“Relax. No one else knows what they are doing either.”—Ricky Gervais
Wellness is an old idea wearing new clothes, with roots in Buddhism 2500 years ago. Arguably all I’m doing in this series of articles for New Thinking is bringing some Buddhist thinking to the fore that will, hopefully, help you appreciate some different health belief systems, and inspire thought. Maybe we can even develop a debating forum around these ideas.
My plan is to offer some of the best ideas out there today, just enough for the regular person to grasp and hold onto and maybe change and improve a single element of their life, their well-being. Health prevention, awareness, and personal responsibility are related to health in this century and are central to self-determination.
My previous article centered on the idea of “eating your way to health.” Here, I’d like to explore another component to wellness: beyond what we consume, it’s crucial we consider how we interact with the world around us.
I would like to begin with a mention of my late Ph.D. supervisor, Professor Joel Richman, who wrote a book entitled Medicine and Health. He explored the idea of healthcare and deduced that the world is not dominated by Westernized explanations of health. It is more organic than that and derives from culture. He concludes that health is a social phenomenon often based on ritual, spirituality, and religion, natural remedies, and hot and cold beliefs—rarely is it a science.
These Buddhist ideas were arguably built on by Emile Durkheim, a French sociologist from the turn of the 1900s—he postulated that stress emerged in early industrial society, and correlated rates of suicide to those countries that were prone to industrial development. So far did industrialisation take us from our life of living in the countryside and to the natural rhythms of light and dark, to the seasons and their associated rhythms, that we became stressed by living to a tempo of life organized around the factory and production. Time became money and we worked towards it.
Stigma and our environment
We know our environment has developed with some serious flaws affecting health, including deprivation, and that work, housing, and finances all play a serious role in improving or worsening personal well-being. Where you live has all sorts of health implications. Your child’s view of whether he/she will be a success or not literally alters exam results, so it is highly important that as a parent you at least aim at a successful life and look for and talk about their achievements.
Stigma is a term coined in the early 1960s and is the result of being “different” in some way, and a value being attached to that difference is a definite phenomenon. Any humanities degree will extoll these horrific ideas and it all adds to the burden of stress. Popular in psychology now is the correlative idea that people are more likely to be ill if they have in their history some ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) or a tally of different types of abuse. So, if your father is a criminal— you are more likely to be a criminal. If your mother and father get divorced—you likely lack being loved; and if you are abused physically, emotionally, sexually or financially—you are more likely to be either ill or a criminal. It is not a complete list, but you understand the message.
Mitigating all this is your “personal resilience” to stress or what personality characteristics you can deploy to mitigate those risks. So, for example, as a child, I mitigated the risk of being bullied by developing a sharp sense of humor (humor being the personality characteristic), and it entered every part of my life as I laughed with people.
When we talk today about mental health and well-being, we are referring to emotional, psychological, and social well-being. Our emotions, how we think, feel, and behave, contribute to what is described as our “mental well-being.” Our state of “well-being” affects the way we give events a certain meaning and either take offense or understand things in a very different manner. This is the basis of rumination and insult, and this relates to the mind-body concept.
A good working definition of stress is: the body’s reaction to feeling threatened or under pressure. It’s very common and is not all bad—it can be highly motivating, helping us achieve in our daily life, and can help us meet the demands of home, work, and family life. Other people and situations stress us, particularly if we care what they think. When negative stress occurs, it can overwhelm us. This is what people generally mean when they say, “I am stressed” and it often perceptibly reduces our performance, with chronic stress altering our views and attitudes.
The idea of well-being to develop resilience to stress has become very popular. Here I want to explore personal responsibility and reveal aspects of the environment and well-being that can contribute to our overall health. Let’s face it, stress is often a state of mind and to a large degree, we should take personal responsibility. It is true, however, to say that stress results from situations you often cannot control, and I am aware that this mere realization can be taken as quite liberating. If you are not allowed to do something at work. If you can’t alter it, then adapt. The term “get a grip” sounds very harsh and unsympathetic, but it is a good thing to think—it tells your thinking brain to control your emotional brain and it works. Everyone can do it, but you need to have some tips and ideas that will work for you. If your thinking brain is managing, then you can often manage yourself into a less stressful state.
