One in five Australians suffers with a mental illness.Though, Chelsea Pottenger was the last person anyone thought would contemplate ending her own life. The former corporate high-flyer had always been a happy, optimistic, go-getter but suddenly found herself consumed by severe perinatal depression after the birth of her first child. This left her unable to cope with the pressures of being a new mum and left her questioning her purpose in life.
To mark World Mental Health Day, mindfulness instructor, PHD student in psychology and proud ambassador for mental health charities including R U OK? and the Gidget Foundation, Chelsea reveals the behavioural changes that were instrumental to her recovery. She also shares some simple hacks that you can adopt to improve your overall health and wellbeing, as well as signs to look out for that suggest you, or someone you know, might not be ok.
Talk of mindfulness is everywhere at the moment. What does it really mean and why is important?
It’s a pretty easy concept, but it’s really hard to do. Mindfulness is just living in the moment, being present, being engaged. As humans it’s an important aspect of life. When we’re not being mindful we tend to get caught up in the past, thinking about things that happened to us this morning or last week. Or, caught up in conversations or fights in our head. And when our heads are too far in the past or in the future (even if you’re thinking about an upcoming holiday), it can cause a little too much anxiety. Mindfulness teaches us how to be present. It’s about bringing your thought process to the task at hand.
How can we fight the urge to be ‘too much in the past or the future’?
One of the best ways is to train the brain through mindfulness meditation. Apps are really helpful for training your brain to be in the moment.
Headspace, Calm and Smiling Mind will teach you how to practise mindfulness meditation. Though, it’s important to find someone’s voice you like listening to so it doesn’t grind your gears.
I’ve started doing a pilates reformer class because summer is coming. After the first workout, I knew I wasn’t going to see any results. But I know that after two months of doing it consistently, my body’s shape will start to change. It’s the same thing with the brain—we need to take it to the ‘gym’.
You’re probably not going to notice a big change after the first day of mindfulness meditation, but after about a week you’ll start to notice that you’re less stressed, your memory is better and your creativity will improve. After about two months, you’ll notice you’re more in the moment.
Any tips for sticking with a new habit?
Think about accountability. From a psychology perspective, we know that 95% of people will clinically habituate back to their regular routines three days after trying something new. What’s needed is for something to intrinsically motivate them to drive through.
First, you have to find the ‘why?’ What’s in it for you? Why is this particular thing so important to you? Secondly, look at successful people. What are they doing? Richard Branson does meditation. Barack Obama does it too. What do they know that you don’t know? Thirdly, a reward. The brain loves rewards. When you constantly keep doing something for two months, you should reward yourself for achieving that goal. The fourth thing is committing to an accountability partner. Tell someone that you love what it is you’re trying to achieve. This will help ensure that you front up and keep you accountable to your actions.
What’s the best way to start your day off on the right foot?
Don’t check your phone! Seeing negative news, for example, puts your body in fight or flight mode. When you first wake up, you’re in this state of the brain called theta brainwave. Whatever you’re putting in there in the first few mins of the morning will physically change the neocortex structure of the brain. If you look at negative stories, your brain starts hardwiring itself for more fear, more worry, more paranoia and you haven’t even said good morning to your loved one yet.
My best tip to turbo-charge your day is to wake up and do something that’s more positively impactful for the brain — practising 30 seconds of gratitude. This will turbo-charge a part of your brain called the insula where compassion, empathy and happiness sit. So, all of a sudden that’s getting fired up and growing and you’re setting up the day with thoughts like ‘today’s going to be a beautiful day’, and ‘these are the things I am grateful for’. If people do that for a couple of months their whole lens of the world will start to change. Try it and see how it goes for you. I am confident that it will be one of those life-changing things.
People tend to underestimate the importance of a good night’s sleep. How much of an impact does it really have?
Huge. It pretty much impacts every aspect of your health. If you’re not getting more than seven hours a night there’s an increase in your chances of developing Alzheimer’s and Dementia. There’s a 30% reduction in cardiovascular fitness.
