Understanding the human brain
The human brain is an amazing thing. It’s the most complex organ in our bodies, has the power to influence our health, our happiness and the lens through which we see and experience the world around us. For international speaker and mental health ambassador Chelsea Pottenger, her mind took a dark detour before she found her purpose – to help others by teaching them how to recalibrate their brains for health and happiness.
Sometimes in order to see the light you need to experience the darkest corners of your own mind, and for Chelsea Pottenger that’s exactly what happened. Five years ago, Chelsea was a Sydney corporate high flyer living in Rose Bay and working as a high-level sales professional. She worked 12-hour days, spent nights wining and dining clients and early mornings training for triathlons. “It was that typical fast-paced lifestyle of work hard, party hard, train hard,” recalls Chelsea. “You think you can maintain that pace forever, until you can’t. Your adrenals burn out.”
Then, three days after having her daughter Clara in 2015, Chelsea experienced perinatal anxiety and depression (PND). Over nine weeks, her moods got darker and darker before she was hospitalised for five weeks with suicidal ideation. While in “the thick of the storm” Chelsea questioned just how she could go from a healthy, happy, high-performing, productive person to someone consumed by thoughts of ending her own life.
“When you’ve seen the world through a suicidal lens, and you start to get well, you then ask yourself ‘Why the hell did it happen to me? I’m a kind person, I’m a happy person, how can life throw me that lemon?’
“My psychiatrist was excellent, she really explained the brain to me. I came to understand that it doesn’t matter if you eat organic, fresh food, and do yoga if your brain isn’t producing enough serotonin! I was medicated, of course, but my psychiatrist helped me long-term by also training me in things like health, meditation and fasting. Before that, I thought meditation was for hippies,” confesses Chelsea, “I didn’t understand the science of it. I thought, ‘I’m too busy to sit still for 20 minutes!’
“My psychiatrist saw my genuine fascination with the brain, and was actually the one who said to me, ‘Chelsea, you would make a really beautiful clinical psychologist, because you have been through it and will be stronger because of this experience. You could help so many people.’ It was really her who changed my step in my career, and set me off on my crusade.
“I realised that if mental ill-health can happen to somebody like me, it could happen to anybody. And that gave me this fire in my belly, to really understand the human brain, to become qualified in this area so I can help other people from hurting themselves.”
Chelsea left the corporate world and took the first steps towards a new profession. Today, Chelsea is a psychology student at University, is an internationally accredited mindfulness practitioner and is an active mental health ambassador for the R U OK? charity and The Gidget Foundation. She travels the world as a keynote speaker and mindfulness practitioner, sharing her experience and the strategies she’s learned to recharge the human brain. Through her businesses EQ Minds and EQ Consulting Co. she operates corporate workshops to help employees increase productivity, memory and focus, and improve overall mental wellbeing.
“When you’ve seen the world through a suicidal lens, and you start to get well, you then ask yourself ‘Why the hell did it happen to me? I’m a kind person, I’m a happy person, how can life throw me that lemon?”
“I’ve worked in that fast-paced, high-pressure, competitive corporate world, so I understand it. I also consider myself a sceptic, so it was the science that led me down this path. The reason my business has received such support, I believe, is that I explain the issue as well as things like meditation from a clinical, scientific perspective,” offers Chelsea. “If the neuroscience doesn’t support something, if I can’t find research on it, I will never promote it.”
Chelsea’s business has grown exponentially over the past four years, spurred by her real and raw story, ability to engage with her audience, and the fact that she has ‘walked her talk’ to recovery. She has worked with companies like eBay, Uber, Johnson & Johnson, CBA, Westpac, Dexus Property Group and Mercedes-Benz. More than 97,000 people follow her on Instagram where she is a constant reminder to check-in on your mental health, with actionable research-backed tips and great insights. She also runs online programs open to everyone, on topics including sleep, visualisation, high-performance habits and designing a calm life.
In 2020, Chelsea will launch two new online courses. Raising Mindful Kids and a new Vision Board Program. These courses are designed to enable people to live more in the moment.
“I take a week off every six weeks, which we can do because we own the business,” says Chelsea, who last year recruited her husband Jay to General Manager of EQ Minds. “Mental wellbeing is our priority, and regular breaks are one of the easiest and most effective ways to integrate wellness into your life.”
Of course, taking seven weeks off each year isn’t possible for everyone, but you can recharge in just two or three days. “Your body will tell you when you’re burning out and need a break, if you listen. Are you grinding your teeth? Getting tension headaches? IBS symptoms? Mouth ulcers? Our bodies and minds are connected by the vagus nerve, so when our brains are stressed, our bodies show it,” says Chelsea.
