When thinking of ways to improve our health, our minds automatically turn to eating better, sleeping more, and (finally) putting that gym membership to good use. To help us improve our chances of success this holiday season, life-style as medicine expert and Chief Science Officer of Wisdom Labs Parneet Pal suggests revamping our list of New Year’s resolutions by including a few often overlooked but essential ingredients to better health.
We tend to confuse compassion and empathy, and with good reason – they both involve the ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and feel what they’re feeling. The key difference between the two is that compassion also includes a strong motivation to improve the other’s wellbeing and alleviate suffering. As Parneet puts it, “Empathy (feeling pain) can enervate. Compassion (taking action) energizes.”
Compassion is a skill that we are all born with, but one that needs to be exercised over time. Should you find yourself stuck in a difficult situation during the holidays, Parneet recommends practicing compassion by silently sending wishes of good will to those around you. When we do this, our heart rate and breathing slow down, moving us from the “fight and flight” stress response to a calmer, more loving and connected state. This priming of our neural networks then makes it more likely that we will take appropriate action to help reduce the suffering we are seeing in others and ourselves.
Research has shown that another ingredient vital to good health (and one that may even lengthen our lifespan) is connecting with others in meaningful ways. Even in today’s hyper-connected world, doing so can be difficult; one study showed that one in four Americans are unable to name someone they consider a close friend. Such feelings of loneliness and isolation lead to a higher risk of anxiety and depression. On the cellular level, the body responds to these feelings with inflammation and decreased immunity, which are known precursors to chronic disease.
For our more introverted readers, the good news is that it’s not about the number of social connections we have, but our perceived sense of how connected we feel from within. To help cultivate close relationships, Parneet recommends bringing your whole self to conversations – whether at the next holiday party or around the dinner table. Rather than compose a mental list of brilliant responses to the topic at hand, simply relax and listen carefully. Doing so makes the person you’re speaking to feel seen and heard, and more likely to return the favor. “Try this out with family and friends this holiday season – and see how it changes the quality of the conversations and emotions in your relationships,” Parneet suggests.
According to TEDMED 2015 speaker Judson Brewer, mindfulness techniques can help quell unhealthy cravings (stay tuned for his talk release!). But, to many of us who are all too familiar with racing minds and long to-do lists, the idea of making time to practice mindfulness seems far-off at best. Parneet tells us that the problem is that we’re so caught up in the past (or future) that we function on “autopilot” in the present. Especially during the rush of the holiday season, we’re constantly and chronically under stress – which is not only harmful for our health, but also results in poor decision making, emotional turbulence and limits access to perspective, ideas, and insights.
When talking about mindfulness, “practicing” is the operative word. Just as we exercise our bodies, we train our brains. The first step to mindfulness is to keep your breath in mind, as much as you can, throughout the day. This simple act of remembering your breath, pivoting your attention to it and following it in and out – for one second, one minute or more – begins to strengthen our attention networks. The stronger our ability to pay attention to the present moment, the less susceptible we are to emotional triggers.
For meltdown moments, Parneet recommends taking the following steps for a little bit of Holiday S.O.S.:
Place your hand on your heart (this triggers the release of oxytocin, an anti-stress hormone) and connect with the sensations of the body – the warmth of your hand, the rise and fall of your chest, the feeling of resting in your body fully. Take three, slow, nourishing deep breaths. Ask yourself: “what is the most loving, compassionate thing I can do right now – for myself and those around me?” Then act on it.
Over the holidays, we at TEDMED will be taking Parneet’s advice as we nurture our relationships and make time to unplug, rest and recharge. We hope you do the same. In the meantime, be on the lookout as we share a just a few of the year’s most relevant talks – and make sure to register for TEDMED 2016 before January 1st to take advantage of our special ticket price. We’d love to have you join us.
From all of us at TEDMED, happy (and healthy) holidays!