Being curious about the functioning of your body and of your mind is a powerful way of staying healthy. Awareness of health and acting on it is a cyclical process of letting your experience guide you. It is not always second nature, but has to be learned along with any other skill. Sometimes, we have to overcome a reluctance to engage with simple physiological functions (such as digestion and excretion etc.) so that we ignore early warning signs, and only take notice when a health crisis occurs. At other times, we may become over-anxious and then obsessive about bodily functions, or misinterpret a short-term acute physical symptom as a life-threatening disorder. Both of these can be tackled by a simple mental health skill called self talk. This is the thing you probably did as a child – you held a conversation with yourself, either out loud or in your head, asking and answering questions about the thing that was troubling you. Adult self-talk is an important survival skill: asking the questions that are of most concern and providing reassuring answers, if only that you shouldn’t panic as you need to find out more. It may also tell you when to break a pattern of behaviour that is unhelpful, and it reinforces a simple dictum – being aware of a health problem is often 50 per cent of the solution.
There is increasing understanding of how thinking contributes, alongside behaviour and lifestyle, to illness. I never wished to use my body as a personal test bed, but in suffering from Generalised Anxiety Disorder (worrying about worrying) I can confirm that the mind can cause debilitating physiological symptoms (i.e. diarrhoea, nausea, vomiting, muscle tension, shaking, fatigue, headaches etc.) and chronic lesions (i.e. gastric ulcer). People who learn to be aware of their mental states and how to influence them can help themselves remain healthy and deal with illness when it occurs.
There is mounting evidence that the self-fulfilling prophecy is a significant factor in determining health i.e. we become what we think! People with positive, optimistic outlooks and who feel that they are in charge of their life, generally remain healthy even after periods of stress. On the other hand, people with negative, pessimistic outlooks, who feel they have no control over their life, generally experience more illness even if they are not particularly under stress.
It’s a bit like people’s reactions to Christmas. It’s not a particularly happy time for me as I feel pressured and invariably associate it with being unwell. Not surprisingly, I always seem to have a stinking cold or some stomach bug. What I need is to break this cycle by working out some way to turn the Christmas period into a positive experience. On the broader front, it is worthwhile every so often to assess how you feel things are going for you. Have a look at the questionnaire above. Some of the questions may provoke negative thoughts in you (i.e. a low rating) and the simplest remedy is to replace the negative with a reverse image (i.e. positive) and dwell on that for a few days until your outlook is improved. This is not as woolly as it sounds – our perception of ourself is determined by our experiences and our outlook. On experiences, our beliefs and attitudes are often formed as a result of the repetitive thematic messages we get from outside ourselves as well as what we give ourselves in self talk. Pity the poor person who is repeatedly told that they are not very bright AND eventually begins to believe it! On outlook, people who expect to find difficulties are usually able to find them, while others who expect to find opportunity in the same situation are usually successful. Returning to our remedy, we must then build on that positive image by working out simple action steps that reinforce this new outlook.
People vary greatly in the number, type and intensity of friendships and other social relationships. As was concluded in the Acheson report (see overleaf) mutual support within a community can sustain the health of its members in the face of unfavourable conditions. This mutual support can be provided by your own social network and it is important to understand your sources of friendship and support. Make a list of those that offer you social support: this can be family and friends, but also think about trusted colleagues, experts that you have access to, people you share leisure and recreational activities with, people who excite, stimulate or challenge you, and even those you just kick back with. Then ask yourself the questions in the box.
The sad reality is that many people tend to withdraw from their support networks during times of stress, rather than actively seeking their support. Thus instead, develop your network so that you have confidence it can supply the counselling, encouragement, expertise and maybe direct assistance that will give you a way through a stressful period. As your outlooks and habits change, you may even find it necessary to change or perhaps end some relationships and form new, more supportive ones. Hanging on to friends with pessimistic or destructively negative outlooks may not be what your psyche needs at that moment You may be able to pick them back up later on when you could then be able to supply a positive influence to them!
Mark Fisher - Permaculture Design course handout notes