Ofosu and Leah talk with award-winning medical reporter Sophie Scott about how her experience with burnout led to a habit of daily meditation. She shares the science behind forming healthy habits, like why consistency is more effective than intensity, and how to use habit-forming strategies like pairing and rewarding.
More about Sophie:
Sophie Scott is an award-winning medical reporter, associate professor, and author of the books "Roadtesting Happiness" and "Live a Longer Life." Her mission is to use the latest science to empower people to help themselves feel great physically and mentally every day. You can learn more about her work on her website — https://www.sophiescott.com.au/ — or follow her on Instagram @SophieScott2
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OFOSU: Hey, what's up? I'm Ofosu Jones Quartey.
LEAH: And I'm Leah Santa Cruz. We're the meditation coaches on the Balance app.
OFOSU: And this is our weekly show, Well Balanced.
LEAH: So Ofosu, uh, one of the questions that we tend to get most from the Balance community is how to build a habit out of meditation. And it's not easy to do. It's something that I've had to work hard for. Has it been easy for you over the years?
OFOSU: [laughing] Um no, the simple answer is no. And it’s something that is still challenging.
LEAH: I'm sure it's something that physical trainers hear all the time too, from people like, how do I start? How do I make a habit out of going to the gym or exercising? So, I'm super excited to see what we can learn from our guest today because she's found a way to make healthy habits, including meditation, super low stress and accessible. Her name is Sophie Scott, and she's an award-winning medical reporter for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. And her work basically breaks down science research into actionable health information. So really excited to have you here.
Welcome, Sophie. It's great to have you on.
SOPHIE: Thank you so much for having me.
OFOSU: It's so nice to meet you and have you on, um, you know, it seems obvious that you would be an expert on building healthy habits.
You're a medical reporter, you've written books, uh, about working towards longevity and happiness, but I was also surprised to read in one of your posts that you yourself have really struggled with happiness and, with finding balance in your life and, um, cultivating healthy habits, um, even while you were actively reporting on all of the ways to do those things. I think a lot of people who work in wellness can probably relate that it's, it's kind of easy to put the spotlight on others and not always that easy to put the spotlight on ourselves. Could you, uh, enlighten us a little bit more and share with us what's happened there?
SOPHIE: So you're right. Like someone who works in the medical field like I do, I have access to amazing information about the benefits of practices, like meditation and exercise. And I had written books, you know, my books, I had actually written about the benefits of, of meditation for your wellbeing, but it was only when I really suffered quite a severe, um, burnout myself, where I really, um, sort of had to go back to the basics and think, how can I rebuild my nervous system and rebuild my health from the ground up.
I knew that the only way to get back to that, that sense of wellbeing and that sense of good health that we all want was to really start with the basics and look at the science of what I know makes a difference.
The reason I love looking at the science of these sorts of practices is because it's so overwhelming that it works. But also it means that you don't need to wait for motivation. You don't need to wait to say, oh, I'm gonna wait till I'm motivated to meditate. When you look at the impact of, and the science on meditation you can see that it changes how your brain functions and it changes you on a physiological level.
And this is just, just one study that I wanted to share with you about meditation. That that's only actually come out quite recently, but this shows the impact of, of meditation. It was a study that was done on 80 people who meditated for six months and they measured the levels of a hormone called cortisol.
And that's a stress hormone that we release when we're very stressed and small amounts of cortisol are fine. But when you have, you know, large amounts of it released in your body, it can really impact your, your wellbeing and how well you, you function. And the researchers from the Max Plank Institute found for people who did just small amounts of meditation every day for six months, they had a 25% reduction in the cortisol that was being stored in their hair. So on a physiological level, the meditation was actually reducing the stress hormones that you're storing in our body. And, interestingly, they found that there were some benefits after three months, but the real benefits kicked in at six months.
And so what that reinforces to me is that it's about being consistent. And when I think about habits, I really, I like people to think about consistency instead of intensity. So rather than beat yourself up and say, oh, I need to do an hour of this or an hour of meditation or an hour of exercise - you're much better off to do 10 minutes and do it every single day. Rather than think I've gotta find an hour to do meditation or an hour to, to go to the gym because it's that consistency that really, um, build brings the rewards as that particular study shows.
LEAH: Yeah. And I, I love hearing research studies like this because for an analytical mind or a, a sort of skeptical mind, like I have personally, I, it, it helps me to go, yes. Okay. I know that this works, but there's one thing, like you said about having the knowledge and going, oh, I know all this information and then actually applying it in real life because I think it's easy to get into this mindset that, oh, because I know the knowledge and I know all this information then automatically I'm, I'm gonna be more in that wellness state, but that's actually not true. And you know, little things like perfectionism and, um, workaholism can sneak in there and sabotage us.
