Towards a definition of Cyclical Wellbeing

Photo © Elena Panizza

If you’ve ever been jet lagged, pulled an all-nighter or taken care of a tiny human at the wee hours of the morning you know what a lack of cyclical wellbeing feels like. It’s a result of your natural cycles being disrupted. 

I chose the term Cyclical Wellbeing sometime in early 2021 to acknowledge how intricately linked our wellbeing is to the cyclical rhythms of nature – both within and around us. While there is plenty of research showing that our wellbeing is negatively affected by a disruption of our physical and psychological rhythms – from daily sleep-wake cycles to seasonal and menstrual cycles – there hasn’t been a way of talking about how well we feel when these cycles do work smoothly together. 

Here’s my current working definition: 

Cyclical Wellbeing is the greater wellbeing experienced when our internal clocks synchronise the rhythmic functions of our physiology and psychology with the natural rhythms of our environment. 

In simpler terms, this means experiencing being in tune with ourselves and our environment.

Let’s pull this apart. 

Our internal clocks are the parts of our physiology that oscillate – moving between a high and a low point in a regular rhythm. These clocks can be molecular, neuronal, chemical, and hormonal and they make sure all biological processes happen on time. In this case, time is simply a measure of change. From our breath to our heartbeat, organ function to immunity, down to the oscillations of every cell in our body, we work in rhythms. For example, about 10% of the RNAs of our liver work on a circadian rhythm, reaching a high and low about once a day. 

They are attuned to each other by a number of big clocks in our body (e.g. the suprachiasmatic nucleus or SCN–a small region in our brains’ hypothalamus–and our autonomic nervous system) which work as pacemakers setting the rhythm of all other cyclical processes in our physiology – and psychology – making sure they work together in harmony.  

These big clocks in turn are very sensitive to the changing rhythms outside of us and respond to certain cues from our environment, especially changes of light. This process is called entrainment and anything that these clocks entrain with is called a Zeitgeber (German for ‘time giver’), an external master clock which resets our inner clocks. It is thanks to the rhythms of these Zeitgebers–some natural like the changes of light, some cultural like an alarm clock–that our bodies perceive change and can adapt accordingly. 

For example, hormones like melatonin adjust to changes in light and make sure that we get sleepy when it gets dark at night. On the other hand, if there are high levels of stress the hormone cortisol and a number of other processes might signal the body that it’s not an ideal time for a pregnancy, leading to disruptions in the menstrual cycle.

Our heart rate too is an inner rhythm that adapts to changes in our environment and a good example of how changing rhythms affect wellbeing. Heart-rate variability (HRV), the variation in the time interval between heartbeats, is considered a key indicator of wellbeing. HRV changes depending on our sleep quality and also over the course of a menstrual cycle. In the future, HRV could be one way of quantifying Cyclical Wellbeing. A qualitative measure could be Diener’s (2000) subjective well-being scale. 

This current definition is a first step towards recognising that our wellbeing depends on our ability to attune our physiological and psychological rhythms with the natural rhythms of our environment. Further, it recognises that wellbeing in itself is not a static process in which we are flourishing all the time, but rather the experience of adapting to natural fluctuation, characterised by cycles of growth and decline, expansion and contraction, and flourishing and withering. It’s our ability to adapt to these ever-changing rhythms of life that is essential to Cyclical Wellbeing, resulting in a sense of wholeness and trust.

I would like to emphasise that this is a working definition and much has to be refined, which I’m currently attempting to do. If you’d like to discuss your thoughts or would like to contribute research or sources that could benefit the development of this terminology, please get in touch with me via email.