The Making of a Healthy Mind
Below is the text of a talk I gave to the wonderful group at the McMinnville Soroptimists on February 2nd on Mental Health. The women in that group showed great enthusiasm for their mission to empower girls and women locally and internationally. I am so happy that such a group exists in Yamhill County and look forward to participating in some of their future events.
Here is a view from my small window regarding mind health. I'd love to hear your comments!
There is a lot of talk about mental illness in our communities, but today I want to turn the spotlight on mental health. What is Mental Health, or mental wellness?
The answer is not as easy to find, actually. I, for example, did not, in two years of a master's program in social work at PSU, ever come across a course with a title containing the words “health” or “wellness.” We are not a necessarily a culture of talking about and cultivating mental wellness. It seems that there is much more of a focus on the problems of the mind than the health of the mind and few know what it takes to have optimum mental health.
Mental health is defined as a state of well being in which an individual realizes her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to her community. Nice definition, sounds great. We know some of those people, right? Thanks to a combo of good genes, safe upbringing, not too many tragic events in their lives and a few other influences, some folks just seem able to cope and make of themselves what they want while contributing in positive ways to their community.
Some of us are perhaps more on the edge of mental wellness, or even, “struggling.” We didn't win the lottery with our genes, our childhoods were, perhaps, stressful, and we have learned to cope but not always in the most healthy of ways; we've done OK becoming who we wanted to be. So, what more can we do now to optimize our own mental wellness--because we can fortify our minds, right? What even is the mind?
The mind. In 1992, respected psychiatrist and neurobiologist Dan Siegel attended a gathering to discuss the mind. Here 40 well-respected scientists, many Nobel Prize winners: anthropologists, neurologists, doctors, physicists came together to discuss The Mind, and it became apparent that no one had a working definition of the mind that all of them could agree on. Neurologists talked about the brain, and anthropologists talked about collective culture and physicists talked about energy exchange, and so on. So Siegel spent several years studying many of these disciplines and coming up with a definition of the mind. Years into this process, the disparate members of that conference of smarty pants finally agreed on this definition:
“The mind is our inner subjective experience and the process of being aware. It's a process that regulates the flow of energy and information within our BRAINS, our BODIES and our RELATIONSHIPS, it gives rise to our mental activities like emotion, thinking and memory.”
The mind is not just the brain. It is also the body and the body’s sensory material and the intangible information that relationships with others also gives us.
Siegel more recently collaborated with David Rock from the Neuroleadership Institute, to suggest how we can boost our mind’s health. They modeled their suggestions on the Healthy Platter that Harvard Med school published to teach people what foods to eat each day to be physically well. (on your handout)
The Healthy Mind Platter has seven essential mental activities necessary for optimum mental health in our daily lives. They make up the full set of ‘mental nutrients' that your brain needs to function at it's best.
Focus Time: When we closely focus on tasks in a goal-oriented way, taking on challenges that make deep connections in the brain.
Play Time: When we allow ourselves to be spontaneous or creative, playfully enjoying novel experiences, which helps make new connections in the brain.
Connecting Time: When we connect with other people, ideally in person, or take time to appreciate our connection to the natural world around us, richly activating the brain's relational circuitry.
Physical Time: When we move our bodies, aerobically if possible, which strengthens the brain in many ways.
Time In: When we quietly reflect internally, focusing on sensations, images, feelings and thoughts, helping to better integrate the brain.
Down Time: When we are non-focused, without any specific goal, and let our mind wander or simply relax, which helps our brain recharge.
Sleep Time: When we give the brain the rest it needs to consolidate learning and recover from the experiences of the day.
By engaging every day in each of these, you enable your brain to coordinate and balance its activities, which strengthens your brain's internal connections and your connections with other people. There's no specific recipe for a healthy mind--each individual is different and our needs change over time too. The point is to become aware of the full spectrum of essential mental activities, make sure that at least every day we are incorporating some of the right ingredients into our day, even if for just short periods of time. This cultivates mental wellness.
I should also say that 20 years ago, doctors believed that once our brain mass reached its full capacity for growth (at around 45 years old) that our neural networks would start their decline and there wasn't much we could do about it. Now we know that our brains can keep building new neural networks until we die. There is a decline in overall brain brain mass as we age, but we can keep building to continue learning and being well. Activities that are novel and that a person puts great effort into, the dynamic action of learning and engaging, has the potential to facilitate this neural plasticity and improve cognitive functioning in even the eldest of adults. I highly recommend that this week, you try a new game or puzzle or try to memorize something and stick with it. Such activity is not dissimilar to being at the gym and doing repetitions with light weights to keep your building your muscle mass to slow the decline and keep well.
