When it comes to what can keep your mind well and your joy and confidence high, it’s not all about meds and therapy. Little stuff you do in a day—basic self-care stuff—is actually strong medicine, says MH advisor Gregory Scott Brown, M.D. In his new book, The Self-Healing Mind, he outlines five really simple strategies with scientific evidence behind them—attention to breathing, sleep, spirituality, nutrition, and movement—that can help take you from dragging yourself through a day or gritting your teeth through the worst of it to living with vitality, freedom and joy. We caught up with Dr. Brown to find out how, exactly, this gets you a mind that works for you.
We’ve got crises all around us, we’ve got doctors, we’ve got meds. Yet you suggest self-care can help. Really?
Dr. Brown: A lot of people who see a psychiatrist are expecting either medication or talk therapy. That’s where most of the discussion around mental health is right now. Often, in the media and from influential people, we hear "go to therapy, go to therapy, go to therapy." Therapy is expensive. Therapy is inaccessible to a lot of people. Unless you’re in a position to be able to afford it or are in an area where access to therapy is abundant—and unfortunately, in most parts of the country, it’s not—then that’s a conversation that falls flat for a lot of people. These evidence-based self-care strategies aren’t a replacement for getting the help you need if you have a mental illness. But they are things that you can do every day. And they can benefit every single one of us. If you’re in therapy, these can be a helpful adjunct. Because the life you live outside of the therapist’s office is where the most important work takes place.
These strategies are all pretty basic. Why don’t we hear about them as being useful for mental health more often?
These techniques aren’t new, but they’re only starting to be part of the conversation in clinical mental health settings, and part of the reason is that they haven’t historically been taught to doctors in school. In my residency training, for instance, when someone was anxious, you learned to recommend a medication, maybe a little cognitive behavioral therapy. There is evidence for medication and for psychotherapy. But there’s also a lot of evidence that taking an active role in protecting one’s own well-being has a place in promoting resiliency and mental health and even alleviating the symptoms of common mental illnesses like depression and anxiety, and we can’t ignore that.
Why these five?
Often when people think about self-care, they think about taking a day off work or going to a meditation retreat. They’re thinking of it kind of as a reward for hard work. But self-care is really about principles as simple as paying attention to what you put on your plate, of getting up and moving around, of being mindful of your breathing and sleep, and of tapping into your spiritual self.
So do you need to believe in God to be mentally healthy?
No, you don’t. Whatever method you find that can help you develop a connection with yourself or with your broader environment—whether that’s with family, friends, God or anything else—can be a form of spirituality. It helps you discover your own purpose and place in the world, and that helps you develop more resilience in the face of stress.
None of these steps is the dreaded “if something’s bothering you, talk about it” advice. Why not?
That’s really important, but a lot of times those conversations don’t go as we expect for them to go. That doesn’t mean we should stop talking. But the steps here are really things that men and women can do themselves without requiring another person to be plugged in or engaged.
So which step should you start with?
Any of them. Try different ways to pay attention to each step, and know that there will be fits and starts. Growth is a nonlinear process. It might not always seem that way, but it’s our setbacks that help us learn to live with purpose, balance, contentment and hope.
Find out more details on each strategy in Dr. Brown's new book, The Self-Healing Mind: An Essential Five-Step Practice for Overcoming Anxiety and Depression and Revitalizing Your Life.
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