An interesting thing from a work perspective is memory consolidation. If you’re not getting more than seven hours of sleep a night, the hippocampus can’t memory consolidate. Sleep is like the elixir for life. Anything that’s impacting your sleep, needs to be sorted out ASAP. You’ll function better as a human being on every level. I don’t want to scare people. Being an insomniac previously I know how torturous it can be, but I want people to know it doesn’t have to be that way.
And gut bacteria? Tell us more about how this can affect a person’s wellbeing?
In neuroscience research, the brain is referred to as the first brain and the gut is the second brain. The gut is made up of trillions of bacteria that dictate our mood. The reason being is that there’s a vagus nerve that connects the gut to the brain. Every ten messages that go up from the gut, one will go down from the brain. So, if there’s something going on in people’s gut like fibromyalgia, IBS, leaky gut etc, we’re certain that there’s things going on with that person’s mental health.
Some really easy gut health hacks include introducing a probiotic-rich food into your diet like kimchi, kombucha or sauerkraut. If you’re going to eat sauerkraut make sure it has caraway seeds in it to help with flatulence! But, basically anything that’s fermented will help. Also, get your microbiome checked—integrated GPs are fantastic for that.
There’s some great resources out there if you want to know more about gut health. Gut, by Giulia Enders is a great book. Dr Rhonda Patrick is an amazing clinician who is worth following on social media too.
What’s your top tip to reduce anxiety at work when you’re in a stressful situation?
Anxiety is an interesting trait. Everyone’s got some form of anxiety, even my highest achievers and the CEOs I work with—so it’s a good trait. I want people to change their mind on this. It’s a good thing. It gets your body ready and prepared for action. When you’re feeling stressed and anxious, I want you to think about the reasons behind it. If you can, step out of the situation and go outside, get some fresh air, grab a coffee or socially connect with somebody.
The long-term benefits of meditation will help to ease anxiety in the future, but a little bit of anxiety or stress is good. Too much is when it gets bad. If you start feeling like you’re going down that path, it’s time to take a break. Take a holiday, but not the kind where you drink cocktails for a week. Get off the grid and really honour yourself. Honour your sleep and your nutrition. Limit your technology use, do some form of exercise and just get some space.
What are the warning signs to look out for that you, or someone you know, might not be OK?
There’s three pillars. Firstly, listen to what people are saying. They might be saying things like; ‘I feel like a burden’, or they’ll be a bit more negative during their conversations. They’ll talk about how their sleep has been impacted lately.
Secondly, look at what people are doing. Are they socially isolating themselves. Are they cancelling plans on you? Are they quicker to rise to anger or flipping their lid a bit?
Thirdly, think about whether they have been through some big life trauma recently. It could be having a baby—which is such a positive beautiful thing, but that disruption of sleep is a real trigger point for a lot of people regarding their mental health. It could be that someone in their family has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. It could be that they’ve just lost a parent. They’re the three pillars to look out for.
What’s one habit people can adopt that would immediately help to improve their overall emotional health and wellbeing?
Practising thirty seconds of gratitude every day. You can write it down in a notebook, say it to yourself when you wake up in the morning, or write thank you cards. My husband (who is a skeptical banker) could not believe how much doing this one little thing has changed his life.
What’s the one thing you wish you knew before you embarked on your own mindfulness and wellbeing journey?
I wish I knew about perinatal anxiety and depression, and the Gidget Foundation. I wish I had some insights into mental illness so I could have known that I was predisposed to this sort of stuff, or at least know who to call when I was going through that self-destructive period. The more we can normalise it, the quicker people can recover, bounce back and thrive. We need to share our stories because your experience could be the alchemy in someone else’s healing.
Final food for thought?
Self care is not selfish. It’s a discipline. You have to take care of yourself—you cannot pour from an empty cup in this life. You’re no good to anyone else if you’re not taking care of yourself.
This article was written by Indeed and was based on a discussion between Chelsea Pottenger and the Indeed content team.
Need support or information around depression and anxiety, for yourself, a friend or family member? Contact R U OK?
Feeling anxious, overwhelmed or unable to cope with parenthood? Contact Gidget Foundation Australia.