SOPHIE: All or nothing thinking Leah is also really important. So I think a lot of people can get into that perfectionism and think if I'm not doing it every day, it's not worth doing. And, you know, I need to be doing it perfectly to make it worthwhile, but the small changes are gonna make a big difference.
And, and I always like to think every action that you take every day is really like a vote for the person that you wanna become in the future. And so wherever you're putting your time and energy, that's telling yourself, it's telling your physiology, your brain function and your physical health, that this is who you wanna become.
And so if you are meditating every day, then you become someone who meditates every day. You just, you just do it by, by the habit and so much about behavior is automatic that we do it without thinking. And the ideal thing is to think about those habits that you wanna adopt and how you can make them automatic.
And, and a really good way to do that is, um, using a, a thing called a linchpin habit where you pair a new habit with an existing one. And so you think about something that you might do every day. So for example, for me, um, we all wake up in the mornings.
And so for me, I pair meditation with the act of waking up. So as soon as I wake up, the first thing I think about is doing a meditation and it could be, you know, you wanna go for, you might wanna go for a walk and you think about, okay, well, every night I'll have dinner.
And then we'll go for a really short walk after dinner every night. And if you're pairing that new habit to an existing one. The research shows you're much more likely to stick to that new habit because you're doing it with something you are already doing. So the brain patterns are already there and that can really boost your chance of success.
LEAH: I totally agree. I love telling people that. And so you just listed off a couple things like taking a walk after dinner or meditating once you wake up. I'm guessing that when you were feeling burnt out, those were habits that you picked up or were there any others that you did to help you overcome the burnout?
SOPHIE: Yeah. So when you're burnt out, there's not a lot you can do. So what you need to do is think about what are the small actions that you can take that are gonna have a really big difference. So a breathing practice and a meditation to sort of really learn to calm and regulate your nervous system was key.
And then movement is the other thing as well, doing some gentle, mindful movement, again, we know about the benefits of, of exercise on your brain function, on your mood. When you're burnt out, you can't really do a lot of exercise, but again, getting out of that all or nothing thinking and thinking to yourself, I'm better off just doing 10 or 15 minutes or some gentle yin yoga practice than doing nothing. And then that way I can build up from doing just small amounts to, to be able to do like proper workouts, and then you just, you can see the progression that you're making, but you need to cut yourself some slack and be gentle with yourself.
Um, the other thing that really helps me too, is the power of reward and using dopamine and dopamine is that the reward, um, system we have in our brain when, when something good happens. But the interesting thing about dopamine is that most dopamine is released in anticipation of the good thing that's gonna happen.
Like, I don't know if you remember when you were a kid and coming up to like your birthday or Christmas and you're so excited. Um, and that's the dopamine kicking in - it's that anticipation of what's gonna happen. And then there's just a little bit of dopamine once the good thing does happen.
So to use that way that the dopamine works is to think about - I do this with, with working out in the mornings. It's like, I'll wait till I've done a workout and I'll have a coffee afterwards. And so, the coffee is the reward for doing the workout. And so you know, that something good is just ahead of what you, what you need to do. You can see the reward in the distance.
And so using the power of reward can be really helpful to embed in a new habit as well.
OFOSU:That is really powerful. And what I feel is in what you're sharing also is the attitude that you have towards yourself, especially when you're just in a tough spot and being able to go gently and be kind to yourself, you know, these are, um, really important ways of treating yourself and, and things that I think are, are just important in general. Can you speak a little bit about when the clouds might have started to part for you and you noticed that these habits were really coming to your aid and, and lifting you out of, I guess that burnt out space.
SOPHIE: I can. And, and it's one of those things where it's, it's quite gradual. I think burnout is a gradual thing that sneaks up on you and you don't often realize you're burnt out until you really get to that point where you feel emotionally and physically exhausted. When you are burnt out, your nervous system is really in that fight or flight or survival mode.
You tend to react to everything that's going on around you. That instant reaction. But I realized that when I was starting to feel better, I was able to step back and respond to things rather than just react to what was going on and, and really get into that more creative head space, uh, feeling calmer, feeling, um, more in the flow of life and it's, um, it's something that, for me, it shows me that these practices work and really make a difference.
And it's not about radically overhauling everything that you're doing right now. It's, it's really about thinking, how can you just build in some little rituals in the morning when you wake up? Maybe in the middle of the day? And then at the end of the day, just, to, to switch things up so that you're not feeling so overwhelmed and, and burnt out, like so many of us are, and using the science of these practices that we know work.
