Mental health. I hear it everywhere. Someone has some form of mental issue, whether it is anxiety, depression, or PTSD. People are blaming the police for not being more able to deal with someone suffering from mental health. A suicide at a women’s prison has prompted an investigation to look at how people are trained to handle someone suffering from mental health issues. Hospitals are taking heat as well. People are questioning why better services are not offered.
Yet, even if the services are there, with so many people dealing with mental health issues, I can’t help but think that maybe we all need to look at what each one of us can do to help ourselves. I believe that we have it within ourselves to deal incredible well with anxiety, fear, grief, anger, tension, irritation, etc.
It is wonderful if there are people who know how to help, and to develop an understanding within a community of how difficult mental health can be to live with so that there is compassion. However, what if one lives in a place where mental health isn’t understood or treated with compassion, where there is no one to talk to, no one who can provide us with the tools we need to learn to deal with our own mental state?
Each of us has within us the ability to face our own mental states, whatever they are; to look at whatever arises, to listen, and to learn.
I recently listened to two talks from HH The Dalai Lama from this June. (You can find the talks on his FB page.) He was asked, in both talks, about how people can address the rise in mental health issues. In Buddhism, there is a wonderful practice of looking inward, and trying to find the Self. Who are you? One can dissect the self, from the various parts of the body, the various emotional states, the various thoughts...and yet the Self is not found in the hand, or the finger, or the heart alone; it is not the anger, the sorrow, the joy alone; it is not the thoughts one had this morning, or the afternoon, or in dreams. Yet one can experience the various parts of the body, the emotional states, and the thoughts...all temporal, constantly changing things. Did you know that you have practically a new body every year due to cells constantly being produced and dying within you? We may carry over a story of who we think we are from one day to the next, but in reality, who we are is not fixed in stone.
We can learn about how our bodies function, how our minds function, how we deal with emotional states, and what our limits are, and we can challenge our limits when appropriate, as well as learn when to respect them.
This is concept in yin yoga. When one goes into a pose, you move until you reach your limit, when there is an ache, but no pain. Then, you stay there, breathing deeply, focusing on the part of the body that is being challenged, and allowing gravity to help put enough pressure on the body. You respect your limits, and gently challenge them, with the aid of the breath, gravity, and the patience to stay in that place of aching without pain. Eventually, through this practice, one can improve the state of the joints and ligaments of the body, allowing for more freedom of movement and a decreased risk of injury due to an increase in pliability.
This can happen in meditation, whether sitting to meditate, or during running, walking, daily chores, etc. One can tune into a calm center that allows for peace of mind, regardless of what may be happening outside of oneself.
It can be as simple as saying, in a difficult moment, “It’s okay.”
Life is duality. Where there is pleasure, there is also pain. Where there is day, there is night; joy and sorrow; hunger and satiation; frustration and contentment. All of life goes through an interplay of opposites in every moment. This is the storm, and within all of us, there is the eye of the storm, the calm center.
Anyone can find this place, and for each one of us, we will develop our own method. What I find most beneficial is not making that method conditional. Don’t require anything except yourself, as you are, where you are, right now.
No one can control what happens outside of ourselves. And, in addition, one may not be able to control what thoughts come or what emotions arise, or how strong those emotions may feel. Emotions can feel overwhelming. Within each of us is a universe. Learning to live with ourselves is key to learning to live with the outer world. If you can learn to be compassionate with yourself, to be open to what flows through you, then, when overwhelming emotions arise, you can dance with them, instead of becoming a victim.
Imagine it like a guest appearing at your house, barging in through the door. It may be a frightening guest, who makes your hair stand on end, and raises alarms within you. It can be threatening. What is the best thing to do? You can’t leave the house, it is your mind; and it won’t make the guest go away, either. You can’t hide under a pillow; your guest will dominate you and take over the house. You can’t fight with your guest and tell them they are in the wrong for barging in and how dare they. Your guest will become indignant and self-righteous, and demand that you are wrong, and you are just as bad as them. Maybe this guest wants something?
So, you invite your guest to sit down together with you, and you listen.
Maybe the fear your guest has provoked is validated. Maybe there is a real danger to be wary of. Or perhaps, the fear is overblown, and now that you have heard the reason for your guest’s arrival, you can more clearly decide what to do. You can also calmly let your guest know that you appreciate the message, but that it would be more appropriate to arrive in a less aggressive manner next time. You respect the message, and are there and willing to listen, but your terms must be respected, too.
This may sound like a long process, and it can be, to begin with. Over time, and with practice, one gets better at addressing a variety of mental states. This translates to how one actually lives in each moment, whatever the situation.
Say you have a high-stress job. It can be as a surgeon, police officer, or even a cook. Everything you produce as a cook is going to feed someone else, and there is always a possibility that someone can have a bad reaction to the food and get ill or die. This is a reality. Your job directly affects the lives of others. Add to that the stress of cooking with time constraints, and working within a team, having to synchronize your movements and organize your mind to keep tickets in order. You have to multi-task at a high level. How do you deal with it all? Take a deep breath, tune into your center, and be at the command chair: this is the time for your entire being to work synchronistically, along with the environment. It is not about ultimate control. It is about sitting at the center as a guide, but trusting in and allowing your entire being to tune into the nature of the situation and flow. If something is off, you can spot it and address it calmly. If something is seriously wrong and needs attention, you respect that limitation (Such as the restaurant needs to close because of a sewage backup, which may mean a loss in profits, but will protect the health of everyone working and eating there).
Such is life. There will always be a need to adapt, and to make a choice: one can choose to act in a manner that is beneficial, or one that is detrimental. Learning how you work can help you to choose more clearly.
