A Healthy Mind

I  am not a doctor. The six years of college I attended were spent wantonly evading gainful employment, not in studious pursuit of a PhD. I am barely equipped to remove plastic butterflies in a game of Operation, let alone dispense medical advice. Again, I am not a doctor. Fortunately, I don’t have to be, because the habits you can acquire to improve your state of mental health are so blissfully simple that even I am qualified to name a few.

The following selection of ideas represent just a few proactive activities intended to create a measure of balance in your life that hopefully, and with time, will help you develop and maintain a healthy mindset. Consider them self-help calisthenics and not a substitute treatment for serious mental health issues.

Take a walk
Ideally, you would wake up each morning refreshed and renewed, eager to make a lasting difference in the thrilling and rewarding career that awaits you. But most of us need to figure out a way to avoid feeling bored and sluggish in the day-to-day grind, and the easiest way to make this happen is to change the way you move. Movement is life. The more you move, the more alive you feel. The opposite holds true as well; the less you move, the more lethargic you’ll feel—particularly if you’re down in the dumps to begin with. It’s probably why we identify excessive amounts of sleep as a sign of depression, as opposed to, say, excessive amounts of marathon running.

Of course, you don’t need to run a marathon to enjoy a state of good mental health (although it probably wouldn’t hurt—those people are obnoxiously happy). Tony Litster, a success mentor whose list of clients includes professional athletes and top business leaders, simply recommends a five-minute walk each day. “For the last 10 years, I’ve been able to tell if my clients were walking. If there was chaos in their world, I would immediately ask them if they were taking their walks. There’s more to walking than just exercise. Going on a daily walk is a practice of being. Because of the side-to-side, cross-body motion of walking, it creates synchronization in the brain. It helps resolve the concerns on your mind,” Litster says.

As you walk, Litster recommends focusing on your breathing while getting present with your thoughts. Take the time to reflect, pray, or soak in the scenery—just make sure to leave the iPod at home. These walks are about getting in tune with your internal dialogue, and should be as free from distractions as possible. And don’t substitute hopping on a treadmill for a stroll through the park—although you don’t need to go far, it’s important to feel a sense of forward progress when you walk. Plus, there’s something about being surrounded by nature that puts our challenges into perspective.

Hard evidence shows a walk each day has significant long term rewards for your mental health. A January 2012 article in Arthritis Today reports that daily walking is shown to improve sleep, slow mental decline, and lower the risk of Alzheimer’s: all the more reason to lace up and take a daily step for a healthier, happier you.

Meditate
“Meditation is the art of relaxation within one’s self,” Master Paul Dyer says, pausing thoughtfully to select the right words for the unenlightened being holding the voice recorder. “It’s a self-cleaning.” As owner and chief instructor of Dakota Dragon Defense, Dyer has over 35 years of experience in meditation under his many black belts, and it shows. Not only is Dyer uncannily calm and cheerful, sipping his Americano coffee while studying the layout of the room, he’s also able to relay esoteric ideas to me in simple terms. “Your normal everyday state,” according to Dyer, “is confusion-consciousness. It’s a messy house. When we meditate, we clean out the house, corner by corner.” Each corner we clean brings us a measure of inner peace and detachment from our worries, Dyer says.

Building on the analogy, Dyer explains to me how different people have different motives for cleaning their homes. Some clean because they’re anticipating company. Some clean for the therapeutic effects of restoring order. Some clean out of sheer necessity. Meditation may be the only activity you can perform that doesn’t require an objective. While you can meditate to reduce pain or to relieve stress, you can also meditate to just “be.” Just don’t expect to be levitating off the floor anytime soon. “Your house inside of you is the largest cathedral mansion you can imagine,” Dyer says. “And if you think you’re going to clean the whole house in one day, you’re absolutely mistaken. That’s why being strong in meditation takes so long.”

So how do you do it? Deeply inhale through your nose and exhale out your mouth. Breathe in deep, exhale strong. Focus on your breath and resist the temptation to chase all the random thoughts ping-ponging across your busy mind. When you find yourself playing hacky sack with Buddha, you should be close.

Pet a pug (or other domesticated creature)
There’s nothing like running your hand through the top of a pug’s head. The way his folded black ears curl back in anticipation; the unnatural size of his almond-cast eyes as they gaze back at you in loving appreciation; the gratuitous waft of hair that clings to your hand. Growing up with pugs, I’ve always considered them to be snoring, wheezing, curly-tailed tributes to the Almighty’s sense of humor. But new research has shown that pugs (and dogs and cats in general) are more than just our pets—they’re actually mentally-uplifting companions that supply invaluable health benefits to their owners.

For one, pets stave off loneliness, one of the three “plagues” affecting many nursing home facilities, according to Kirsten Reile, Director of Nursing at Elim Rehab and Care, Fargo. So important is the companionship of the four-legged guests that a Saint Louis University study shows nursing home residents reported less loneliness when visited by dogs than when they spent time with other people. That’s because pets give us something people never could: unconditional love and acceptance. Beyond that, they provide social support, encourage us to exercise, improve our moods, and have even been found to reduce blood pressure more effectively than ACE inhibitors.

And the good news is these benefits come with any furry-legged creature. So if you don’t have a pug and must settle for a real dog, his company will be just as pleasant.

Join a cause
Is it possible to commit a purely selfless act? If it is, philosophers, social scientists, and neurologists alike are having a heck of a time figuring out what one would be. I’m not going to advance the debate here. Although volunteering your time for a cause you support sounds altruistic, you actually have mental health incentives to do so.

According to a 2010 Psychology Today report, volunteering has a greater effect on mental health “than exercising four times a week or going to church.” That means the health benefits of volunteering are nearly as important as quitting smoking.

Local business owner Angela Breckel can attest to the important role volunteering has played in her life and mental well-being. As an Area Six Special Olympics volunteer, Breckel joins roughly 50 other volunteers from across the FM community each week to help coach local athletes with special needs. “It’s not as if we’re extraordinary people,” Breckel said. “It’s just that we know how it feels to help others progress to reach a goal. And to watch them succeed feels incredible.”

“Volunteering for Special Olympics has an addictive quality. When you’re personally competing in something, you think that your success will be amazing…but it pales in comparison to watching the athletes succeed. That’s the real payoff. That’s what makes you return year after year,” Breckel said.

Judging from Angela’s infectious smile and cheery disposition, she may be on to something. Follow her lead—commit a selfish act and volunteer.

Eat better
The mind-body connection has been acknowledged by virtually every civilization since the beginning of time, but it wasn’t until 2008 when scientists identified a key cellular component linking emotional stress to weak immune systems. According to UCLA researchers, when the body is in stress, it releases cortisol. Extended duration of cortisol in the bloodstream suppresses the activation of telomerase, an enzyme that keeps cells young and healthy.

When you’re stressed, you burn through nutrients and vitamins at a much faster rate than you would under normal conditions, so a balanced diet is critical to help restore your biochemistry to its natural state.

So if you’re a stress junkie, or carrying around some extra pounds, the best time to change the way you eat is now. “People often think they are ‘getting away with’ eating poorly when they’re younger,” says Kathy Gullickson, Elim Rehab and Care Center Dietary Manager, “but it often results in excess weight or other health problems when they get older. The sooner you can start eating a well-balanced diet, the healthier you’ll be in the years to come.”

Your mental health impacts the happiness of those you love, so make the commitment to begin developing health habits today. The healthier you are physically, the better you’ll feel between the ears.

Logan Little is a local writer and marketing professional who specializes in online branding strategies. When not behind the keyboard, he enjoys volunteering and spending time at the lake.

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