Mental Resilience Toolkits: Music, Breathwork and Self-Awareness
🤸♀️ Stretch 44
Observing everything I'm thinking and feeling through the lens of my nervous system has given me a novel sense of agency and calm.
Motivation, frustration, sadness, annoyance, fogginess.
In these moments, I’ve shifted my focus from "What's wrong with me?! 😭" to "What can I do right now? 😌"
And I'm learning there's always something I can do.
That’s where a ‘mental resilience toolkit’ comes in.
I’m a big believer of being extremely intentional and descriptive about these things.
That way, instead of being at the mercy of your thoughts and emotions, you have a few simple tools at the ready for when the dip / overwhelm / obstacle inevitably strikes. (Think of it like installing little speed bumps to slow things down while you compose yourself.)
🤸♀️ IN THIS WEEK'S STRETCH:
Music to quickly reset your mental state.
Breathing exercises to up & down-regulate.
Training the skill of self-awareness.
🎶 MUSIC TO RESET YOUR MENTAL STATE
You know the feeling:
You have a task to do but your mind is just… not… cooperating!!!
Your brain feels foggy. You keep staring off into the distance, opening up [insert social drug of choice] and mindlessly scrolling through the feed.
The harder you fight, the deeper you sink.
A job that was meant to be a sprint is turning into marathon.
Now, there are 3 ways to handle this kind of situation:
😭 Be tough on yourself, calling yourself undisciplined and lazy and give up. “I’ll do it tomorrow.”
😖 Fight your way through, stressed and annoyed, getting the work done (kinda) but feeling like crap.
😌 Embrace the dip as a familiar friend, recognising that your brain and body needs a reset.
It’s pretty obvious which option is the most enjoyable AND the most productive.
Ever since I started learning about my nervous system, this has been one of the biggest takeaways—completely changing how I approach my work:
It’s simple biology that our nervous systems go through cycles, with varying energy levels throughout the day.
So, instead of blaming yourself or forcing things, be ready for those low points and have a reliable system to get back on track.
But then there’s one gem I always forget about:
I was reminded of the power of music the other day, as I was sitting in an airport waiting for my next flight.
Feeling tired and low energy, going through my Spotify playlists to pull together a list of 5 songs that move me and 5 songs that bring me joy.
(This was an assignment from Carson from Create Meditation, for my first 1:1 breathwork-meditation session. I’ll write more about this soon!)
I'm instantly fired up, tapping my feet, bopping my head (“Do you belieeeeve in love after love”—Cher ), feeling energized, euphoric and weirdly connected to the strangers around me.
It’s really simple: our brains love music.
As Kelly McGonigal writes in her book The Joy of Movement:
Research has shown that music can be most effective when played at the point when you reach a plateau in work output.
So in our earlier scenario:
When you reach that dip—don’t fight it. You know exactly what to do:
Put on music. Get a glass of water and dance in your kitchen.
If you’re at an office: put in headphones and go for a quick walk around the block. Heck, dance in the toilets if you need to.
Pick a few songs you know will lift you up. Even better if you have a playlist ready to go so you don’t spend time scrolling and searching for the right song to play.
I have a playlist labeled “GET UP!” with just 5 of my favorite songs. If you need some inspiration, I found this Spotify playlist with all the songs mentioned in the book The Joy of Movement.
End of the day, the truly valuable skill to train isn’t the capacity to push yourself harder. It’s the ability to recognise when to stop, and to have a set of techniques at the ready to give you the mental reset you need.
P.S.: Someone recommended the book Reverbation, delving deep into the topic of music as a universal human experience and how songs resonate with your brain wave patterns and drive changes in your brain: creating your moods, consolidating your memories, strengthening your habits (the good ones and the bad ones alike), even making you fall in or out of love. FASCINATINGGGGGG! (And yet another book to add to my ever-growing reading list.)
💨 BREATHING EXERCISES TO UP & DOWN REGULATE
Being mentally resilient is not just about boosting energy levels.
It’s just as much about knowing how to calm and ground yourself. (Remember that autonomic nervous system seesaw I talked about a few editions ago?)
That’s where the breath is so powerful—because it can do both. It can up regulate and down regulate. Anytime, no matter where you are or who you’re with.
You see, the way you breathe affects just about every system in your body:
Your cardiovascular system, endocrine system, digestive system, nervous system and immune system.
You have conscious control over your breath, so simply by learning how to use your breath as a tool (the way nature intended you to), you can affect these systems and functions in your body—improving your physical and mental health and performance.
And once you develop a close relationship with your breath, there is so much information it can give you about your mental and emotional state. And you can then rely on it throughout the day to shift your state to match whatever it is you’re trying to do, taking you from…
Anxious to calm
Tired to awake
Scattered to focused
For example, a simple breathing technique to down-regulate when you feel unfocused and anxious is slow, deep breathing through the nose.
This functional breathing pattern increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain, stimulates the vagus nerve, and achieves optimal movement of the diaphragm—bringing an overall calmness to the body and mind.
As MD Peter Attia writes in his book, Outlive:
“Another technique I have grown very fond of is slow, deep breathing: four seconds to inhale, six seconds to exhale. Repeat. As the breath goes, the nervous system follows.”
Making the exhale longer than the inhale activates the parasympathetic nervous system—activating the rest-and-digest state.
As mentioned, your breath isn’t just a tool for calm and balance, but also for energy and focus.
For example, if you feel tired but need to get some work done, you can use a breathing technique for a few minutes to optimise your state to be energised and in the zone.
Here’s a simple example, shared by Joseph Pack from DrugFreeADHD:
When he needs a quick boost, he does a breathing exercise like this:
One second in, one second out 30x (through the nose)
Breathe out, hold for 20-30 seconds
Breathe in, fill the lungs, hold for 15 seconds
There are many many more breathing techniques, but if you’re new to breathwork, these two are a great place to start.
And if you’d like to dig a bit deeper about what this breathwork is all about, here ya go:
👀 TRAINING THE SKILL OF SELF-AWARENESS
The foundation of any mental resilience toolkit is self-awareness.
Your ability to notice your feelings, your physical sensations, your reactions, your habits, and your thoughts.
Having some sense of what makes you feel good and what makes you feel drained.
From there, you can then develop a few tools that you know will help you calm down or boost your energy levels.
I like this simple approach described by Noah Ryan:
Get a notebook and keep it on your desk.
Learn how to observe yourself. No judgment, just observations. Make hypotheses and gather data.
"I get emotional when ____"
" ____ gets me into flow state"
"When I do _____, it feels effortless"
“I feel drained when I ______ “
“I am distracted when ______”
Commit to doing this for 1 month. Anytime you get an emotional response above or below baseline, jot it down.
You'll have a big enough data pool to pull from to get a good picture of who you are, your triggers, your pitfalls.
The first few days, this will seem like a useless exercise. But as you keep doing it, you’ll start noticing patterns. You’ll become more aware of what’s going on in your mind and in your body. And I think you’ll find that this awareness adds a whole new layer of curiosity and energy to your day-to-day experience.