As with the body we need to embrace those things that nurture us and avoid those things which are toxic. The most toxic impact on the mind is stress.
Stress is a more significant danger to our health than being 15 kg overweight. Stress hormones increase our blood flow to the muscles for “fight or flight” and in doing so, shut down our processes for healing and growth. Stress down regulates our immune system . What happens in our mind affects our body in profound ways. Chronic stress raises cortisol levels which turns off our immune system, keeps us awake, raises our blood pressure, and increases our abdominal fat by leading us to overeat. Chronic stress depletes serotonin levels, moving us into depression.
We need to manage stress of identifying what we can avoid, and possibly changing our situation so that we are not exposed to the stressors. Clearly everyone will have a better life if we live in a healthier harmonious environment. This may mean that we need to change our work circumstances, or make choices to not expose ourselves to situations or people that are clearly distressing and toxic to us.
For those things or people that we can’t avoid , we need to find ways to manage them differently. The fundamental treatment for anxiety and distress his cognitive behaviour therapy. This is a psychological intervention that helps us to think clearly and avoid catastrophic thinking in situations that seem threatening to us. Essentially this technique encourages us, when stimulated by a potential stressor, to consciously think about the situation before we allow our body to go into “fight or flight” mode. People with PTSD are hypersensitive to stimuli that are associated with the trauma situations that they have faced in the past. For example, a bang type noise, could automatically see the person’s body want to take cover, fearing it was a gunshot or explosion that was threatening, but a cognitive intervention would see the person reminding themselves that they should wait to see if there is any evidence of a threat. Over a number of sessions of therapy, a person with PTSD can be trained to use this technique to avoid overreaction to situations.
Another simple therapy that a psychologist could assist with, is called exposure therapy. In this technique the therapist invites you explore a range of low stress situations with the “eyes and attitude” of a forensic investigator. Over a number of sessions, the therapist gradually increases the potential stressfulness of future imagined situations and tries to help you get accustomed to a calmer bodily response. The aim here is to train the body to minimise its reaction to future surprise stimuli, by exposure to such a situation in a non-threatening environment. Hopefully the body them develops some muscle memory of associating a lower level of physical reaction response to such stimuli.
For cases of anxiety and depression, a doctor may well wish to prescribe antidepressant medications. In simplest terms these medications are designed to assist in the production of serotonin, dopamine and other brain chemicals that are needed for us to remain calmer. We should be prepared to take medication when it is prescribed. Generally it is not addictive but that may cause us side-effects like a dry mouth as we get used to it. The medication will normally take at least two weeks to have a demonstrable effect in our body but it is well worth the wait. Of course it is much better if we can have natural chemical production of the hormones that are needed for relaxation and calmness, by eating the foods that assist in this area. Taking medication indefinitely, does not address the baseline situation that is causing stress in the first place. The medication provides some temporary relief but it is clearly much better if we can change our circumstances so that we are not exposed to stressors as much as possible.
Other simple techniques can be employed to decrease stress levels. Slow deep breathing will also slow down our heart rate, and give greater oxygenation to our body that will allow it to calm. A hot bath relaxes us and stimulates circulation of blood to the brain. A gentle walk in the sunshine, (creating some Vitamin D), taking in the sights and sounds of nature, or playing with a pet or even simply saying thank you and being thankful for the things that are going well in your life can all contribute to minimising and diminishing stress.
A problem shared is a problem halved, and thus calling a friend to share your situation, or seeing a counsellor to help you get a different perspective on the situation you are facing, can do wonders to minimise your stress levels. When you’re in a situation where there is no one to talk to, even just writing the situation down on a piece of paper, or into a diary to be dealt with later, or by writing a draft response to the person that is causing you distress, can relocate the problem out of your mind and into another place, until you are composed to deal with the situation.
The mind can get overloaded, because we are doing too much, and are allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by too many activities or demanding people pressing against us. Simply using a diary or a planner to apportion your time and to put off into the future, issues or tasks that we experience as pressure, can be a great help. At the same time a systematic approach to living can help us to block out time for rest, recreation and time with friends and family well in advance of the inevitable requests that others may place on our time. Of course we must learn to be able to say “no” or “not now but perhaps later” to the demands that may be placed upon us.
Health will only be possible in a life that is balanced, and a mind that is at peace.
A very helpful approach to live is one called “ mindfulness”. Essentially this is a way of living that focuses on being mindful of the present moment. It recognises that we can’t do anything to influence what has happened in the past and we can do little to influence what might happen in the future, but we can live well in the present moment. One form of stress is anticipatory, in that we imagine a whole range of negative possibilities that might happen in the future. A mindful approach would see us trying to fully appreciate the positive aspects of the present moment and leaving the future to be dealt with when it arrives.
A positive key to health of our mind is to have happy interactions with our friends and family. Relationships are intimately connected to our health. We need to invest in life giving relationships, and give appropriate time and attention especially to our most intimate relationships. Where we are having relationship difficulties we should be prepared to take relationship counselling.
Mental health can emerge from having a clear mind and thoughts. We need to give the mind enough time to process thoughts, and so silence is important to allow that to happen. When we fill our life with the noise of television music and radio, the mind will use our rest time and specifically our sleep time to process unresolved issues. Will lead to us having restless sleep as well as nightmares. We must have time in our normal day for silence to allow the mind to do the work it needs to do.