Back to this Healthy Mind Platter, it might be interesting later on today to think about your daily life and estimate what percentage you dedicate to these seven categories. Perhaps there is some that you need to boost!
I'd like to focus on three of the ingredients on the platter: Physical Time, Connecting Time and Time In. I hope you leave here with ideas about what you COULD be doing to take keep your minds well. Research shows that it takes at least 21 days to make a habit. If you look around the room, you might find a person or two who can support you in your change by encouraging you, participating with you or nagging you, which, to be honest, sometimes works! In one study, people paired with a workout buddy did better on aerobics tests. Another study showed that team playing can also raise athletes' pain tolerance!
The work that you Soroptimists do as an organization most likely impacts each of you in ways that, hopefully you have taken the time to understand. As individuals who are dedicated to empowering girls and women, it is vital that you take care of your own brains first and foremost. Author and teacher Miranda J. Barrett writes, “Much of your strength as a woman can come from the resolve to replenish and fill your own well and essence first, before taking care of others.”
First: Physical Time or…. EXERCISE! Here are some benefits of exercise:
-improves self-confidence or self-esteem.
-If you exercise outside, you can enjoy being outside and gain Vitamin D, which helps fight off depression.
boosts chemicals that prevent decline in cognition, memory and learning.
-improves overall brain performance in decision making, higher thinking and learning
-sharpens memory (in one study, running sprints improved vocabulary retention for adults.)
-helps control addiction through dopamine receptors
-can help in addiction recovery, can distract you from the behaviors you are avoiding
-helps you sleep more soundly
-helps reboot your body clock so that your circadian rhythms are restored, which get messed up by things like chronic insomnia, working night shifts, chronic alcohol use.
-helps you get more done: research shows that workers who exercise regularly are more productive and have more energy
Studies have revealed that exercise is as effective as medication for depression relapse prevention, so if you’ve already struggled out of depression and want to stay out, it’s vital.
Enough proof that exercise is good for our brains and bodies? As the famous Oregon shoemaker used to say, “Just Do It!”
Second, the benefits of Connecting Time. As women, we instinctively know that connecting with others is an important part of being human. But staying emotionally involved to trusted others is VITAL. As a therapist, the connection that a client creates with me is probably the best tool she can use for making change. A therapy client can create a relationship with her therapist that acts as both a springboard for making desired change and a warm safety net to count on when life becomes most difficult. I probably worry most about clients who isolate themselves, because I know that they have really hard work to do to be emotionally well and supported. So, I encourage people to spend time being authentic with others. I would guess that joining Soroptimists would be a wonderful way to connect with others around shared values and meaningful work. When discussing connecting time, one caution for women generally, is that they pay attention to their energy level when with others and that they alter or end relationships that do not contribute to their mental wellness. Toxic relationships are bad for your mind. It’s also key that you listen to how much time you want to spend with others in general; some of us are introverts and need only short periods with others to fill up on Connecting Time. This may be tricky to do with family, but you can limit or alter time with family, friends and coworkers who do not add vibrancy or goodwill to your life. Connection is as much about connecting in ways that work in your life and about defining boundaries and reaping the support and intimacy possible.
Lastly, my favorite serving on the Healthy Mind Platter: Time In is when we quietly reflect internally, focusing on sensations, images, feelings and thoughts, helping to better integrate the brain. Many of you have probably heard the word MINDFULNESS, of late; it is the darling of the psychology world and a great way to do Time In.
