When we think of living a healthy lifestyle much of the attention, and deservedly so, is focused on nutrition and exercise. As a nation we are suffering the consequences of decades of abuse. We consume toxic amounts of sugar, unhealthy fats, and chemicals while living a sedentary lifestyle. We are essentially poisoning our bodies leading to an epidemic of obesity and disease. To live a full and healthy life greater attention must be provided to our physical health. However, today I am going to focus upon another area of health that gets less attention from the mainstream media, but is just as important. Today I we will examine what I believe are toxic thoughts and belief systems that poison our body with stress, anger, depression, fear and leave us feeling helpless and out of control.
First, lets accept certain facts to be true. Every thought you experience creates a distinct physiological response. Thoughts have an impact on our emotional experience and the behavior choices we make. Therefore, we cannot separate mind from body. Our thoughts are essential to our physical well being. For too long, influential people in this country have benefited from separating our physical health from our mental health. If you want to learn more about the association between our mental and physical health I would refer you to the research on the stress hormone Cortisol, our bodies physiological response to stress and nueroplasticity. Beyond the scope of this post though…. so sorry! So as we move forward understand our thoughts and beliefs are affecting us physically.
The United States is heavily influenced by an allopathic medical philosophy that treats disease with pills and a scalpel. We too often choose to see health as predominately genetically influenced and minimize the impact of important lifestyle choices, including our choices to think and behave in unhealthy ways. Because of the enormous influence of the pharmaceutical
industry we tend to externalize our mental and physical health, as if it is out of our control. We look for pills to mask our pain, treat our symptoms and minimize our distress. This belief system is toxic and we will examine this in more detail.
Helpless Thoughts, Helpless Feelings, Helpless Behaviors
Many often inaccurately view our moods and behaviors as beyond our control, just like many view disease as beyond our control. We live in a society that chooses to pathologize normal human responses, sending the message we should not feel distress. As a result, this changes how we interpret pain and the challenges we face in life. Because we believe we should not feel sad, depressed, anxious our immediate response is to believe “something is wrong,” and thus our response becomes exasperated. Because we are bombarded with media messages that support a selfish lifestyle emphasizing your immediate happiness and personal needs above others we feel
distress when we are unhappy.
Many want you to believe your are sick or ill, rendering you helpless to a drug to alter your symptoms. If there was such a drug that could perform such a miracle, and without dangerous side effects, I would fully support it. Does this mean nobody should ever need medication? Absolutely not! The problem is the statistically small number of people who may require such an intervention to improve functioning and quality of life has dangerously expanded beyond what the drug was scientifically designed to do. The results have been devastating. For example, despite overwhelming research about the limited effectiveness of anti-depressant medication for conditions other than severe depressive illness, prescriptions for antidepressants are rising at an alarming rate. The consequence is the development of a toxic belief that, “our moods and behaviors are beyond our control.” We fail to recognize our ability to overcome hardship, pain and traumatic events. Our culture continuously sends messages that we are powerless. Feeling depressed? Feeling anxious? Take this pill. You are inflicted with a disease and you must rely upon this pill to alter your suffering. It renders us powerless, but more importantly protects us from assuming responsibility for our own suffering.
As a clinical psychologist I am becoming increasingly more concerned by the power of unhealthy patterns that are pervasive in our culture. Let’s take a moment to honestly examine our current lifestyle beyond unhealthy nutrition and a lack of exercise. 45-50% of first marriages end in divorce, 60-67% of second marriages end in divorce, 70-73% of third marriages end in divorce. Depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, and attention disorders continue to rise along with disease. Our life expectancy is rising, due to our advanced medical technology, but our quality of life is decreasing. Our health care system is literally crumbling in its attempt to manage symptoms and prolong life.
Antidepressant use has surged almost 400 percent, when you compare the figures from the three- year period ending in 2008 to the six years ending in 1994, the year the eye-opening memoir Prozac Nation was published. The medicating of Americans for mental illnesses continued to grow over the past decade, with one in five adults now taking at least one psychiatric drug such as antidepressants, antipsychotics and anti-anxiety medications, according to an analysis of pharmacy-claims data. Are we happier? Are we living a higher quality of life?
We are bombarded with so many marketing ads and media messages we have lost our grip on reality. Keep in mind many industries profit from us remaining sick both mentally and physically. If we were to let the media and marketing messages determine our reality this is what we would believe:
1. The world is a very dangerous place as news programs emphasize the tragedy and pain life has to offer. The message: “You and your family are in danger: Stayed tuned at a 11 to hear how you can keep yourself safe!” The result, A society vigilant to the next threat, worried, anxious, guarded, and self protective.
2. You should not feel bad. Low mood, unhappy, fatigued then you may be suffering from a DISEASE called depression or an anxiety disorder. If you want to get better take this pill. By the way side effects include suicidal thoughts amongst many others. Instead of taking a genuine look at the impact of our unhealthy lifestyle on our moods (including relationships, behavior patters, thinking styles, nutrition and activity level) we look for a substance or other quick fix to alter our experience.
3. Do you want to be happy? Then you need to focus more on yourself. Magazines, television programs, commercials emphasizing an unhealthy focus on vanity, your needs above others, feeling good in the moment and creating an unhealthy obsession with ourselves. The result, a greater disconnect from each other. We become angry and resentful when others cannot fulfill our desires and search for something or somebody to make us feel better. It can range from a substance, to plastic surgery, a tan, an outfit, or a fantasy world.
4. Our children are bombarded with instant stimulation from the moment they exit the womb. Kids cannot even survive a car ride without watching a movie or playing a video game. So what happens when they enter a classroom and are required to sit still, focus and attend to one person for extended time? So what do we do? Do we remove the stimulation, assist with emotion regulation strategies, set up an environment both at home and in school conducive to learning and increasing focus? No- we tell them they are sick and give them a pill.
Ladies and gentleman the attitudes above are unhealthy and dysfunctional. Do you want to feel better? Are you interested in improving your quality of life? Let’s first start with making some simple shifts in your thinking and behavior. We can learn to accept our emotions as what they are and be careful not to let them dictate our behavior. You are a human being. You can feel anger, irritability, sadness, happiness, and just be plain old moody. Do not let your moods dictate your reality. We can choose to control our behaviors: We can choose to love; to be kind; to do nice things for others; to add vegetables to our diet and start an exercise plan; to show appreciation to those in our life we value; to cut sugar from our diet; we can choose to make a list of everything we appreciate in our life; we can choose to go for a walk instead of channel surf; we can choose to communicate; choose to give a hug; choose to smile at a stranger. Begin to change your thinking: We can choose to see life as time limited; to see fast food, processed foods, sugars and unhealthy fats as poison; We can choose to let go of resentment and attend to the important relationships in our life; we can choose to forgive; we can choose to value what we do have rather than focus on what we don’t; we can choose to see people as fallible and imperfect and support them when they make mistakes; we can choose to accept that life is hard and there is much to be learned from the challenges we face; we can choose to think about our attitude as the most important healthy lifestyle change we can make. We can make these choices then evaluate our mood. Trust me, you will feel much better than any drug could ever make you feel. Our choices are powerful!