With this article, I’ll explain how we can care for our mental health, and then we will begin a series on healthy lifestyle choices. We’ll look at some of the concerns and options for men versus women and younger people versus older ones. We’ll also see that mental health and physical health are intricately interconnected.
There is a little-known aspect of human aging that few of us—including me, until recently—consider: There is no scientific or medical way to determine the age of any individual human being. People can tell us their age or show us a birth certificate, but beyond that, no science can put an age or date of birth on someone.
We have no annual rings, as trees do; no way to count teeth, the way we do with horses. There are no biopsies or technologies that enable us to examine DNA or tissues that would allow even the most sophisticated scientist to give us an accurate age. The most we can do is guess, generally with perhaps a 10- or 20-year range.
To me, this opens a wonderful door to a hopeful future, for it allows us to aspire to a long and healthy life with few constraints as to how we might choose to live that life. The possibilities for healthy, productive, and joyful years ahead of us seem, in many ways, limitless.
What, then, can each of us do to achieve and maintain optimum health and well-being? Although conventional wisdom has shown that 35 to 40 percent of longevity might be determined by genes, 60 to 65 percent is within your control, which means that you have a choice in how you are going to live.
My overall objective with this article is to help you see your options and make educated mental health-related decisions for a lifetime of good health and well-being.
Note: Nutrition, exercise, and stress reduction are the pillars of a healthy lifestyle.
You can be your teacher for your entire life. You need to know how and where to get accurate information, and you need to have a good detector for when there’s baloney out there. It’s my personal belief that if we can become more mindful in all ways, and can take care of their mental health—especially as we’re exploring ways of eating, exercising, and the stories we tell ourselves about aging.
Lifelong Health: Mental Health and Stress Reduction
People choose to explore stress-reduction techniques mostly to intensify their ability to focus, to increase their creativity, to gain self-awareness and insight, and then to become relaxed and calm, especially in their minds. Quieting the mind allows us to become proficient at selectively focusing attention without becoming distracted or scattered.
Medical research suggests that our society is spiraling into increased stress-related illness. We live in what has been called the “age of distraction.” It’s almost impossible to escape the intrusion of noise, music, chatter, and lights. Multitasking has its limits, and it exacts a toll. Evidence increasingly points to the fact that mental and emotional stress has a direct effect on both lifelong health: physical and mental health.
The prefrontal cortex is the brain’s planning center, the home of executive function. It sorts out conflicting thoughts, distinguishes between good and bad, and measures the consequences of our actions. Studies have shown that people who have established a meditation or relaxation practice have an increased ability to focus in the face of distraction.
Relaxation techniques create a response that changes the patterns of genes associated with stress. As time goes on, we will probably find even more confirmation of the strength of the mind-body connection.
Although they are not a replacement for conventional medical treatment, stress-reduction techniques, such as meditation, yoga, prayer, and mindfulness, can help slow your heart and respiratory rates and lower blood pressure. These techniques can also decrease headaches, heart palpitations, back pain, and insomnia.
Aspects of these techniques include focusing on individual parts of the body and relaxing them one at a time, objectively observing the thoughts in your mind, or repeating a mantra.
Lifelong Health: Relaxation Techniques
Most relaxation techniques involve diverting or refocusing your attention from stressful issues to a calmer mental environment. Mindfulness techniques, developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, emphasize being aware of and experiencing the present moment, much as children can focus completely on any given activity that they’re engaged in.
This form of stress reduction helps people cope with anxiety, illness, pain, and stress through mindfulness meditation. Dr. Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose to whatever is unfolding in the experience from moment to moment. You observe your feelings and thoughts, but you try to allow them to pass through without judging them.
Mindfulness meditation and other techniques seek to reach a place where the mind is as quiet as it can be. Try to imagine finding the space between one thought that is departing from your mind and new thought that is arising. The goal is to extend that space in time.
In using these techniques, regularity of practice is important. Try to find a solitary, comfortable place to meditate or practice stress reduction at about the same time every day. Focus your attention on the present moment. When your mind wanders, and random thoughts intrude, don’t judge them; let them pass away.
You might focus on a simple object or your breathing. Just as you can increase your physical fitness through practice, you can also improve your mindfulness. The reward will be that you can take control of the stress in your life and not allow it to control you.
Prefrontal Cortex: The brain’s planning center, located between the temples in the forehead and behind the eyes.