The Body's "Budget"
While disciplines like yoga, meditation, breathwork and professionally curated psychedelic-assisted therapy journeys are powerful ways to regulate our emotions, the shortest path to obtaining a state of equanimity is also one which is often overlooked: our physical health.
The human body is constantly running a ‘budget.’ This ‘body budget’ balances resources like water, blood, salt, oxygen, glucose, cortisol, hormones and more to keep our body running efficiently (Feldman-Barrett, 2017).
Some behaviors, like sleeping and eating well, are a deposit. Others, like habitual late nights with wine, constitute a withdrawal. When our body budget is taxed, we experience unpleasant affect.
Affect: a general category of feeling (pleasant or unpleasant, calm or agitated) that serves as a quick summary of the status of our body budget.
Unpleasant affect is a precursor to distressing emotions like intense anxiety and irritability. In this light, sometimes conditions like depression and chronic anxiety are signs of a ‘bankrupt body budget’ whose symptoms reflect thoroughly depleted resources.
While therapy and other mindfulness-based practices like meditation, yoga and breathwork are indispensable for emotional well-being, we can radically reduce the presence of intense, distressing emotions by ensuring our body budget is in credit. That is, we can do what our mothers tried to get us to do when we were kids:
Eat our veggies, go outside and play instead of sit in front of the TV all day, and go to bed early!
EQNMT’s Pyramid of Wellbeing
EQNMT’s Pyramid of Well-Being (Kallenbach & Townsend, 2021) is the clearest summary we know for maintaining a healthy body budget.
A. The Biological Layer
There’s no emotion regulation without physical health, irrespective of how much psychedelic-assisted therapy, meditation or breathwork we do. Quite simply, the state of our minds is the integrity of our bodies. Sleep, nutrition and exercise are the ‘golden triad’ of well-being. The very concept of equanimity is meaningless without honoring these three core functions.
Sleep is the foundation of all physical and emotional well-being: “the Swiss Army knife of health,” according to Professor Mathew Walker, who argues that if it didn’t provide a remarkable set of benefits, then “it's the biggest mistake evolution has ever made.” There’s no aspect of our biology that’s left unscathed by sleep deprivation. Studies across millions of people show that short sleep predicts a short life. It’s also nature’s most potent antidepressant and anxiolytic (anxiety reducing agent). Dream sleep (REM) provides a fascinating neurochemical balm, where the distressing aspects of traumatic events are uncoupled from memory and processed (Walker, 2017). It’s no wonder that psychedelic medicine is such a potent catalyst for healing: intriguingly the neural signature of a psychedelic journey looks very much like REM sleep, and is often referred to as a wakeful dream.
Nutrition is the other master key for well-being. An abundance of research shows that nutrient rich food reduces depression and anxiety and enhances focus. Adjusting the notorious ‘Western diet’ - excessive red and processed meat, high fat dairy, refined grains, copious sugar and salt - to include more plant based proteins and fish is a potent elixir for our emotions. This regimen aligns with the diet of the centenarians in ‘longevity hotspots’ around the world who have significantly lower levels of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, cancer, asthma, arthritis and cardiovascular disease . As the author Michael Pollan says: “If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don't.” His nutritional triptych cuts right through the noise: “Eat food (that is, whole food), not too much, mostly plants” (Pollan, 2006).
And thirdly, exercise. All animals move to regulate their body budget. If an animal’s glucose levels sky rocket, scampering up a tree will bring it down. Human being are are unique in that they’re the only animals who can regulate their emotions by assigning meaning to the sensations in their body (an elevated heart rate can be interpreted as excitement rather than anxiety, thus producing excitement). But when this fails, and it often will, it’s worth remembering that we’re primates. Moving, even when we don’t feel like it, can make us feel better.
Exercise also reduces the risk of cancer by 40%, stroke by 45% and diabetes by 50% (Warbuton, Nicol and Shannon, 2006). Intriguingly, muscle mass has been found to be as important as blood pressure and weight in determining overall health, causing some scientists to argue that “muscle mass should be a new vital sign” (Prado, 2018). Exercise also releases dopamine, serotonin and endogenous cannabinoids that make us feel fantastic. In some instances it’s more effective than medication in managing depression (Singh, 2022).
