We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves. ~ Dalai Lama
How is your health?
Most people are aware of their physical health (or lack thereof) and when it is out of balance, know how to act. To improve our bodies, barring the presence of a severe disease, we can exercise or improve our diets. The means for improvement, while not necessarily easy or followed through on, are at least known.
What about your mental health?
By mental health I’m referring to your emotional, psychological and social well-being. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 18% of adults (1 out of every 5) in the United States suffer from a mental health issue in a given year. 1 out of 25 of adults face a mental issue so severe, it interferes or prevents a major part of life. Those seem like remarkably high numbers. The treatments for these problems also seem more enigmatic than the treatment for a lifestyle induced physical ailment.
Those suffering from severe and life-altering mental health concerns should seek out professional support from a trained medical professional or mental health counselor. What about those facing less severe issues, stemming from high-stress jobs or family environments?
The techniques described below show promise in alleviating some of the symptoms and preventing them from becoming worse. I’ve used them all to support my mental health and deal with stress over the years. You might benefit from them as well.
Come back to square one, just the minimum bare bones. Relaxing with the present moment, relaxing with hopelessness, relaxing with death, not resisting the fact that things end, that things pass, that things have no lasting substance, that everything is changing all the time — that is the basic message. — Pema Chodron
The benefits of meditation have been well studied and reported. When I meditate, I become highly aware of my thoughts. Research is not clear on how many thoughts per day we have. Deepak Chopra claims 60,000–80,000. Regardless if this is the correct range, it’s obvious that we think a lot, and that we are unaware of most of the thoughts.
These thoughts are either positive, negative or neutral regarding the impact they have on our daily experience. The big question is, how does meditation help? It helps by creating a buffer of space between the thought and your reaction to it. Here’s how:
Imagine yourself standing at a train station.
As you watch, you notice trains coming and going. Imagine that these trains are like thoughts entering and leaving your mind. Some of the trains are looking pretty worse for wear and headed to a destination you don’t want to visit. Others are looking pristine and rolling along to somewhere exotic.
Which trains do you allow to pass? Which do you hop onto? Notice how if you simply do nothing, the trains leave and are replaced with new ones (i.e. new thoughts).
What meditation does is support your capacity to allow thoughts that create further mental suffering to pass through without creating negative consequences. Notice the trains arrive. Then, watch them leave without “hopping on.” This mindfulness meditation practice will lessen the grip of thoughts on your daily experience. With practice, you will notice that when unappealing thoughts enter your mind, they will have less impact on your life.
Not sure how to start a meditation practice? Here is a simple guide.
Is it possible to be 100% grateful and furious at the same time? How about really grateful and worrisome or grateful and scared to death? In my experience, it’s impossible to fully feel the feeling of gratitude while also feeling a strongly negative feeling. It’s as-if our body can only hold one of the sensations at a time in its full glory.
Buddhist meditation practices of cultivating compassion or loving-kindness work remarkably well in part for this reason. When you focus on a positive emotion, the negative emotion releases its grasp. What’s also true, is that consistent practice of focusing on gratitude (or compassion) makes it easier to go into that positive mental state as opposed to the negative one.
A simple way to cultivate the feeling of gratitude is to make a list of things you are grateful for on a daily basis. Challenge yourself to come up with ten or more items. Feel the gratitude your hold for each item as you create your list. With practice, the positive feeling of gratitude will crowd out any negative feeling of mental tension.
I am a Runner (trails please!) and a Yogi (Vinyasa and/or Bikram style). I know that no matter what stress is going on in my life, that after a few easy miles of jogging (or a vigorous yoga practice), things tend to feel better. Exercise helps the body buffer stress. Research also shows that active people have lower incidences of anxiety and depression compared to inactive people.
According to the American Psychological Association:
Work in animals since the late 1980s has found that exercise increases brain concentrations of norepinephrine in brain regions involved in the body’s stress response.
Norepinephrine is particularly interesting to researchers because 50 percent of the brain’s supply is produced in the locus coeruleus, a brain area that connects most of the brain regions involved in emotional and stress responses. The chemical is thought to play a major role in modulating the action of other, more prevalent neurotransmitters that play a direct role in the stress response. And although researchers are unsure of exactly how most antidepressants work, they know that some increase brain concentrations of norepinephrine.
Not only that, but the article further points out the positive adaptive response of the body in the face of a long-term exercise routine:
Biologically, exercise seems to give the body a chance to practice dealing with stress. It forces the body’s physiological systems — all of which are involved in the stress response — to communicate much more closely than usual: The cardiovascular system communicates with the renal system, which communicates with the muscular system. And all of these are controlled by the central and sympathetic nervous systems, which also must communicate with each other. This workout of the body’s communication system may be the true value of exercise; the more sedentary we get, the less efficient our bodies in responding to stress.
What happens when we give to others? I know that whenever I volunteer or donate to a worthy cause, I feel awesome for an extended period. It turns out that a charitable gift does more than help those in need. It helps you in the process.
Research shows that giving to meaningful causes activates parts of your brain responsible for pleasure. The same parts of the brain responsible for inducing dopamine-rich euphoria from food, money, sex or even drugs.
Even more interesting, research also indicates an increase in bonding between the giver and the cause, noted by the role of Oxytocin in the brains of givers (and lack thereof in the non-givers). This is the same type of result one would expect in examining the bond between mothers and children or between romantic partners.
While donating time and money helps, wholehearted devotion to a cause in the form of activism can have even more profound impacts on mental health. Take the example of Kate Hanni, who found healing from a brutally violent attack in the form of activism. As mentioned in the report of her attack and healing:
“Whether a person has experienced a life-altering trauma like Kate’s, or suffers from anxiety and/or depression, or is grappling with a garden-variety case of the blues, research shows that those who take “the activism cure” find personal healing in their efforts to heal the world.”
Do other animals laugh? I have a dog, Duke, and no matter how funny my jokes are, he just sits and stares at me. What is it about laughter that makes it part of the human experience? Can laughter have a positive impact on our mental state?
Scientific research on laughter and it’s physiological impact is inconclusive but directionally points us to see the numerous potential benefits of a hearty dose of laughter. Chris Connors, in a recent article, cites the following short and long-term effects of humor (based on research from The Mayo Clinic):
- Stimulate Many Organs
- Activate and Relieve your Stress Response
- Soothe Tension
- Relieve Pain
- Improve Your Immune System
- Increase Personal Satisfaction
- Improve Your Mood
There is also a growing awareness of laughter’s value. Laughter yoga is a real thing after all, with laughter clubs and practitioners spread worldwide after it’s origination in India in the 1990’s.
There are even laughter researchers, including Robert Provine, who recommend, “until the scientists work out all the details, get in all the laughter that you can!” Perhaps one day in the future, doctors will not only counsel you to “eat your veggies” and “get 30 minutes of daily exercise” but also to fit in a healthy dose of laughter each day as well! Cue up the Dave Chappelle and Aziz Ansari specials!
It’s comforting to know that no matter how stressful the world might seem, that we have the means, within our control, to ease that suffering. The five methods I share in this article are practices. That means that they work with just one try, but also seem to improve in effectiveness the more you do them.
If you or someone you know if suffering from a mental health perspective, use (and share) these tips to see if they help. I know they work for me and I am confident that they will help you too.
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