On Mental & Emotional Health

I am becoming more and more invested in furthering the dialog that this meme speaks to, as I feel it is a vital component of our well-being and one that is highly undervalued and overlooked in our collective society, to a sometimes tragic and devastating detriment to our fellow human beings.

I recently watched two different interviews with psychologist and neuroscientist Dr. Rick Hanson – one as part of the online World Mindfulness Parenting Summit and one as part of the online Mindful Kids Peace Summit. In both occasions, he spoke about our three basic needs: safety, satisfaction, and connection. He explained that safety is associated with our reptilian brain-stem; satisfaction with our mammalian sub-cortex portion of the brain; and connection with our primate/human neo-cortex portion of the brain. In terms of safety, we look towards avoiding harm. In terms of satisfaction, we look towards approaching rewards. And in terms of connection, we look towards attaching to others.

He goes on to say that when our basic needs are not met, we then enter what he calls the red zone, which involves fight, flight, or freeze mode. However, when we build up our core of resilient well-being, we will be able to weather an increasing array of external stimuli without destabilizing ourselves. He said: You can use your mind to change your brain. He also said: No one can stop you (from doing this work) AND no one can do it for you.

There’s a reason that Buddhism focuses on training and strengthening the mind. It is the seat of working and active power when it comes to how we view, engage, interact, process, and digest the world around us and the people and experiences we encounter. As the Buddha taught:

Most of us know the importance of physical health and what we can do to actualize it – of course, whether or not we actually adhere to the guidelines is another story. But we know – at least in theory – that eating a balanced diet high in nutrition-rich foods, getting proper sleep, and getting a certain amount of physical movement and exercise will aid our physical bodies. But for many of us, the well-being buck stops there.

The truth of well-being, however, lies in the factors of total health, which involves the body AND the mind. Since our mental landscape is what our emotional landscape is hinged to, I think it’s helpful to highlight both realms of our mental and emotional health, when it comes to generating the full package of well-being. Let’s face it, the possibility exists for us to be mega fit on the physical level but mentally unwell, and emotionally unstable.

I attended a presentation on the UM campus a couple of weeks ago, for Mental Health Awareness Week, where this quote was shared:

“…scientific data supports… that caring for your mind is the single most important preventative health measure you can take – even more so than quitting smoking, daily exercise, eating your veggies, or enough sleep.”

-Lissa Rankin, MD

So, given the importance of mental health, the science and stats emerging, and what professionals are coming to realize in terms of neuroplasticity and our ability to change the pathways in our brain, how do we go about bolstering and strengthening our mental and emotional health? What are some things we can do to generate wellness of the mind?

But first, before we get into that, let’s look at the WHO’s definition of mental health, as it’s important to know what the heck we’re talking about here:

Mental health: a state of well-being. Mental health is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or 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 or his community.

Aspects of mental health, as was included in the UM presentation I mentioned above, include: feeling in control of emotions, having good cognitive function, and having positive interactions with the people around you.

When I include emotional health together in the mix with mental health, I would say that for me the total package of inner wellness also includes the following: having a strong sense of gratitude, being called to the service and support of others, feeling comfortable in my own skin, having the ability to take my sense of joy and ease into any and all types of situations wherever I go, having the capacity to see the beauty and the good all around me, being able to stay open, present, engaged, and kind.

This is on-going work that takes diligent tending to. Just like it’s completely unreasonable to expect that we can go to the gym one time and declare ourselves physically fit, we must routinely commit to cultivating mental and emotional health, in order for the benefits to take affect and stay active.

Okay, now onto a list of actions we can take:

Self-Generated List of Ways to Bolster & Strengthen Our Mental & Emotional Health

  • Meditate regularly
  • Engage in mono-tasking
  • Develop a healthy balance of phone/social media/online usage
  • Do the things we know are good for our physical health: eating well, sleeping well, getting enough exercise (after all: the mind & body are connected)
  • Investigate how the TV shows and movies we watch affect our mental and emotional states in the aftermath of watching them (then make adjustments as you see fit)
  • Pay attention to when and how you consume the news and how you feel afterwards (then make adjustments as you see fit)
  • Attend retreats regularly
  • Find ways to enfold silence/stillness/rest into your life’s routine (whether its daily, weekly, or monthly)
  • Connect with solitude on a regular basis; learn how to be with your own person
  • Prioritize the cultivation of joy (make time for the things you enjoy doing)
  • Spend time with your people (make time for the people you love & adore)
  • Volunteer regularly
  • Develop a daily gratitude practice
  • Slowly work to expand your comfort zone
  • Try new things
  • Spend time in nature
  • Practice deep belly breathing
  • Smile more

To be clear, this is my own list based on things I do and find helpful and supportive. And that is what is most important when it comes to developing and strengthening the total picture of our own individual sense of well-being: to find what works for us – and to keep doing whatever it is that’s working.

Journey well, my friends. The path to well-being is like Rick Hanson says: No one can stop you; and no one can do it for you.


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