Intriguingly, exercising in nature has been shown to have the most powerful antidepressant effects. Because our species evolved on the African savannah, we have an innate love for landscapes that resemble our early, green environment and we release stress hormones when alienated from it for too long. Nature also elicits an incredibly powerful emotion: awe. Nature gives us the sense that we are but mere nodes in a vast cosmic tapestry.
Our ego’s shrink under the immense shadow of a mountain, or while gazing at the enormity of the ocean, or up at the stars.
B. The Psychosocial Layer
Psychoanalysts since Freud have said that what matters most for mental wellbeing are love, work and play. It’s within these three areas that most of our deepest human needs, such as needs for safety, novelty, worthiness, attachment, growth and contribution, are met or unmet. Unless you’re Buddha, it’s almost impossible to regulate your emotions if you’re perpetually miserable in these core life areas.
The great neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett famously said:
“The best thing for your nervous system is another human and the worst thing for your nervous system is another human.”
Nothing regulates or dysregulates us quicker than our relationships. Connected, loving bonds are our only true protection against what existential philosophers call ‘the primal panic of existence.’ The astronomer Carl Sagan captured this poetically when he said that:
“For creatures such as we, the vastness is only bearable through love.”
Indeed, Harvard University's ‘Longest Ever Study On Human Happiness’ shows that fulfilling relationships consistently predict happiness far more than professional success, wealth or status. Studies also show that loneliness causes our cortisol levels to soar. Remarkably, it can be as injurious to the nervous system as being physically attacked (Doane, 2010).
We also spend one third of our lives working. Financial strain, as well as a lack of stability, autonomy, fulfillment, or growth in our work vitiates our body budget. It’s one of the biggest contributors to our epidemic proportions of depression, anxiety and addiction (Pink 2009).
And lastly, all mammals play. That is, they do something because the experience itself is more rewarding than the outcome. If the result is more valuable to us than the experience, then the activity is transformed into work. Regular play lowers stress, boosts mood, increases creativity and enhances cognitive functioning (Magnuson and Barnett, 2013). The great dramatist, George Bernard Shaw was right when he said:
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old. We grow old, because we stop playing.”
C. The Cognitive (Meaning-Making) Layer
Even if we take care to regulate our biological and social needs, we still have to contend with a brain that hasn’t evolved to make us happy, but rather, to keep us alive (Kringelbach and Berridge, 2010). As it happens, worry and rumination are great survival strategies. For our ancestors who evolved in a more dangerous environment than our contemporary world, a mind equanimously at rest in the present moment was a sure way to get themselves killed. As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said, “the purpose of thinking is to let the ideas die instead of us dying” (Whitehead, 1938).
Moreover, researchers who study the science of happiness outline four features of the evolved brain that tend to make us miserable: miswanting (pursuing things that ultimately don’t make us happy), comparison (evaluating ourselves against others) impact bias (overestimating how happy getting something will make us) and hedonic adaptation (desensitizing to the pleasure of getting what we want).
To enjoy beautiful states of consciousness like equanimity, gratitude, awe, love, curiosity and joy, we have to train the mind to be present, to savor, to learn to notice what’s good and available, not just what’s wrong and missing. We also need to nurture our spirit by pursuing meaning through making a contribution and fostering a connection to something larger than ourselves. This gives us tremendous resilience in the face of suffering and makes us happy as a byproduct of living a meaningful life.
In sum, emotional well-being isn’t exclusively about working in therapy, practicing meditation or doing breathwork. It’s also about maintaining our physical, social and spiritual health. This is the quickest, most powerful way to regulate our emotions.
While it may seem like we have to work so hard just to feel ok, small, seemingly insignificant adjustments within the Biological, Psychosocial and Cognitive layers have a profound impact on how we feel. Encouragingly, a carefully prepared, strongly intentioned and thoroughly integrated psychedelic journey with an experienced therapist, is a great catalyst for knowing where to begin in our search for equanimity.
DISCLAIMER: This article was written for educational purposes only, and is not intended as advice. Psychedelic-assisted therapy is not helpful or indicated for everyone, and professional, trusted advice from a qualified healthcare professional should always be sought before entering into any new form of treatment. Similarly, we advocate for the safe, legal use of psychedelics in a therapeutic setting, guided and administered by qualified professionals.
Contact us to find out whether psychedelic-assisted therapy is the right option for you.
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