Get in the Zone: An Extract from Colman Noctor’s New Book ‘The 4-7 Zone’
In contemporary language and media, we hear ‘mental health’ being described as a single entity. It is something you ‘have’ or you ‘don’t have’. In reality, mental health is far more nuanced and complex than that. We don’t talk about physical illness in this way, because we accept that it exists on a continuum of severity — so why do we believe it is OK to talk like this when it comes to describing mental health?
While it might seem comforting to imagine that all mental distress can be resolved by running a marathon, meditating every morning, or downloading a mindfulness app, it is at best naive and at worst exploitative. Many serious mental disorders require far more intensive support than this, and this message is not helpful to those who simply cannot ‘walk it off’.
That said, the importance of diet, sleep, and exercise in our mental health is indisputable. To establish balance and equilibrium in our lives, our bodies are the first place to start. There is no denying the symbiotic relationship between the body and the mind.
The Two-Way Relationship Between the Body and Mind
Many of us will notice this two-way relationship between our bodies and our emotional lives. When we have an important event coming up that we are worried about, we can notice our sleeping patterns begin to be affected. Perhaps it’s harder to fall asleep, or we keep waking up throughout the night. Our anxiety can manifest in our bowels, with physical cramps in our stomachs and bouts of constipation and diarrhea in the run-up to the event. If we have experienced a difficult life event like the loss of someone close to us, we can see that our bodies react by oversleeping or not sleeping, and we can feel exhausted all the time despite having had many hours of sleep. Our emotional lives also have an impact on our diet.
The Importance of Diet, Sleep, and Exercise
What is especially important when it comes to diet, sleep, and exercise is that it does not have to be extreme. The biggest mistake people make when it comes to these dimensions of human behavior is overcorrection. The temptation to slip into the ‘new me’ frame of mind is high, and many try to overextend their commitment to a healthy lifestyle, which proves unsustainable. Inevitably, after a short period, the unsustainability of these goals becomes clear, and they give up. This leaves people with feelings of being ‘a failure’ or not enough, and as a result, their emotional health suffers as a consequence.
Adam is 47 years old and is married with two children. He works in a busy and stressful job as a salesperson, which involves a lot of driving and long hours. Adam recently attended his GP for an investigation into a series of repeated chest infections. While he was there, the doctor decided to do a series of physical tests. The test results revealed that Adam’s blood pressure and cholesterol levels were higher than they should be, and he was overweight. Adam also suffered from low mood and intermittent bouts of anxiety and stress, but he did not mention this to the doctor, as he was embarrassed. He left the doctor’s office and decided he needed to get to grips with his current lifestyle.
Adam went to a sports shop on the way home from the doctor’s office and bought a new tracksuit and a pair of top-of-the-range runners. He downloaded the ‘Couch to 10k’ running app on his phone and pledged that he was finally going to do something about his lifestyle. He downloaded a ‘carb-free’ diet plan and bought all the ingredients that were recommended in the plan, deciding he was going to combine this plan with an intermittent fasting program he had heard great things about. The following day was to be the start of his new regime. He was going to do it this time and he was not going to fail.
When Adam returned to therapy after his failed attempt at lifestyle change, we decided to readdress his goals with the 4–7 zone in mind. We looked at how it can be used effectively to improve his diet, sleep, and exercise.
- Diet: Some professionals might recommend that Adam should start to make his lunches for work the night before and provide complicated menus of hummus dips and celery sticks. But in reality, these interventions were not feasible for Adam in terms of the practicality of having time to prepare these lunches and, of course, the taste. We devised a plan that worked with Adam’s current…
- A healthy diet can help reduce the risk of mental health problems.
- Exercise releases endorphins that help reduce stress, improve mood, and boost self-esteem.
- A good night’s sleep is essential for overall health and well-being, including mental health.
- Overcorrecting and setting extreme goals does more harm than good.
Mental health is a nuanced and complex topic that cannot be remedied with simple one-size-fits-all solutions. However, engaging in healthy habits such as a balanced diet, regular exercise, and sufficient sleep can contribute to maintaining overall physical and emotional well-being. Setting realistic goals and making small, sustainable changes can help improve overall health.
To truly improve mental health, we must move beyond the simplistic and exploitative solutions proposed by many wellness influencers and focus instead on small, sustainable changes that can lead to overall well-being. The 4-7 Zone is a useful tool for setting and working towards manageable and achievable goals that can contribute to improved mental health.