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Change Your Lifestyle and Change Your Psyche

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Need a motivational booster shot for those ambitious new years resolutions you made? An article that just crossed my desk may help. Titled "Lifestyle and Mental Health," it was published last October in American Psychologist, the journal of the American Psychological Association. Here's the gist: All those good things you promise yourself you'll do for the health of your body are also good for mental and emotional wellbeing. To which, your reaction might be, "Duh!" But if the leading journal for professional psychologists considers the findings noteworthy, they're obviously less obvious than you would think.

The author, Roger Walsh, a psychiatrist at the University of California College of Medicine in Irvine, is, like a growing number of his colleagues, wary of the profession's tendency to reduce diagnosis, prevention and treatment to biochemistry. Such reductionism works well for pharmaceutical and insurance companies, but not necessarily the individuals who are gulping down antidepressants and other little helpers by the gazillions. Walsh combed the scientific literature to see what researchers have uncovered about the connection between lifestyle factors and mental health. Here is his unequivocal conclusion:

Mental health professionals have significantly underestimated the importance of lifestyle factors (a) as contributors to and treatments for multiple psychopathologies, (b) for fostering individual and social well-being, and (c) for preserving and optimizing cognitive function.

He adds that "therapeutic lifestyle changes (TLCs) are underutilized despite considerable evidence of their effectiveness in both clinical and normal populations." Healthcare professionals are more likely to prescribe meds than to show their troubled, depressed, anxious and unhappy clients how to help themselves by changing the way they live. For that, we can thank America's obsession with quick and easy fixes, like popping a pill for whatever ails you, whether indigestion or the blahs.

Walsh found convincing evidence that these TLCs confer psychological advantages: exercise, better nutrition, food supplements (he singles out fish oil for its brain-benefiting omega-3 fatty acids), interacting with nature, relationships (family, friends, community, etc.), recreation and enjoyable activities, "self-management skills" (mainly stress-reducing practices such as yoga, tai chi and meditation), religious and spiritual involvement, contribution and service. Generous doses of any of these lifestyle factors can contribute to mental and emotional well-being, and their value is enhanced when used regularly and in combination.

Most of us are familiar with the endorphin effect of proper exercise, the energizing uplift of a healthy diet, the restorative calm of nature, the joys and comforts of relationship, the exhilaration of good old fun. And we've heard about, if not experienced firsthand, the salutary benefits of relaxation techniques and the mind-body-spirit practices we've imported from the East. Meditation alone has been subjected to hundreds of scientific studies that are announced periodically with great fanfare. But the last two TLCs Walsh cites -- religious and spiritual involvement and service -- I found to be of particular interest.

I once heard a guru say, "If you want to be depressed, think about yourself all the time." According to Walsh, empirical evidence supports the age-old adage that service to others helps the provider as much as the recipient: "Multiple studies, including those that control for prior health factors, suggest that people who volunteer more are psychologically happier and healthier, are physically healthier, and may even live longer." Similarly, says Walsh, "Considerable research suggests a complex but usually beneficial relationship between religious involvement and mental health."

Ah, but there are caveats. With respect to doing good, there are potential downsides like "caretaker burnout," and service loses much of its value when motivated by "a sense of internal pressure, duty, and obligation." As for religious and spiritual involvement, the healthy kind, Walsh found, "centers on themes such as love and forgiveness." But, "themes of punishment and guilt" -- not so much. They can even be "harmful to mental health." In other words, some religious teachings and institutions can soothe the troubled psyches of believers, while others cause troubled psyches.

The article concludes that "therapeutic lifestyles may need to be a central focus of mental, medical, and public health." That's putting it mildly. Alas, common sense is not common practice. The reckless pill-pushing won't stop unless consumers take matters into their own hands by changing their lifestyles instead of their prescriptions. That takes time and effort, but the research amply demonstrates that it's worth it.

For more by Philip Goldberg, click here.

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