With attention disorders, anxiety and depression swallowing up ever more of our lives, should we wail, gnash our teeth and take our medicines? Or, could we use wellbeing – body, emotion and mind?
We have massive, profitable industries to address our suffering. Starting with dubious diagnoses, mental health businesses, psychiatry and pharmaceuticals profit handsomely from our suffering.
Three common stories
Jack is a boisterous boy great on the sport field but a distracted and distracting event in the classroom. The teacher complained and he ends up on Ritalin. His classroom behaviour improved and the family found things more peaceful. Ten years later Jack is still on Ritalin but saves them up for tests. He is so “jacked up” by the evening, he uses alcohol to calm down. Jack joins 9.6 million Americans on ADHD medication.
The global sale of ADHD medication is estimated to reach USD24 billion by 2024.
Peter is shy and challenged by social events. His parents protected him by staying close. Peter learned that he needed protection from a scary world. Teachers, coaches and friends realise that Peter is fragile so no one tells him the truth. Instead he worries. He is diagnosed with a social anxiety disorder and takes Xanax (anxiolytic) joining 32 million Americans on anti-anxiety medicine.
Jane had an adverse event as a teenager. She never quite recovered becoming withdrawn, pessimistic, tearful and self-critical. Six weeks later she was given a diagnosis of depression and started on antidepressants. At 30 she is still trying different antidepressants and is jobless. She finds alcohol can help her have a decent evening out. Jane joins 43.6 million Americans on antidepressants.
Global sales of anxiety and depression medication are expected to hit USD18.3 billion by 2025.
We will simply ignore prescription opioids for now.
Perhaps these medicines have made us more focused, calmer and happier. Could we do better? We have the knowledge to see our suffering for what it is. Well tested practices can help us return to the resilience that evolution has neatly packaged as a core human attribute. Maybe it is time to clarify and accelerate our learned resilience.
Wellbeing and Resilience
We seek physical, emotional and cognitive wellbeing. Our bodies, our feelings and our thoughts can be helpful or damaging. In wellbeing, our bodies are energised and engaged in the flow of life. We sleep well, stay active and eat wisely. Our feelings are positive – content, grateful, loving, calm and joyous – more than angry, sad or fearful. Positive psychology suggests at least three positive emotions to counter each negative. Our mind is calm, curious and fully present to the moment: “Wow, amazing!”
In contrast, Jack is wired, restless and hyperkinetic. He catapults from boredom to intense craving and impulse. His mind jumps randomly between distractions. He lives in the future: “what is next?” He may overindulge in sugars, sleep little, and demonstrates little empathy.
Peter is hyper-alert, heart racing, pale, eyes wide, and lips drawn wide. He feels fear. Waves of anxiety accelerate his heart, trigger his asthma and lead to exhaustion. He worries: “What if they don’t like me, what if the bus is late, what if…?”. He lives in loops of worries about future risks. He sleeps little, eats little, and avoids activity because of the risks.
Jane slumps forward, shoulders round and head bowed with sadness etched deeply in her eyes, eyebrows and lips. She feels tired, sad, tearful and hopeless. Her mind ruminates: “I am useless, I always mess up, I am such a loser, everything is going wrong…” Her screen is her best friend, she eats for comfort, lies awake in the early hours, and sleeps until lunch on the weekend. Exercise is pointless.
There is a pattern and a story in the body, in the emotions, and in the mind. Those patterns lead to behaviours and outcomes. We can deny our body, emotions and mind. We can even blame a disease (or a person or a system) for all the problems. We can ask others to take care of them. We can abdicate responsibility and ask for a pill.
Master body, emotion and mind
Yet we can own our body, emotions and mind. We can learn to notice them and even relax into accepting them. When we observe and accept, we are no longer our body, our feeling or our thoughts. They become objects. Objects can be studied. We can experiment. We can seek and practise new ways relate to our body, emotion and mind.
For example, both Jack and Peter could practise slow, diaphragmatic breathing while learning to hold their attention in the present. Jane could sit upright and lift her chin with her shoulders rolled slightly back. All would benefit from sleep – and exercise – and a Mediterranean diet. A recent meta-analysis suggests it can reduce depression by 33%.
The body has many levers to lift ourselves out of suffering. Simple actions. Well proven. More wellbeing. Here’s how:
Jack could work on feelings of contentment and direct his attention toward how others are feeling (empathy). Peter really needs to appreciate the moment (gratitude) and remember that most people experience some anxiety. Jane needs to seek joy and appreciation. She must make every effort to smile generously.
Our emotions are simply tools that we can learn to apply more skilfully. Simple action. Great fun to practise with others.
Jack’s attention circuits were slow to develop. He needed help from early on to train attention. He can learn to work in focused bursts with adequate rest and activity between. Peter can learn to accept watch his worries. He will notice how often they are exaggerated and unlikely. He can learn to catch worry and gently direct his attention to the present.
Jane needs coaching to help her notice the loops of self-deprecation. She can learn how to catch “I always fail” and adjust it to “I sometimes fail” and then to “We all make mistakes sometimes”. This cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) is well proven to resolve depression as well and more permanently than medication.
Again, we see that thoughts can be observed, described and adjusted to be more realistic and positive. The mind is trainable – awareness, attention, bounce and positivity.
Remember that studies have shown that simply sitting slumped in front of a screen can trigger depression. Sitting upright lifts testosterone and reduces cortisol. Think of all the tiny nudges we could offer young people at home, in school and in sport. Little reminders to stand tall, to breathe out, to appreciate a gesture, to be fully focused in the moment.
What if we could be more objective about the wonderful resourcefulness in our bodies, our emotions and our minds? What if we could be more skilful and accountable in owning and mastering them? This is true wellbeing.
Bad stuff happens sometimes. I’ve got it covered. We’ve got it covered. We have toughened up.
What are we waiting for?