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Brain Health

The Mind and Health

Please note this is a guest post from Dr. Larry Berkelhammer, PhD. Dr. Berkelhammer has some very relevant, first-hand information about being healthy starting with your mental state.

If you are someone living with a debilitating chronic medical condition, and you are already eating a nutrient-dense diet, getting sufficient daily exercise and sleep, and you want to know what more you can do, read on.

I live with a primary immunodeficiency disease, two autoimmune diseases, a severe malabsorption condition, and other chronic conditions. Once I finally realized that there were no cures and that no cures were likely to come in my lifetime, and that because of co-morbid conditions, the existing treatments could create other problems, I began to look around to find what I could do beyond medical care and the usual things such as good diet, exercise, and sleep habits. Despite good health habits, discomfort, disability, fatigue, and malaise were with me more days than not, and I wanted to get beyond them. Thus began several years of performing literature reviews of controlled trials of the application of mental training to medical conditions.

It is important to actively do everything possible to live a life where you are fully engaged in activities and relationships that are rewarding and meaningful. Once I realized this, I began to bring conscious awareness to every activity throughout the day and to focus on the activities that were most aligned with my personal life values. Where obligation necessitated certain activities, I looked inward and found new meaning in those activities I disliked, and realized that I had the power to consciously choose virtually all my activities.

The brain not only determines how we think, but how we think creates anatomical and physiological changes in the brain. Because every thought has physiological correlates, some form of daily mental training is important for health. We all engage in thinking that triggers feelings of anxiety, depression, anger, or joy. Most of the time, we don’t consciously choose where to put our attention, resulting in unnecessary emotional distress, with its concomitant physiological stress.

The simplest way to improve wellbeing and health is to adopt a practice of slow diaphragmatic breathing at approximately six to twelve breaths per minute with longer out-breaths than in-breaths. This method is most easily learned through a couple of biofeedback sessions in RSA breathing.

Another evidence-based method of mental training is mindfulness meditation. This method is most easily learned by taking an eight-week MBSR class; such classes are available in every metropolitan area and university town.

Still another evidence-based way of increasing wellbeing and health is by committing to do whatever it takes to increase the quantity and quality of social connections and to work toward improving communication in all types of relationships. This is explored in depth in my book In Your Own Hands: New Hope for People with Chronic Medical Conditions along with all the epidemiological evidence and ways to improve relationships.

It can be helpful to look for like-minded communities to join. Doing volunteer work has also been associated with improved wellbeing and health; this is especially true when it is done in community with other volunteers who are working together in some way as part of a group effort and common purpose.

Examining your personal life values and making sure your daily activities are aligned with those values has also proven to improve wellbeing and health. This practice allows us to appreciate a greater sense of meaning and purpose to our lives.

All methods of personal growth improve resiliency, and increased resiliency improves psychological flexibility, which in turn reduces emotional distress along with its concomitant physiological stress. This is how to train the mind to improve wellbeing and health.

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A Mind-Body Medicine researcher living with chronic debilitating medical conditions, Dr. Larry Berkelhammer now teaches about evidence-based practices to improve life for people living with chronic medical conditions. “In Your Own Hands: New Hope for People with Chronic Medical Conditions—Mindfulness-Based Practices for Mastery and Wellbeing” is his recently published book about evidence-based practices to improve quality of life for people living with debilitating chronic medical conditions. His non-commercial blog and extensive website provides numerous text articles and videos: http://www.larryberkelhammer.com/

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