And, we have to give ourselves the gift of looking after ourselves, doing these practices and listening to meditation apps.
And it might seem like a small thing. It might seem like a small action, but the rewards far outweigh the effort that you put in to do it.
LEAH: Uh, yeah, I've personally struggled with burnout I think more than once in my adult life already. And so I'm really relating to your share. And, also I noticed for myself, it was a gradual process of making small changes. And I'd love to know, you know, if you could talk about maybe a time when you haven't been able to keep those habits up or if that's happened at all and, and what happened, and perhaps any advice you could give to our listeners who wanna pick back their practice up.
SOPHIE: I think the thing about habits is making them as automatic as possible is ideal so that you don't have to actively choose to do these practices, but you just do it as a matter of course. So think about your schedule and think about what's realistic and also, cut yourself some slack as well, because we are all just human and we have busy schedules and you're not gonna be able to do everything every day that you want to do.
And so if you miss a day or you miss two days, that's not the end of the world. And it doesn't mean that all the good work that you've put in is gone or has gone to waste. You're still getting all the benefits for all those minutes or hours that you've done in the last couple of weeks, you still get those benefits.
And sometimes you, you just need to listen to your body and if you need to rest, if you need to take it easy and not feel like you're putting more pressure on yourself to be doing more. And, um, like I said, these are practices like meditation and mindfulness. You can do it for 5 or 10 minutes a day, then that's all you need to do, but it really will make a difference in terms of your nervous system, in terms of your brain function, your mood. And, uh, and you'll see the benefits and the people around you will see the benefits as well.
OFOSU: Well, thank you so much for this wonderful and impactful sharing. And, you know, you've spoken a lot about meditation and mindfulness, so I've got a bit of shameless curiosity, and I wonder if you have ever meditated with Leah and I on balance before?
SOPHIE: Oh, every day, every single day. We do your ‘Wake Up’ meditation. When I talk about doing the meditation, as soon as we wake up it's with either of you two.
OFOSU: Oh, that's awesome!
SOPHIE: It's amazing to have this conversation with you because we literally listen to you in bed every morning.
I think it's been a game changer for me to find you guys and, um, I just think what you are offering to the community is so powerful.
And so if you haven't listened to the Balance app, I recommend it to so many people. Um, it's really an amazing and beautiful, um, gift that you can give yourself to listen to your lovely voices every day.
LEAH: Thanks, Sophie. Yeah, I think it's really great especially what you shared about how little small actions make the biggest difference. Because that's something that we think about when we create meditation, you know? I think there's a lot that can happen in three minutes. So some of these meditations are just three minutes long because you know, for a lot of people who are very busy and I know I can get into those modes where, um, I only feel like I can have three minutes to spare, but a lot can happen in three minutes.
And so, you know, not being hard on ourselves because it's not a 20 minute or an hour long meditation. Sometimes it's better when we do less, less is more.
SOPHIE: And especially if you know the brain is so, um, hardwired to be negative that you need to sort of be building in those positive practices that can just help reset things you know? In your ‘Wake Up’ one in the mornings, it talks about what, what kind of person do I wanna be today? Calm or compassionate or brave…
And so, planting those positive seeds in your brain helps re-shift things around. And, we need to do that. We need to work against the way the brain works and doing those little moments of meditation and planting those seeds of positivity is a really powerful way to do it.
LEAH: Hmm. Well, thanks so much, Sophie. It's been wonderful having you here with us.
SOPHIE: Oh, I loved it, it's been amazing to me.
LEAH: It's great to have you in person. Well, we're over zoom, but I can, we can see you face to face. And, um, I'm glad to know that we'll be waking up with you tomorrow.
SOPHIE: Been amazing.
OFOSU: Absolutely. Yes. Our pleasure.
LEAH: And thank you for listening. If you wanna keep up with Sophie Scott, you can follow her on Instagram at Sophie Scott. Number two, or check out her website, Sophie scott.com.au. We've got links in the show notes if you need them.
OFOSU: And if you wanna stay up to date with our show, subscribe or follow on your favorite podcast app, and don't forget to rate and review us in the app, it really helps us to grow and spread the word.
LEAH: And we're gonna be back next Monday with a conversation that goes behind the scenes on how we develop and record our meditation and sleep content for Balance.
OFOSU: I'm looking forward to that. Alright y’all, until next time, uh, be kind to yourself and take care.
LEAH: Have a lovely week.
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