So, what else can we do about it?
In line with my ideas around personal responsibility I want to understand what I can do to help, and how I can explore the world, be free and improve my own health. I am not talking about people that are in a state of severe anxiety or highly stressed jobs at the moment. I am more interested in the stress that creeps up, slowly and insidiously. It can be seen as a slow drip of adrenalin rather than a huge surge to prepare us for flight or fight. This stress creeps up so you can’t perceive it, usually, other people point at your failings before you realize you have failed in some way. And remember, stress is most often a result of a situation that is not in your control. Either acknowledge that or change your view of the problem. One way of recognizing stress in yourself is to look for physical signs: shortness of breath, nausea, butterflies, and dry mouth are amongst the most common, but there are a lot more.
Having explored in previous articles the well-being benefits of Turmeric, green tea, etc., I want to explore the work of two entirely different authors who observe our interaction with the world. I mean Roger Ulrich and Qing Li.
Ulrich suggests that dappled sunlight, a walk in the woods, and a view through a window have serious health benefits. We have seen how architects design buildings with great views of lakes, forests, and often including nature. It goes to the extent that hospitals report people needing less medication, staff making fewer mistakes, and a greater sense of satisfaction. We have seen the Disney Imagineers creating parks we all enjoy; we observe Norman Foster creating sympathetic buildings that are aesthetically pleasing; art and design that is better than functional. The late Esther Sternberg specifically designed hospitals that are biophilic and sustainable, because in Scandinavia, both design and hospitals are core to life.
The message is clear: Go out! Go for a good walk regularly. The “view through the window,” famously used by architect and designer Roger Ulrich, points to the use of the environment to improve mental well-being or utilize the environment to reduce stress. His views are based on the idea that our native habitat is a natural environment and that departure from this causes stress.
This is an interesting idea, and it can be supported by studies of the Innuit of Canada. A nomadic tribe following patterns of natural time across the Arctic (a time to hunt seals and shoot geese) was interrupted by a well-meaning Canadian government. They were brought into small townships. This restructuring from working with the land to synchronizing to schools, jobs, government agencies, welfare, etc., meant a severing of ties with their rhythms, traditions, and development. Subsequently, reliance on alcohol increased stress, and general mental health needed management.
Qing Li explores forest bathing or Shinrin-Yoku, although a bit tree-huggy for Western taste, he convincingly argues that “technostress” or unhealthy behavior around technology results in stress-like symptoms and lifestyle-related disease. I am especially drawn because in Japan a national health program was instituted in 1982, and in 2004 the Japanese Society of Forest therapy was established to understand the evidence base for forest environments on human health.
It is all brought together by Hansen. Shinrin-Yoku to reduce undue stress is based on a state-of-the-art review, and points to numerous health benefits of immersion in nature. In summary, 72 sources of evidence, primarily from Japan and China, but also from North America and Europe, were sources. They concluded a reduction in heart rate and blood pressure and an increase in relaxation for participants.
In summary, Qing Li suggests being present and focusing on now. Take a moment to consider yourself and your life will be less stressful. Remember, Qing Li suggests ways of enjoying forest bathing including using all five senses: the sense of sight, observing the colors and the forest landscape, listening to the relaxing tones of moving water; a sense of smell, smelling the fragrance of the trees and flowers; touch, feel the trees with your fingertips, and feel the floor with your feet; and taste the fresh air in the forest. Qing Li adds that you should not tire yourself out, but stay for a while if possible.
For me, the health benefits are apparent. However, the question is how do we incorporate all of this into our habits so that we are more mindful? Try going for a walk and being present—focus on the beauty around you, not yesterday or tomorrow. Focus on your breathing—take deep breaths, and slow them down, think about your breathing and you can become present. This will enhance joy, relaxation and an overall sense of well-being and balance, which give health benefits and it costs nothing and does no harm. So, try at the weekend to go out for the day. The walk will add to the wellness properties.
Finally, maybe you could offer a constructive comment on Qing Li or Roger Ulrich, or simply share your experiences of the above? Whatever it is you decide to do, it will be a step in the right direction for your well-being.