Op-Ed piece by SD Shanti, originally published in the Arizona Republic, the leading newspaper of Phoenix and neighbouring region. February 2, 2014
The text of the entire article is placed here to facilitate translation.
Professor: Self-regulating behavior can make us healthier
When I graduated from dental school, I went to dental conferences and got free toothbrushes. When I graduated from a master’s-degree program in public health, I went to public health conferences and got free condoms. When I graduated from a doctoral program in psychology, I went to psychology conferences and got … nothing.
This story illustrates one of the biggest problems we face in the arena of mental health, namely that the issues we deal with are often intangible. Pharmaceuticals and caricatures of shrinks as portrayed in mass media offer us an incomplete picture of the world of mental health. What is missing is a means of describing mental-health promotion in such a way that speaks to broad audiences, from children to seniors across all countries and cultures.
Interpersonal violence and emotional distress and depression are widespread public health problems around the world, on the same scale as HIV/AIDS and dental decay. But their origins are predominantly behavioral.
There are no bacteria to vaccinate against, no viruses to vanquish, and there are no commercial products that drive an industry that supports disease prevention such as we have with toothbrushes and toothpaste.
According to the World Health Organization, violence affects one out of every three women. But violence is not only a women’s problem, as large numbers of men also experience it. Depression is a major cause of disability in the world — leading to lost productivity, distressed families and increased risk of suicide. Often, violence and depression go hand in hand.
We have seat belts and vaccines to prevent injuries and illnesses. Similarly, there exists within psychology the means of reducing, if not entirely preventing, violence and depression. However, the preventive methods are behavioral. They are intangible, yet their effects can be felt in terms of the emotions we experience and in our quality of life.
It is daunting to think about tackling these problems, especially when they affect millions of people. It’s like trying to cross the Alps on foot. But, as with any mountain climb, it all boils down to taking small and regular steps. One by one, they add up into something big and measurable.
Small steps, big progress
Self-regulation is one of those steps that will go a long way toward preventing violence and depression. If behaviors were vaccines, this would be one of them. Self-regulation is also at the heart of the folk saying: “You can’t control which way the wind blows, but you can adjust your sails.”
It can be broken down into two major realms: regulation of our actions and regulation of our thoughts and emotions. You can think of self-regulation as a psychological thermostat that keeps people from exploding in anger or spiraling into despair.
Consider road rage. Instead of reacting with irritation and aggression, if a person learns to use self-regulation in a preventive manner, he can think his way through the situation. Maybe the driver who cut him off did not mean to do so intentionally. What if he had an ailing relative he was rushing to see? Broadening one’s perspective and looking for alternate explanations of events is one way of diffusing negative emotions.
Mindfulness — the act of focusing on the present moment and letting extraneous thoughts fall by the wayside — is another means of self-regulation. It is a way of decluttering our minds, allowing us to turn off unwanted thoughts, especially those that undermine our confidence or fuel our fears.
Seeking emotional support is another way of dealing with negative emotions. Instead of withdrawing into isolation or seeking solace through chemical substances, we can turn to a trusted person such as a spouse, partner or friend.
Our bodies and minds are intricately interconnected. Exercise or any form of physical movement can also serve as an effective means of dealing with negative emotions, as anyone who has played a game of hoops to let off steam can attest.
There’s no doubt that self-regulation is important for our physical and emotional well-being. But the challenge lies in getting this concept across to a range of people of different ages, cultures and customs.
That’s where the power of metaphor comes in.
Brushing your mind
Toothbrushing is among the world’s most widely carried out acts of self-regulation. Nearly everyone does it, regardless of where the person lives or what language the person speak. What might happen if we all “brushed our minds” in the same way that we brush our teeth?
Negative emotions are a lot like dental plaque. No one escapes either; they are an inevitable part of life. In both instances, a little bit of plaque and a little burst of negative emotion are not likely to lead to serious problems. However, when left unchecked, both negative emotions and dental plaque can have a cumulative effect that will cause damage over time.
What if people learned from childhood onward how to brush their minds, just as we learn from a young age to brush our teeth?
Every health-care provider has his or her personal list of patient interactions that we never forget. One of mine was in Switzerland, where in my psychology practice, a woman sat on my sofa, Kleenex box at hand, upset and crying because of difficulties in her life. That was when it hit me, that what I was witnessing was the psychological equivalent of a toothache.
Certainly brushing one’s teeth is not a guarantee against developing a toothache. But it is definitely an important component of disease prevention and health promotion. Similarly, brushing one’s mind is not a guarantee against aggressive outbursts or sadness that impedes a person’s ability to function. But if we are to do something about the data mountains, and attempt to reduce these global statistics, we have got to start somewhere.
The formula for preventing psychological problems is similar to that of preventing other health problems. It’s complex and is influenced by a host of factors, including socioeconomic status and access to preventive services. But one of the key elements of this process is that of the individual taking action to help him or herself.
Does toothbrushing prevent all dental problems? Certainly not. Yet if large numbers of people did not brush their teeth, what might that look like? Similarly, brushing one’s mind is not going to be the end-all to the problems of violence and depression.
Yet if large numbers of people around the world regularly brushed their minds, how might their lives be different? And if large numbers of people around the world regularly brushed their minds, what impact might that have on the global data on violence and depression?