Improving Your Mental and Emotional Health

True health means not only being physically healthy, but also regularly experiencing peace of mind, contentment, and cultivating positive beliefs and attitudes. These mental and emotional aspects of health are interrelated and have been shown to play significant roles in helping people to prevent and recover from a wide range of disease conditions, including cancer. While competent professional care may be required for people suffering from depression, bipolar disorder (manic depression), or chronic, unresolved grief or anger, there are a variety of self-care measures you can use to create a more positive mental and emotional outlook. Among them are affirmations, breathing exercises, journaling, conscious laughter, and touch. Working with one or more of these methods will help you become more aware of your thoughts, emotions, and beliefs in a way that will better enable you to meet your personal and professional goals, while also experiencing greater levels of energy and greater well-being.

Affirmations
Most people's predominant beliefs are handed down to them when they are children by their parents, teachers, and other influential adults. The thoughts and ideas children hear can significantly shape their worldview, and for the most part remain with them as they grow into adulthood. Usually this process occurs unconsciously, and often with limiting consequences during adulthood, if the beliefs remain unexamined. By becoming conscious of your beliefs, you gain the power to change or eliminate those that no longer serve you, replacing them with those that do. Working with affirmations is one way of accomplishing this.

Affirmations are positive messages that you repeat to yourself either verbally or in writing in order to produce a specific outcome. Over time, they affect the unconscious by "reprogramming" it with the thoughts you consciously select to influence your behavior. In the process, they can unleash and stimulate healing energies in all areas of your life.

Because of their simple nature, the greatest challenge in working with affirmations is to suspend judgment long enough to allow them to produce the results you desire. In addition, it helps to feel your affirmations as you recite or write them, since this brings more energy to the experience. Make the process as vivid and real as possible.

The following guidelines are recommended for anyone interested in beginning an affirmation program:

  • Always state your affirmation in the present tense and keep it positive.
  • Keep your affirmations short and simple, no longer than two or three brief sentences.
  • Write or verbalize each affirmation ten to twenty times each day.
  • Whenever you experience yourself thinking or hearing a habitual negative message, counteract it by focusing on your affirmation.
  • Schedule a regular time each day to do your affirmations to add momentum to what you are trying to achieve until it becomes a positive, effortless habit.
  • Repeat your affirmations in the first, second, and third person, using your name in each variation. First person affirmations address any mental conditioning you have given yourself, while affirmations in the second and third person helps to release the conditioning you may have accepted from others. In each case, write out or repeat the affirmation ten times.
  • Visualize your affirmations by closing your eyes and imagining what the affirmation looks and feels like as you say or write it. Try to engage as many of your senses as possible during this process.
  • Make a commitment to practice your affirmations for at least 60 days.
Breathing Exercises
We can live for weeks without food, and days without water, but if we stop breathing for more than few minutes, we die. Yet most people breathe inefficiently and unconsciously, breathing shallowly through the chest and depriving themselves of the many benefits proper breathing can provide, including a greater oxygen supply to your body's cells and tissues. The benefits of proper breathing are not only physical, however. Breathing fully and deeply also relieves stress, enhances feelings of well-being, and promotes clearer thinking. Learning to breathe fully and consciously can also heal the parts of us that are wounded, rejected, or disowned, restoring them to wholeness.

Modern breath techniques focus on breathing in a manner that moves energy through the body and connects you with suppressed emotions and limiting beliefs in order to heal them. These types of breathing exercises involve connected breathing, meaning that each inhalation and exhalation is connected and occurs without pausing, unlike unconscious breathing, in which there is typically a gap between the inhale and the exhale. The rate of respiration varies; sometimes it is rapid; sometimes it is deep, slow, and full. Because of the emotional release that can result from such techniques, it is advisable to learn them under the direction of a skilled breath therapist. The following exercise, however, can be safely performed by anyone to relieve stress and increase energy.

Sit straight and in a relaxed manner, placing your palms on your chest and belly. Now breathe as you normally do. Most likely when you inhaled your hand covering your chest moved, while your other hand did not. In this exercise, you are going to reverse this pattern by breathing in through your stomach area. Keeping your hands in the same position, once more inhale, this time directing your breath in and out through your belly. Don't strain and remember to breathe fully, without pausing between the inhalation and exhalation. At first, this exercise may feel odd and even difficult, but with practice it will become easier. The goal is to breathe freely deeply only through the belly, so that your chest does not rise. (Keeping your hands in position will help you monitor your progress.)

Breathing in this manner on a regular basis is a very effective way to relieve stress, improve energy, curtail anxiety and depression, and enhance digestion. Try to breathe in this manner for at least twenty minutes each day, and whenever you feel tired, tense, or irritable.

Journaling
Also known as "expressive writing," journaling is an easy yet powerful way to keep track of your personal experiences, while also allowing you to develop new insights and solutions to your problems, discover unconscious beliefs that may be limiting your growth, and appreciate all for which you currently can be grateful. People who make a daily habit of writing entries in their journals report a deeper understanding of themselves and often become better able to achieve their goals, including health. For many people, journaling becomes a productive form of therapy that can lead to a new understanding of how and why they act the way they do. In the process, they often become better aware of their beliefs, and discover how to change those that don't serve them. Journaling is also valuable for people who have difficulty expressing their emotions. In their journals they have the opportunity to write out and resolve what they are feeling, without having to worry about others judging them.