Expect the unexpected. Even people who feel like they have it all together, and they have learned to deal with their thoughts and emotions will end up facing something completely unexpected and unknown. This can throw a person’s life into turmoil. Just think of suddenly being an accident, and losing the ability to ever walk again. Or having a stroke, and having to relearn speech and movement. If one constantly practices being aware of one’s state of being, then, it won’t matter what happens. It is all possible. Yet, whatever happens, you can be well-practiced in how to deal with it.
If one accepts that sickness, aging and death are part of life, and that being alive includes both positives and negatives in every moment, in varying degrees, it won’t matter what occurs. It is all part of the ride, part of the experience. So what if everyone else thinks it’s terrible that you are forgetting their names or faces. That is happening, and you have the power to make the best of it. So what if no one understands why you are grieving, why you can’t move on. Your grief needs time, and you have decided to let it follow its course. So what if no one understands your anger or frustration. It is, truly, no one else’s responsibility to understand you. It is your responsibility alone. The best anyone can do for another is to respect their presence, respect that each of us faces our own challenges, and simply be there for each other.
I cannot live your life or make you feel better. I cannot force you to be happy if you are sad or angry. What I can do is see that essentially we are the same, yet we each have a unique path to follow. I can respect your uniqueness, and love you unconditionally; and yet what I choose to do will be based on my own limitations and capabilities.
I recently watched a documentary called Inn Saei, which is Icelandic for “the sea within,” or “to see within.” A part of the documentary showed a school that had a program called MindUp, combining the science of the mind with mindfulness practices for young children. The children learned about different parts of the brain, and what they do; and they learned practices such as meditating, and taking a breath and leaving a difficult situation to calm down, to apologize as a way to help ease a tense situation, etc.
What any person or service can do for mental health issues is to provide a space. We create space within our own personal spheres. We can create space all around our own being, so that space can be felt no matter where we are. It is the space we create for ourselves, to listen to our own beings with patience and love. That same space makes up who we are then, and that affects our outer world.
When people within a group or community all practice creating that space for themselves individually, then there can be a beneficial environment for everyone. When we listen, we learn. We don’t only listen with our ears. We listen with every atom of our bodies. When we are able to tune into ourselves, we can tune into the environment and to others. We can be more attuned to what another may be feeling, and get a clearer picture of a situation. We can see the multiplicity in everything, how everything is interconnected and not black and white, and requires us to be tuned in to really see, to really hear, to really feel what is going on.
Apart from practicing awareness and compassion with oneself and others, there is promising information concerning nutrition.
Certain foods are beneficial for the body, acting in a harmonious way with the functioning of our inner systems. Other foods appear to cause an imbalance within the body that can lead to damaging chronic diseases, one of which is severe depression.
Depression is thought to be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, showing abnormally low levels of monoamine neurotransmitters due to elevated levels of MAO, a neurotransmitter-munching enzyme. This affects the dopamine and serotonin in the brain, and causes symptoms such as low/sad mood, diminished interest in activities that were once pleasurable, weight gain/loss, fatigue, inappropriate sense of guilt, difficulty concentrating and recurrent thoughts of death. It is estimated that around 16 million people each year experience at least one depressive episode.
Foods that may increase the risk of depression include: Chicken, eggs, beef, pork and fish. These foods contain arachidonic acid, a compound that is already produced in sufficient quantities by our own bodies. When adding dietary arachidonic acid, the body is thrown into imbalance, and it can impair mood and inflame the brain. What is this inflammation? Well, when animal products are digested, they create free radicals within the body. Free radicals can do a lot of damage if there are no antioxidants present to deal with them. Antioxidants can be delivered to the body through whole plant foods. (Supplements do not work.)
Studies have shown that those eating more of a whole food, plant-based diet have improved their: digestion, energy, sleep, physical functions in general, general health, vitality and mental health. If one increases vegetable intake, one may be able to reduce the risk of getting depression by as much as 62%.
What are some especially beneficial foods? Apples, berries, grapes, onions, green tea, cloves, oregano, cinnamon, nutmeg, saffron (even just smelling it!), and coffee (around 2 cups/day, but more than 8 cups could lead to an increased risk of suicidal depression).
Another factor that could be increase the risk of depression: artificial sweeteners. This includes aspartame (found in Equal and Nutrasweet), and saccharine (Sweet’n’Low). Artificial sweeteners are present in 6,000+ products, including breath mints, cereals, chewing gum, preserves, juice drinks, puddings, and nutritional bars and yogurts.
What about drugs? Apparently, after the unpublished studies were analyzed in conjunction with the published studies of such drugs as Paxil and Prozac, the benefits appeared to negligable: ½ the trials didn’t work at all, meaning the drugs “failed to show a clinically significant advantage over placebo sugar pills.” Antidepressants do help about 10% of patients with severe depression, however, what about the other 90%?
The side effects also include sexual dysfunction (for around 75% of users), long-term weight gain (which itself can lead to other chronic diseases), insomnia, withdrawal symptoms, and can make one more likely to become depressed in the future. (Information from How Not To Die, by Dr. Greger)
A safer way to go about treating depression and other mental illnesses may be to eat a diet high in fruit and vegetables, to eliminate animal products that increase the risk of suicidal depression, and to get regular exercise (which could be as much as a 30 minute walk every day).
This groundwork, combined with practicing awareness and compassion, could be a promising way to combat the rise of mental health issues. And, no one needs a doctor to prescribe anything. It all begins with what we feed ourselves, mentally and physically.
For anyone interested in more nutritional information regarding suicidal depression and mood, please visit nutritionfacts.org.