Mindfulness came to the US from the east, from the Buddhism of India and Tibet, Nepal and Myanmar. There are other origins too, Christian Devotional Meditation works toward self-awareness with God. And by now, there is nothing religious about the allowing work mindfulness. Mindfulness, defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn, is the act of paying attention, on purpose in the present moment without grasping to judgment. Mindfulness, in this case, is simple, actually. I pay attention to what's happening in this moment, and this moment, and this moment, and I am open and alive to as many of the sensations available to me through my eyes, ears, nose, mouth, skin and body. Then I will be really happy!!! Right? NO! I work with many people who judge themselves as bad because they are deeply sad, or in pain, or angry. They believe they are crazy because they have annoying thoughts or uncomfortable sensations in their bodies as they start to use mindfulness and pay attention! We are not supposed to be happy all the time, in fact, pain, sadness, sickness, jealousy, disappointment, loneliness, death are all part of a full life. We can pay attention to it without judging or critiquing, without applying our analyzing brains. If we can live experiencing life around us with less judgment, then we may create fewer thoughts that cause suffering for ourselves. The goal is to allow and to work at NOT attaching analytical thoughts to the information that your brain and body give you in the moment. Bare, gentle, welcoming attention without critique, judgment,diagnosis, prognosis, comparison, evaluation, ranking, trying to make it different, trying to make it stop etc etc
Mindfulness is so simple, yet so hard! Why is this so hard?!!! Well, our brains are designed to keep us alive by thinking, judging, valuing etc, not just experiencing. Many thousands of years ago our busy brains fit perfectly in our environment. They were on alert for anything that might keep us from being able to reproduce... a poisonous mushroom, a threatening grizzly, lightning, a steep cliff. Our brains back then noticed and remembered the scary stuff so that we could just plain survive. Our brains now still use the same old tricks, they have not evolved fast enough to recognize that being in front of people giving a speech, flying in an airplane or listening to a blameful partner, being behind on tasks at work are not risks to our lives. Our brains still plan how not to die (we call that catastrophize), stay focused on misperceived danger (ruminate), prepare to make a break for safety (panic) keep focused on one particular detail (obsess) when they’d be better service to our bodies if they could distinguish between true threats to our lives and just uncomfortable experiences that we would certainly live through.
Experts are now documenting how our brain waves change when we practice mindfulness. Functional MRI scans of the brain show that after an eight week course of mindfulness practice, the brain's amygdala shrinks! The amygdala is the alarm that warns our body when the oldest evolved part of our brain perceives danger. Our bodies jump to attention with hormones coursing--our hearts beat fast, we don’t think clearly, we sweat, clench, our chests tighten, stomachs flip, legs try to run. This is The Famous Fight, Flight or Freeze that evolved to keep us safe in a real emergency. We still experience how fight, flight or freeze impacts our body, our brain, and even our relationships in the moment and over time. High blood pressure, heart disease, panic attacks, thickness in our middles, difficulty with high pressure situations, general anxiety, difficulty in relationships, unpredictability all enter the picture when our amygdalas fire too often and our bodies and brains respond. So... repeated mindfulness quiets that alarm system and makes the prefrontal cortex—the center of awareness, concentration and decision-making--thicker, more active. In other words, our more thoughtful functions begin to dominate our primal responses to stress! This is your brain on mindfulness, more thoughtful, less reactive, more grounded and less anxious. And your body on mindfulness is healthier as well. Mindfulness practice reduces the biomarkers of stress and inflammation which are associated with disease. There is so much research out there now about chronic stress and its negative impact on our physical wellness. Now, I remind you, mindfulness will not make a pain free life. Pain is part of life. But research into Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction shows that people who practice mindfulness can deal with pain better because the two regions that are normally connected, the part that notices the unpleasantness of pain and the part that thinks it all through appear to become uncoupled in long-term meditators. Meditators are able to lessen both the aversiveness of the pain stimulation and the stressing nature of it. We don't block the uncomfortable experience, we rather are better able to refrain from engaging in thought processes that make it painful.
This means that if we can make mindfulness a habit, we can have a calmer, more grounded, less reactive way of being in the world, we can fight symptoms disease in our bodies and we can cope more positively with pain. How might this change things? Well, imagine the last time you flew off the handle and yelled at someone without taking note of the potential impact? Or imagine how you let yourself get lost in thought about some potential terrible thing that you feared was going to happen and you spent too many wakeful hours in bed, trying to forget your worries and fall asleep. Or remember when you were so regretful of that mistake you made that you could not let go of the guilt and it haunted you for months, even impacted your physical health by aggravating Irritable Bowel Syndrome? Our minds and our bodies are inextricably linked! Life is an ocean there are plenty of big waves. The waves can repeatedy crash us onto the shore, giving us a face full of sand. OR, we can use a Time In practice like mindfulness to learn to ride the waves of our experience. Sitting meditation, walking meditation, yoga and body scans are all ways to meditate on what is actually happening in the moment and to ALLOW.
There are so many ways we can support our brains. Here’s a call to action. Doing something today will get you started supporting yourself. With consistent effort, you might notice changes over time that lend themselves to feeling well and healthy. I wish you not luck, but good old fashioned effort towards doing something to support your brain, body and relationships!
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