The most common form of journaling is keeping a diary. What follow are three other forms of journaling you can use to create more vitality and personal satisfaction in your life.

The Gratitude Journal
This type of journaling is best performed at the end of the day, prior to going to bed. Its purpose is to help you better appreciate all that you have to be grateful for each and every day of your life. No matter how misfortunate you may feel at any given time, if you truthfully investigate your life you can always find reasons to be grateful, even when you are sick. By focusing on these positive factors, you generate positive emotions, which research has shown can stimulate your immune system to operate more efficiently.

To keep a gratitude journal, write down each night all the events of the day that caused you to feel happy, even those you may not have noticed when they happened. Don't rush this exercise. Take time to really examine your day and make a list of all the people and events that made you happy, allowing yourself to re-experience that happiness as you write about it. Over time, this exercise can substantially improve your mood, self-esteem, and confidence levels, boosting your physical well-being in the process.

The Stream-Of-Consciousness Morning Journal
This method of journaling was popularized by Julia Cameron, author of The Artist's Way. She suggests that upon arising each morning, you fill up three pages of paper, writing down whatever thoughts come into your head. Don't edit yourself; just write all the thoughts that occur to you. Cameron and other proponents of this method claim that this exercise helps people rid themselves of "mental debris," allowing them to become better able to then focus on and accomplish their goals during the rest of the day.

A variation of this technique is to write for 15 minutes and then read over what you wrote, underlining any thoughts that you find are negative. Then rewrite each of them as a positive affirmation (see above). For example, if you wrote, "I'm feeling tired and I wish I didn't have to get up and go to work," your rewrite might read, "I am naturally energetic and enjoy my job." Do this for each sentence you underlined. At first, you may feel resistance during this process, yet over time you will discover how performing it helps you create the reality you prefer for yourself.

The Illness Dialogue
Illness often has a mental or emotional component that isn't readily apparent. This form of journaling helps to uncover the "hidden" meaning or message of your illness so that you can better understand the causes behind your symptoms. Often, once these psychological causes are understood and accepted, the illness itself also resolves.

Perform this exercise by asking yourself the following question: "If this illness (or pain) could speak, what would it say?" Then write down the first impression that comes to you. Once again, don't edit yourself. Write down whatever occurs to you, even if it seems silly or upsetting. Read your response and ask the first question that comes to mind. Then write down your next response. Repeat the process until no further questions occur to you or you feel that you have the answer that can help you. Most likely you will need to repeat this exercise for a few days or more before your questions are resolved, but the rewards of doing so can be well worth it.

Conscious Laughter
Modern science is now beginning to verify the adage, "Laughter is the best medicine." One of the most famous examples illustrating this point is Norman Cousins, who wrote of recovering from a potentially crippling arthritic condition after spending hours watching Marx Brothers movies and reruns of Candid Camera. Laughing regularly caused his pain to lessen, until eventually his illness disappeared altogether. More recently, the work of Patch Adams, M.D., founder of the Gesundheit Institute in Arlington, Virginia, has spurred increased interest in laughter's therapeutic effects.

Hearty laughter offers many of the same benefits as gentle exercise. Laughing exercises the facial muscles, shoulders, diaphragm, and abdomen. Laughter also decreases anxiety and stress and can improve our outlook on life, which is very useful when we get sick. Research shows that laughter may also boost endorphin levels, increase circulation, and enhance immune activity.

All of us laugh at certain times throughout each day, but we can increase laughter's benefits by consciously choosing to laugh more often. Doing so requires commitment and a willingness to cultivate a sense of optimism and humor, however. Like any skill, learning to become a conscious laugher takes practice, but when you find yourself laughing throughout the day, you can be sure that you are increasingly becoming healthier in every area of your life.

Touch and Mental/Emotional Health
Touch has for centuries been an essential component of many healing traditions, including the biblical practice of "laying on of hands." Touch is also one of the most powerful methods all of us have for conveying and receiving love. The U.S., however, in comparison to other parts of the world, is in many ways a "touch-adverse" society. In order to be optimally healthy we need to consciously make touch a more frequent occurrence in our lives, recognizing that touch is a gift we can give ourselves and each other every day.

Two of the easiest ways of learning how to accept touch are self-touch and hugging. Self-touch can be as simple as giving yourself a foot massage or kneading your shoulders. Focus on what you are doing and be attentive. Self-touch can also promote calm and help you become centered during times of stress. Gently cradling your face in your hands for a few minutes with your eyes closed, for example, can restore your energy after time spent sitting at a desk or computer.

Hugging and being hugged is another simple, yet powerful way of relieving stress and enhancing well-being. To truly benefit from giving and receiving a hug, it pays to be more conscious. Many people are uncomfortable with physical closeness and unconsciously pull away from a hug before it is completed. If you fall into this category, make it a practice of giving and receiving several hugs each day with your family and friends. Holding hands or a friendly pat on the back are also ways to give and receive the benefits of touch. Petting and holding household pets can bring similar benefits, as well.

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