Body Over Mind
Mood follows action. Motion creates emotion. Move and be moved.
The benefits of taking action transcends the body and transforms the mind.
“Feeling down? You’ll be fine, just get your ass moving!”
Me:“What an utter load of horse shit”
As a psychology graduate, this didn’t come easy.
Enter the body
It was late 2017, my mind was failing me.
“What’s the big deal”? It’s only a break up.
Surely, like all previous break ups, I will think myself out of sadness.
“I’ll figure it out”
I was wrong. I wasn’t just thinking, I was overthinking. And about the wrong things, at the wrong time, all the time.
It wasn’t the break up that bothered me, but the thoughts of “where did I screw up?”, “what did I do wrong?”, “how could I have handled our last fight better?” that ate me up.
I couldn’t function; I barely slept. My eyelids twitched furiously. 10-seconds into a conversation and I had no idea what the topic was.
You know how a broken DVD’s scene skips from 12.25 to 12.31? That’s how I was experiencing reality.
At this point, I truly believed I was doomed to lifelong suffering…
But at the peak of my misery, be it via luck, choice, or my inability to think straight…
I lifted weights. I joined a dance group. I played pick-up basketball. I even tossed myself back into the dating scene. It was glorious.
Almost always forgetting about a date until the last minute, I turned up to dates in short shorts and a tank top drenched from training. If my dating profile wasn’t douche-y enough, showing up sweaty with an arm pump certainly did the trick.
You do irrational things when you run on < 4 hours of sleep.
Why am I telling you this?
Against all rational odds, through doing, not thinking, I found mental relief.
I felt amazing.
Call it positive thinking, optimism, motivation or hope; being in this state was pivotal. Clarity returned to my thinking, and I was able to tackle my problems in a more methodical approach; the first of many steps to solving them.
Instead of “What could I have done?” I started asking “What can I do to move forward?”
It’s been a year since, and I still experience glimpses of darkness: days I don’t want to get out of bed, and a sudden sense of melancholy/ loneliness/ helplessness/ self-doubt/ self-loathe…
But now, I’m better equipped to crawl out of the abyss. These steps were life-changing for me, and I hope you’ll find them of help.
Changing Your Mind with Your Body
Train more often
The more often I lifted weights, the better I felt.
This is the primary reason why I’ve gone from a minimalist (2x/week) training regime to a high frequency (4-5x/week) training regime. To accommodate this increase, training sessions were reduced in intensity: lesser weights, lesser volume and shorter time spent in the gym. This way, the body can recover in time for the next session.
A properly structured training session can be the turning point of a low-energy day. I become more alert, have a better mood, and am less prone to go through the day in a brain-fog.
I also find exercise a powerful precursor to creativity and focus. The ROI I achieve from sparing an hour to exercise often outweigh the returns of using the same time to grind through work. Creative bursts and inspired streaks often come after I train.
Details: “To do lists are evil, schedule everything”.
I highly recommend scheduling your training sessions in advance, defend it at all costs. The viscerality of putting time to task makes you less likely to mentally jiujitsu yourself out of going to the gym.
That said, allocate more time than you think you need. Anticipate delays from water fountain chats or days when you need longer rest between sets.
Rushing through training to get back to work refreshed often backfires. If you perform a rushed, restless and crammed training session, it’s likely you carry this haphazard approach to a task at hand.
Also make room for gym room shenanigans #PRIORITIES
Take your time and finish your allocated regime for the day, which brings me to my next point.
Follow a program
There’s an apt Chinese proverb that I’m going to butcher in translation:
Direct translation: “You only know your body is deep in the mountains, but because it’s so foggy, you don’t know where to go”.
Interpretation: “It’s hard to assess a situation when you’re right in the thick of it”.
Ambiguity is the enemy. In the gym, your mind shouldn’t be thinking of what to do, you should be there, ready to do. If you don’t know how many sets, reps, weights or what to perform in the gym, you’re going to conjure up all kinds of excuses to foo foo your training session, more so after a tiring day.