If you’re feeling flat, Chelsea suggests spending this weekend really getting back to basics – good sleep, whole foods and lots of water, 30 seconds of gratitude each day, 90 seconds of deep breathing a few times a day, calming exercise, and a bit of self-care.
“You will not burn out if you do bite-sized behavioural changes for your body and your brain every day,” Chelsea says. “And it’s the simplest little things, like giving yourself eight hours sleep, using the first eight minutes of each morning wisely, recognising when you need a few days off to recharge, and taking control of your thoughts.”
If a few days doesn’t recharge you, try a week. If that doesn’t work, talk to your GP, counsellor or psychologist.
“Gratitude truly changes your perspective; it’s difficult to be grateful and unhappy.”
Use the first 8 minutes of your morning wisely
“When we first awaken, we transition from a delta brainwave of sleep into a theta brainwave, and it’s in this theta state that the brain is more flexible and malleable,” says Chelsea. “It’s an important time for enhancing emotional intelligence, memory and creativity.” The theta brainwave stage is when your brain goes into auto mode and almost disengages from the task you’re doing, giving you a sense of relaxation and often clarity – that task could be running, or having a shower, sometimes even driving. This is also often when you can get a free flow of ideas, and it’s usually a pretty positive mental state.
Over three years, EQ Minds surveyed 95,000 Australians and found 90% of them checked their phone as soon as they woke each morning. “If your first action each morning is to check your phone, reading emails, scrolling through social media and checking your latest news articles, you are bypassing that big beautiful theta brainwave and slipping straight into beta brainwaves, which is when you’re highly engaged.” If you’re then feeding your brain stressor signals – emails with work that needs to add to your list, urgent meeting reminders, images on Instagram that present an unrealistic beauty/lifestyle, you’ll start the day stressed.
Chelsea says to instead use the first eight minutes of each morning to set yourself up for a good day. “Don’t look at your phone; if you’re tempted, just don’t keep it next to your bed. Spend 30 seconds to think about the good things in your life and your day ahead, and what you’re grateful for. Harvard research suggests that practicing 30 seconds of gratitude a day, strengthens and grows the part of the brain that builds resilience,” says Chelsea. “Look at a visual representation of your goals – this will help wire your brain for happiness, success and a positive mindset. Finally, do a few minutes of gentle stretches to connect your brain to your body, then have a glass of warm water with the juice of half a lemon. This will help to kick start your digestive juices and boost your liver during the detoxifying phase.”
“Harvard research suggests that practicing 30 seconds of gratitude a day, strengthens and grows the part of the brain that builds resilience.”
Interrupt negative thoughts
“Emotions only last for 90 seconds in your nervous system unless you talk about it or think about again, and keep it in your feedback loop,” says Chelsea. “So, be pissed off for 90 seconds, then break that thought, don’t stay stuck there. Count backwards, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, new thought.
“Our brain is like real estate. The more you think about something, the more those thoughts will grow. If you constantly think negative thoughts, think about the things that frustrate and anger you, you will grow more of those. If, instead, you think about gratitude and how blessed you are, you will grow more of that. Gratitude truly changes your perspective; it’s difficult to be grateful and unhappy.”
The 3-day rule
“Research shows it takes three days to turn around your energy and mood,” says Chelsea. “I use a lot of bio feedback devices to check my energy in the morning. When I’m feeling flat, I go back to focusing on the basics – sleep, nutrition, movement and stress management.”
1. Sleep – Give yourself the chance to have 8–9 hours every night, and have no screens or alcohol before bed. You need both deep REM and light REM sleep, and if you watch TV, scroll on your phone or have a glass of wine before bed, you’re reducing deep REM and you’ll wake up fatigued. Sleep is sacred – make it a priority.
2. Nutrition – Eat only whole foods for three days, and lots of water. Cut the dairy, alcohol, sugar and gluten. You can still have coffee, but just limit yourself to one shot per day.
3. Movement – If you’re too flat to hit the gym or do your usual training, do something gentler like Yoga or a 30-minute walk. But move every day. And if you can, do it outdoors to get a hit of vitamin D and surround yourself with nature. Studies suggest that just being in nature lowers depression by 52%.
4. Stress management – Focus on those first eight minutes of the day, make time to meditate, and book in some sort of self-care, whether that’s a massage, or a sauna, or for me it’s often a surf session.
“I am so grateful that I went through that perinatal depression because without it, I would never have gotten to this other life that I am living now,” reflects Chelsea. “As weird as it sounds, I thank Clara daily for sending me to the hospital, because I came out the other side stronger, with more love and humility than ever before.”
More information on Chelsea’s online programs and corporate workshops is available at eqminds.com