Recently I was speaking to an old friend from college days. Over the years our paths went in different directions, so it was great to catch up during a Skype call.
What struck me was the degree to which his health had deteriorated. He looked old for his age and was unable to experience life the way he wanted to because of many physical challenges. My heart went out to him, and I tried to put myself in his shoes to get a sense of what his life must be like with his health issues.
During our chat, we discussed various aspects of health and one thing I said that he concurred with, was that perhaps the greatest influence on one’s health was the mind and attitude. He stated that over the last few decades he had considerable stress and found himself always thinking negatively, and felt that it had impacted on his wellbeing.
We know that sustained long-term stress releases a hormone called cortisol. It is a primary stress hormone that helps us deal with the fight or flight situations that crop up in our lives. Cortisol is useful for short term situations, however, with the stresses of modern life, it is common for people to experience the long-term elevation of their cortisol levels. Some of the effects of cortisol are constriction of blood vessels, elevated blood pressure, increased acidity in the gut and inhibition of testosterone. Coincidentally, my old friend developed a heart condition along with significant gastrointestinal problems.
There are many issues in life that can increase stress levels such as relationships, conflict with children and financial problems. We often can’t change external situations, but as author Steve Maraboli states, “Happiness has to do with your mindset, not with outside circumstance.” While happiness may not be achievable, we can indeed create a state of mind where we are at peace.
There are three strategies that you can use to change your mindset.
Mindfulness or mindful meditation is a useful technique to clear the mind of stress. In this meditation you focus on your breathing and letting of various areas of the body, usually starting with the head and extending downwards through the lower limbs.
Meditation like many other modalities takes some training for one to get better at it. Initially, the mind tends to wander, but the idea is to focus back to your breathing. An excellent way to start is to go to a meditation class where a facilitator can talk you through the process. Failing that, you can download a variety of apps on your smartphone that will feature a voice who takes you through the process. Some of these apps are available at no charge.
It is a well-known fact that if you change your physiology, you change your mind. You cannot separate the body from the mind; what we call the mind-body connection. Obviously, medication will change your physiology. However, medications do have their downsides. It is much better to use a natural means to change how your body works. What could be more natural than exercise?
Have you ever noticed that after a good swim, run or long walk, how different you feel? The heart works harder to pump the blood, including the supply to your brain. Various chemicals are released that enhance your experience of wellness and have a positive influence on your mind.
There are many research studies including a 2013 review in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine showing that exercise can not only reduce the severity of depression but can also prevent it from occurring in many instances.
What is gratitude? It is giving thanks and having an appreciation for your life and the various things that you have experienced. In our stress-filled world, we tend to focus on the negative. To counterbalance this, doing a gratitude exercise is effective in shifting your state of mind.
A very simple way to look at gratitude is to take a blank sheet of paper and draw a line down the centre of it. In the left column write down those things in your life, either in the past or present that you perceive as negative, caused you pain or made you feel as if you have lost something. Beside each or those events, on the right-hand side, in small print, write several benefits for each negative. Don’t stop until you notice a change in your mindset and you can start to experience appreciation for the perceived negative event.
Resentment, anger and negativity over a prolonged period will sap you of your wellbeing. By using the three modalities outlined above, you can alter your thinking and ultimately your health.