You absolutely need a plan. Detailed in “Step 2: Pattern Interrupt”, getting myself into a dance group and basketball games got me moving without having to think; I commit to getting there and the accountability gets me moving.
Weight training is a bit different. I’m a lone lifter, and to ensure I follow through, I write my training program every 2 months, detailed with specific set numbers and weight ranges. When I’m at the gym, I focus on execution, rather than deliberation.
Details: My programs are written on a notebook. With Instagram a mere 2 clicks away, I find having to click into my phone to view training logs a huge distraction from the flow of my training regime. Outside of the music switching and some light reading, I keep my phone at bay during sessions.
For the longest time, I’ve carried my capability to “function” with little sleep like a badge of honor. That honor was short lived when I realized how little control I have over my sleep deprived body. Having involuntary eyelid twitches was a life changing experience, same can be said for the cringe-worthy dumb shit I did.
Today, I am a proud nap convert.
I start my day at 630am, which gets me around 6.5 hours of sleep (a huge upgrade from 4 hour nights). When I get mid day breaks, whether on my bed, an empty library, poolside, or an empty treatment room at work (sorry healthworks!), I lay for 30 minutes, which accumulates to 20 minutes sleep time.
It doesn’t sound like much, but in these power naps, time slows down, dreams feel like ages. Then, I wake up physically refreshed, mentally sharp, and more uplifted. 20 minutes is short enough that it doesn’t mess with my night-time sleep.
The prerequisite for this is, of course, the ability to sleep anywhere, anytime. With that, my next point
“I thought we were on the topic of controlling the body?”
Bear with me, I think meditation can be viewed from a standpoint of physical control.
This quote kick-started my meditation practice:
“People who have no awareness of their thoughts lose their train of thought without even being able to comprehend the notion of losing one’s train of thought”
You will derive different benefits from your meditation practice, but a personal takeaway was the ability to detach my actions from my emotions.
An example of this skill in action:
I get really angry at something my mother says.
Rather than letting my body be consumed by that emotion and act in anger, I am able observe that emotion, feel how it’s welling up within me, and decide whether or not to get on board with it.
With anger, most times, I shouldn’t.
Then, I put my feelings aside, and act the way I should: Respond calmly, logically to my mother’s statement. This non-reactive approach keeps me from letting my feelings take me for a ride.
Another attribute I derived from meditation: the ability to take action despite every single cell in the body plotting against it. You detach from a low energy state and get things done, or at least, take action to feel better enough to get things done.
2 years into my practice, I go through my days being less reactive. I don’t feel compelled to tailgate the drivers that cut me off in traffic to their destination.
Obviously, the benefits of meditation are not as instantaneous as exercising or napping. But it is synergistic; you’ll find it easier to actually exercise or nap the better you get at meditating.
Details: I don’t have a fixed timing, but I prefer meditating in the morning. I usually have an hour before leaving home, and I spend 10 minutes on my practice right after washing up.
Some days I don’t get the luxury of unrushed mornings. Then, I pick out 10 minutes in the afternoon, sit at a quiet spot and meditate.
I’ll need to preface this with a disclaimer: Don’t use caffeine as a crutch to bypass the side effects of sleeplessness, it will come back and bite you. I’ve had periods of work grind where I couldn’t even drive home without coffee. Even if your car is stronger than the toll barrier, I still strongly discourage it.
However, when consumed on top of optimal rest, caffeine can provide a powerful mood/ productivity/ strength/ motivation boost, one of the reasons why it’s the most popular drug on the planet.
Details: Find your dosage, I function best on 80-150mg of caffeine daily, or the difference between 1 and 2 espresso shots (varies based on beans/ locations or types of coffee).
I err on the high side when on training days. On days I don’t train, I either err on the low side, or omit it entirely (don’t worry, you’ll live).
Timing matters, too. I don’t drink coffee first thing in the morning. I used to, but I realized that punching my nervous system upon waking saps my energy dry in 2 hours. Instead, I drink coffee only 3 hours after waking up, after the natural dip of cortisol (usually around 10am).
Phenomenon explained here.
