Silbersweig, D. (2009). Diurnal cortisol amplitude and fronto-limbic activity in response to stressful stimuli. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 34(5), 694-704, ISSN 0306-4530, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psyneuen.2008.11.011.
6 – Vassilakopoulos, T., Zakynthinos, S., Roussos, C., & Economou, M. (1999). Strenuous resistive breathing induces proinflammatory cytokines and stimulates the HPA axis in humans. American Journal of Physiology, 277(4), R10103-R1019. doi: 10.1152/ajpregu.1999.277.4.R1013
7 – Cotman, C. W., Berchotold, N. C., & Christie, L-A. (2007). Exercise builds brain health: Key roles of growth factor cascades and inflammation. TRENDS in Neurosciences, 30(9), 464-472. DOI:10.1016/j.tins.2007.06.011
8 – Meerman, R., & Brown, A. J. (2014). When somebody loses weight, where does the fat go? Gastroenterologocial Tracts. The BMJ, 349(7257), 1-3. doi: 10.1136/bmj.g7257
9 – Appelhans, B. M., & Luecken, L. J. (2006). Heart rate variability as an index of regulated emotional responding. Review of General Psychology (10)3, 229–240. doi: 10.1037/1089-2618.104.22.168