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Integrative Health, the Fourth Pillar: Mental Resiliency

This is the last of four posts covering the four pillars of healthspan and longevity:

Prior to the pandemic, mental resiliency did not get a lot of popular press — even though the NIH estimated up to 20% of the U.S. population reported having an anxiety disorder.

Now, of course, talk of mental health is far more prevalent. The pandemic has pushed it into the public consciousness and talking about its importance is no longer stigmatized as I've known it for most of my career. That's good because we've known for a long time that mental health is deeply interconnected with other indicators of health and wellbeing.

There are three components to Mental Resiliency:

  1. Calming the mind/mindfulness

  2. Constant learning

  3. Strengthening your tribe

Each of these components is important and has been shown to improve longevity.

1. Calming the Mind/Mindfulness

The ability to calm your mind on a regular basis is a technique that is learnable and varied. There are many tools to use for calming your mind, including:

  • Meditation

  • Prayer

  • Yoga

  • Breathing exercises

  • Tai Chi

  • Qi Yong

  • Nature walks

  • Journaling

While some people reading this may look at the above list and decide "that’s not for me," I urge you to step outside your comfort zone and consider the science for a moment.

There is good evidence these techniques decrease stress hormone release and increase parasympathetic tone in your body (the opposite of the fight or flight response). These activities are also known to decrease blood pressure and lower the risk of cardiovascular events. They may also improve sleep quality.

National data shows dramatic increase in the practice of meditation and yoga in recent years, so the likelihood is someone you know is doing this routinely. The U.S. Military is using mindfulness techniques to address combat-related stress and to managing chronic pain and post traumatic stress disorder with good success.

The options above take various forms and can be done alone or in a group setting. They allow for great flexibility for individuals. One benefit of the post-pandemic world in which we live is the ready availability of apps and YouTube videos to teach and guide you in each of those activities.

2. Constant Learning

Maintaining mental resiliency means we continue to use the gift of our mind as fully as possible as long as we live. There are numerous stories of people who retire and undergo an acute cognitive decline soon after leaving the workforce. While that is a topic for another day, there is good evidence that those who continue to challenge themselves mentally have a lower risk of dementia over time.

So does doing crossword puzzles, Sudoku puzzles, or using apps claiming to reduce your risk of cognitive decline really work?

The results trend toward improvement — with several caveats. The consistency of the activity is an important factor. Thirty minutes a day seems to be a reasonable time commitment.

The second caveat is that there are multiple factors that have been closely shown to lessen cognitive decline, including regular exercise, proper nutritional regimen, and ongoing social interactions.

Meanwhile, there are ongoing studies that aim to determine whether various brain-training tools can aid in maintaining cognitive function as we age. We know that neuroplasticity, the ability of your brain to form new neural connections between cells, persists well into adulthood. While maintaining neuroplasticity may become more difficult as we age, new evidence shows it is still possible to maintain the ability our entire life.

Two activities that increase neuroplasticity are learning a new instrument or a new language. These activities require the activation and involvement of multiple areas of your brain. So, it is never too late to take up learning French or the guitar!

Constant learning can also be reinforced by your ability to teach others knowledge you have attained over your lifetime. (While in western cultures we tend to put older people "on the shelf," in Asian cultures the wisdom of older adults is culturally respected and valued.) The old adage that the best way to learn something is to teach it is certainly true. Find an opportunity to give back all that wisdom. It benefits the teacher as well as the student.

3. Strengthening your Tribe

Mental resiliency is also about maintaining our connections with others.

Isolation in all forms is detrimental to your overall health. These impacts on our health and well-being have been brought into sharp focus in the last year. The isolation from our friends and loved ones has triggered sizable increases in anxiety and depression with ramifications that will be felt many years into the future. We have also witnessed the importance of those connections through the fraying of workplace relationships, school activities, and sports competitions.

So, how do you go about strengthening these relationships, especially as we age?

First, think about your circle of family and friends. It may be as simple as sending making a phone call to say you've been thinking about them during this time. Second, as we see social restrictions begin to be relaxed and rising vaccination rates ask someone to share a cup of coffee or better yet a walk around the neighborhood or park. Remember the best activity you could do is walking outdoors with a friend or loved one. It strengthens the body, mind, and soul.

Now is also the time to consider expanding your social circle to a group activity. The amazing thing about the world in which we live in is the ability to connect locally with people of similar interests. Are you a budding beekeeper or looking for urban hiking? Rhen there is a tribe for you.

4. Spirituality

The last component I want to explore for mental resiliency is spirituality.

Spirituality combines aspects of calming the mind with strengthening your community. There have been many studies that confirm the positive effect of spirituality on longevity and healthspan. Many of the studies document improved lifespans and well-being for those who regularly have a spiritual practice. It can also refer to a personal connection to a greater presence outside ourselves. It may simply be the sense of beauty and all we feel in nature.

Unfortunately, spirituality tends to be the least talked about of these components. For me, the idea of spirituality is tied to purpose. Something for which all of us search in one way or the other. Reflecting on that as part of mental resiliency is a way to tie many aspects of our life together: the struggle and the joys leading us to a more centered and peaceful place.

My encouragement to you is to take time to focus on your mental resiliency through:

  • Calming your mind

  • Constantly learning

  • Strengthening your tribe

  • Reinforcing your personal spirituality

Through these efforts, we can expand our healthspan and maximize our longevity.

At Dignity Integrative, we are always ready to assist you on your personal journey.

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