Small Wins / Instant Validation
(Hardest strategy to write)
I’m self-employed, but work is repetitive. Programming for clients is done months in advance, and training sessions are solely focused on execution.
Most of my creativity is spent on writing. I believe two things in writing:
1. You have to be vain to write well.
With vanity comes a need for validation. But with sayings such as “you got to do it only for yourself, people’s opinion don’t matter”, it took work for me come to terms with the fact that I absolutely crave validation, and I should be okay with it.
Validation doesn’t come often enough when long form articles are painstaking work.
So, when I’m topless, cross-legged, hunched over of my computer working on a book chapter, craving validation, I acquire it in the form of “Likes”.
I do this by sharing excerpts of what I’m working on via IG and FB. I justify it by saying I provide value, I get feedback, I help people with what I post, but mostly, I like that buzz that I get from someone acknowledging what I do.
“It feels kinda good to be valued, nom’ sayin?”
Posting segments of my work on social media feels like mini check-points to an otherwise monstrous task. It also feels like a small win, one I desperately need to continue doing what I do. Because I also believe this:
2. Good writing is a necessarily lonely process.
I feel like I’m at the top of the world when I shut myself out from the outside world. I create best without distractions.
Words come easy… but it’s rather lonely.
When I crave human interaction, rather than foregoing my work desk and going out for a 2 hour coffee chat (which absolutely kills momentum), a mini peek into social media is all I need to get back to another hour of work.
Perhaps I’ll come to a point where I’ll forego the need for validation, but at this point, this works.
Details: Way left field to what I write about on The Malaysian Body, I run a side blog (@honestEatsKL) and a YouTube page where I detail lots of what I eat, and I post lots of my work musings/ book snippets on FB.
Be where you are
Details: The captions of this IG post.
Experience your emotions fully
All of the strategies above help you feel better and start doing something to get better, but ultimately, to permanently get better, we cannot neglect the underlying issues.
From various, complex bio-psycho-social factors probably derived from unaddressed issues during childhood, when certain things happen, we experience triggers: strong emotions that surface and take over.
Shunning these emotions via exercise, coffee, meditation, instant validation and motivational hoo haa pep talk is sweeping the problem under the rug. One way or another, It will come back and bite you.
Don’t run from these emotions. It’s okay to not be okay.
Details: “You can’t think yourself out of sadness”. Let me suggest you feel through it.
Sadness, anger, frustration and fear are clues. Whenever you experience strong emotions, sit with it , let it build up, and don’t hold back.
Allow the emotion to process entirely, and let the body’s natural reaction surface and run it’s necessary course. Cry, scream, move however your body wants to; don’t hold back. Let all the pent up emotions be released, let the body take over
This exercise is best done in isolation, but there are helpful support systems/ safe spaces that facilitate this catharsis.
After the entire process, it’s time to move from the body back to the mind. With pen and paper, detail how you felt. “Why did I feel this way?” is a good start, followed by “What should I do to be better” is a good follow up.
It often requires several sessions to actually feel like something’s actually, permanently changed. It is hard, painful and repetitive work; if it’s easy everyone would be walking balls of bliss.
“It’s more difficult to rule yourself than to rule a city”. This video was the inspiration of this strategy.
You are in control
You have no control over the outcome of a medical intervention, an investment decision, if you get a raise, or if A.I super-intelligence enslaves the human race tomorrow.
More reason to why you should take control of what you can, especially if it’s something as important as living well.
Don’t hope to feel good, work to feel good.
Through these strategies, I hope you also discover more ways that works uniquely for you. Like a muscle, the more you practice, the better you get. Realize that the capacity to feel good is in your own hands.
Make yourself a priority. At the end of the day, you are your longest commitment.
There is a big difference between actual depression versus being in a temporary rut.
What I detail here is definitely not the be all end all to solving depression. But I believe these steps are better than none, and may contribute to helping you in small ways. But you will get better, faster with professional help.
To sufferers of depression, I can’t say I know how you feel. The internet is an easy avenue to peddle lies, I don’t champion that. Here are resources and contacts of qualified professionals that is going to change your life, but only if you decide to take control:
24 hour support