Mental Health Column: The Science of Mental Health

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Ailments of the mind are often perceived differently than ailments of the body, yet modern science now understands how connected they are. Physical issues seem more acceptable to talk about, but as mental health awareness gains ground, we are more able to discuss issues of mind and emotions like we do those of the body. There is more awareness than ever on the connection between mind and body, and on the importance of comprehensive wellness. When you harness the power of mind and body on your life goals, whether those be goals for your career, your relationship life, your parenting or how you feel about yourself, you can achieve success more easily.

It is important to view issues of the mind the same way we perceive issues of the body. One reason to not make a distinction between the two is to combat the historical stigma that has often been associated with mental and emotional health issues. For some reason, we have no qualms discussing our high cholesterol or blood pressure report from our last doctor’s visit at social functions, and the fact that we now have to take medicine to control the issue. Yet we hesitate to reveal the depression or anxiety we have been diagnosed with, along with the new medicine the psychiatrist has us on. We go to the gym two or three times a week to keep our bodies in shape and to live a physically optimal life, yet we don’t treat our minds and relationships to the same training and development. Consider how much easier life might be if we kept our minds in top shape — free of stress, feeling at peace and flexible and resilient enough to handle life’s challenges with stability, maturity and openness!

Physical and mental health are intertwined with one another. Mental issues can often be due to chemical imbalances or other organic disorders, and may be treated in the same way as any physical disorders. Both depression and anxiety, two of the most common ‘mental health’ issues, are now considered more physiological than psychological. The newer, neuroscience-informed protocols for both those ailments prescribe physical as well as psychological support, with the physical component being equal in importance to the mental component. And we’re not just talking about medication here. Diet, exercise, meditation, sleep, supplements and avoiding some substances can all assist in the physical healing component.

When it comes to stress, many think of it as a mental issue, but it has a primary physical component and is considered by many physicians to be at the root of a wide variety of physical diseases. Trauma, which for many years was thought to reside purely in the mind in the form of memories, is now understood to also be housed in the body, embedded in brain structures and in the nervous system, and having a physical component that is getting more attention in therapy.

The science of mental health is that it is both physical and mental, and effective treatment considers the interplay of both dimensions. The physical part of our issues might be considered the ‘hardware:’ the organic matter that needs to function and be healthy enough to transmit chemical and electrical signals. The mental part is the ‘software,’ the program that runs on the hardware. In the new world of psychological science, we understand that the hardware influences how the software runs, and that the software affects the hardware. In the case of the relationship between the mind and the brain, the way the mind thinks literally affects the physical structure of the brain, which then in turn impacts how the mind thinks. It’s a synergistic circle, which is why it’s important to tend to your mental and physical health equally.

While we know that your physical health impacts your mind, it’s also the case that deepening your mind can translate into greater overall health. One way to explore and develop your mind is to engage in psychotherapy that challenges you to become aware of your tendencies and automatic thoughts. Therapy helps you to grow mentally, builds your emotional resilience and teaches you how to connect more deeply with others. There are even challenging and fun types of therapy like group therapy that take your mental and emotional skills to an advanced level while collaborating with fellow travelers on the path of personal growth.

Another popular way to grow and strengthen your mind is to take the occasional retreat to explore your thoughts, connect with your spirit, and untie some of the emotional knots in your mind and body. Ethical personal growth trainings can help you get in touch with your deeper self and enhance your sense of purpose. Meditation also offers an opportunity to deepen the capacity and full potential of your mind’s capability.

Because mind and body work together to produce thought, life, and relationships, we recommend giving your mind as much attention, training, development and maintenance as you give your body. Such personal growth work offers a path to the development of self-awareness, maturity and kindness — qualities we need more of in ourselves and in society. Supporting your mental health and growth also helps to destigmatize mental health issues in your community and makes you an ambassador of mental and emotional health to those around you. By understanding that mental and emotional health issues are similar in kind to physical issues, we open a dialogue with others that encourages sharing and connection around struggles and engage in opportunities for our own healing and learning.

*John Howard and Peter Craig are psychotherapists at Austin Professional Counseling™. They offer individual, couples and group therapy to help their clients achieve healthy minds and thrive at life.

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