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  • Writer's pictureJacob Hansen

Anxiety, depression and a framework for stabilizing our changing moods. (Part 2)

Dear Brandon,

So in my previous letter we discussed how many of the most common mental health challenges (like anxiety and depression) exist in everyone but sometimes get beyond a persons ability to process. We also discussed how the mind dwelling in the future or the past can aggravate these stressors and wear on a persons emotional and psychological strength. So whats the solution?

It’s actually not incredibly complicated, it’s just hard to do and it’s summed up in an old Chinese proverb.

Interestingly this idea is not just found in the east. Even Jesus Christ said:

It’s not surprising that this solution is old. Most problems of human nature have been discussed and distilled before, and this one seems no different. However this need to bring oneself into the present is not just ancient wisdom, its modern practice. If you are not aware of the growing “mindfulness” movement you should check it out. It is a set of ideas and practices designed specifically with the goal of being present that has profound impacts on peoples mental health. And while it has connection to certain religious ideations (most specifically Buddhism) the practice of bringing ones mind into the present as much as possible seems like a worthwhile goal no matter what ones belief system. Ironically, one of the most public proponents of mindfulness is one of the leading atheist writers of our time, Sam Harris.

Most practitioners of mindfulness usually engage in it through some kind of meditation exercises. Meditation is the act of bringing one’s mind into the present moment as deeply and is profoundly as possible. Think of 15 minutes of meditation (they have some great apps out there) like a gym workout for mental health. The benefits of meditation are nearly immediate. The sensations of being present bring feelings of peace, gratitude, happiness and appreciation. Meditation has a healing effect on your psyche as you shed the future and the past and fully embrace and breathe in the fullness of the present moment.

So what’s the catch?

The catch is that it’s like diet and exercise. Its very easy to talk about and very challenging to make a habit of. So let me propose an alternative.

If you are like me you hate going to the gym and making a habit of formal meditation may be as difficult as making a habit of gym visits. With that said, if you know your mental/emotional stability is not in a good place you may just need to buckle down and do it, just like how that obese person just needs to buckle down and change their diet and get to the gym 4-5 times a week. However, I personally both physically and mentally don’t find “gym visits’” to be sustainable or necessary in my current situation. Rather living an active lifestyle has been where I have made the biggest gains in both my physical and emotional health. We all know what a healthy physical lifestyle entails but what about a healthy mental/emotional lifestyle? Well, what are the normal things you do that (like meditation) bring you into the present moment deeply on all levels. What are these “meditative activities”?

Strangely one of the best things to bring you into the moment mentally and otherwise is physical discomfort. I think this is one of the reasons exercise is so good for your mental health. One of my favorite books on anxiety was a book called “Play It Away” where a man discovered that play was the best treatment for his anxiety because nothing brings you into the moment and complete connection with that moment physically, emotionally, mentally etc than being fully engaged in a game. Strangely a great therapy for me has been boxing and Jiujitsu. When you step into a ring with someone there is very little you are thinking about or experiencing besides the present moment. The key is to do thinks that bring you into the present moment both mentally and physically as often as you can. The more you can connect and enter “the zone” the better. For your brain and psyche these moments are glasses of cold water and your brain needs to be hydrated regularly. So what activities bring us deeply into the moment? Well for each person that will vary. For me it includes things like: sports, manual labor, exercise, sex (my personal fav lol), interesting in person conversations, play, time in nature, outdoor adventures etc. The key to living a healthy mental health lifestyle is to ensure that these types of activities take up a sufficient portion of my time to keep my emotional states stable.

It should be noted that just as everyone has different metabolisms everyone has different predispositions toward processing stressors and capacity for emotional stability. Ironically, a strong intellect could also predispose you toward mental health struggles. For instance, many of the great thinkers of history also suffered from mental and emotional health problems. The cousin I was closest to growing up suffers from a fairly severe case of bipolar disorder that manifested acutely in his late teens. He once told me that his psychiatrist said that his brain was like a thorough bred horse and other peoples brains were like donkeys. The psychiatrist said that people with strong minds, deep thoughts and high-level‘s of intelligence often suffer from mental health issues because a strong mind that is out of control is more dangerous than a weak mind. He was told to think of his brain like a mound of dirt and that water is being poured over that mound of dirt through the situations of life. As water runs down a dirt hill it form certain channels and as water is poured down over and over again the channels become deeper and more defined. These channels and the way that they are arranged form our mental habits and predispositions. Some channels flow well and produce positive outcomes, some do not. Sometimes channels can break and flood areas never touched before or interfere with other channels depending on how the channels form. He was told that he needed to make sure he did everything he could to guide the waters into healthy channels. He needed to develop healthy ways of processing the stimulus around him. In addition, he was told that when a channel is not used over time it begins to fill-in and dissipate and go away. Thus, by avoiding certain stimuli or patterns of thought he could have some impact on his disorder. Just as a person can strengthen their metabolic systems it seems possible for people to strengthen (or weaken) their emotional/mental capacities for processing stressors in healthy ways. It’s important to know where you are at and if your mental/emotional metabolism is in good working order as you face our modern world which presents mental/emotional stimuli never before faced by human beings.

The world today is designed to constantly take you mentally out of your immediate surroundings and into your head. Go watch the news. You will spend an hour bombarding your psyche with fear about the future or a deep sentiment that the best days are long gone. Go online and spend hours having advertisers hit you with all those things you want in an extremely specific way. Suddenly the future (when you have those items) seems a lot more appealing than the present. Go on social media where you sit in a constant state of anticipation awaiting the next ping and hit of dopamine as you anticipate something exciting or interesting. Take some time to reflect on all the things you constantly are bombarded with that take you from the real world around you and put you in your head and focused on the past or the future. Then reflect on how incredibly unnatural this is. Humans for tens of thousands of years lived in and among nature. Until a mere 65 years ago we did not have air conditioning generally. Think about that! I lived for 2 years in a country where no one had AC. When summer came, you just got hot. Also, human beings historically lived and worked outside in fields or did other forms of manual labor. You slept at night because you were physically tired. Now we sleep because we are mentally tired. Our world is not just providing us with new forms of physical junk food it is constantly presenting us with new forms of mental junk food and its important to understand yourself and evaluate if the mental junk food being served is taking up too much of your mental diet.

Like with physical health mental health is not a simple issue. However, as with physical health there are principles of a healthy mental and emotional lifestyle that I think we all can learn from. Maintaining good physical health seems to be summed up best in the phrase “diet and exercise”. I would like to propose that the central tenet to maintaining good mental health is summed up in the lyrics of a Mason Jennings song: “Be here now it’s the only place to be“ Stay healthy my friend. - Jacob

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