Dr. Chad Sato
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
Recently, do you find yourself asking, When will this COVID-19 situation ever end or get under control? For the past eight months our lives, social connections, routines and behaviors have been drastically affected. The ever-changing mandates and overwhelming statistics can take a toll on our mental wellness and resilience. But that’s not all that is happening in the world today.
If you look around, the pandemic has also inspired a lot of kindness and acts of aloha within our community. Some people are ordering take-out more often to help small businesses; non-profits are being created to gather resources to support frontline workers, the unemployed and many others who are struggling in one way or another because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Look for the “good news,” because hope and the ability to deal with stress and challenges allow you to maintain mental wellness.
Defining and Assessing Mental Wellness
According to the World Health Organization, mental wellness is defined as “a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”
Right now reflect on the state of your mental health and think of friends or loved ones. Are you or they experiencing an increase or decrease in food intake, too much or too little sleep, little to no energy, apathetic feelings or unexplainable aches and pains? Are you or they increasing smoking or alcohol consumption, going through the day with a mental fog, lack of focus, edginess or mood swings, increased agitation and irritability or an inability to carry out simple daily tasks? If you are experiencing any, or a multitude, of these symptoms, they could be early signs of compromised mental health. Oftentimes, it’s difficult to admit you are suffering from mental illness due to the stigma that is attached; let’s face it, we all like to think that we are doing okay.
Experiencing compromised mental health does not make you weak. In fact, it takes courage and strength to be vulnerable, to admit that you need assistance in regaining proper mental health and wellness. Understand that fortifying your mental health helps build your resilience to handle stress, to relate with others with different views or fears than yours and to make choices aligned with your own needs. We have all been severely challenged during this COVID-19 experience; we know that staying connected with loved ones and supportive friends and adopting a different mindset, can make all the difference.
For those who have had traumatic life experiences, survived physical or mental/emotional abuse, come from a family history of mental-health problems or received diagnoses for brain-chemistry issues, there is hope. Throughout my 21 years of practice, I have witnessed that individuals who have endured and survived the most challenging life circumstances possess increased resilience in dealing with adversity. Instead of seeing yourself as broken, your ability to keep on living is a strength in itself.
Think of the Japanese art of kintsugi – the art of repairing broken pottery with gold and lacquer. It is also a philosophy that something broken can be remade into something more resilient and beautiful. Scientific studies of failure help support this understanding.
Research: The Benefits of Optimism
From years of research on failure and helplessness, Martin Seligman, known as the father of
positive psychology, discovered that optimism is the key. In the late 1960s, his team discovered “learned helplessness,” where they witnessed a variety of animals that learned to eventually accept mildly painful shocks, which they had no control over and did not attempt to escape.
A 1975 experiment by Donald Hiroto and Seligman found that humans exhibited this same behavior. To summarize, the researchers studied three groups of people that were faced with an annoying loud noise. Group 1 could not turn off the noise, realized they had no control over the situation, gave up and did nothing. From this experience, they learned to expect failure.
Group 2, the control group, heard no noise.
And Group 3 was given access to a way to turn off the noise. This experience taught the group to look for a solution to a problem.
Later when the groups were given a new scenario, they were influenced by their prior experiences. Most of Group 1, due to expecting more failure, didn’t even try to stop the noise or escape; they learned helplessness.
The strange discovery, though, was that a third of the animals and humans that experienced inescapable shocks (Group 1) or noise never became helpless. The difference was that this one-third of group members innately saw the setback or failure as temporary and, instead of being pessimistic, were optimistic.
Research: The Gut-Brain Connection
Another research study conducted in Sweden discovered a connection between the gut and brain related to mental health, Alzheimer’s disease in particular. In Nature Journal’s Scientific Reports on Feb. 8, 2017, researchers from the University of Lund found that mice with Alzheimer’s have a different composition of gut bacteria compared to healthy mice.
Besides comparing the gut composition of mice with and without Alzheimer’s, the Swedish researchers also studied mice that completely lacked gut bacteria – finding a significantly lower level of the beta-amyloid plaque that is associated with Alzheimer’s development. The researchers even transferred gut bacteria from mice with Alzheimer’s to those without it, finding that the latter mice subsequently developed more of this plaque which affected their brains. Lead researcher, Frida Fak Hallenius, claimed, “Our study is unique as it shows a direct causal link between gut bacteria and Alzheimer’s disease.”
The implication of this research for humans is that dietary choices may have some effect on mental conditions; fermented probiotic foods like kim chee, yogurt and miso could also help to promote a healthy balance of gut bacteria and mental wellness because of this gut-brain connection.
We can take small daily actions to bolster our minds, even when things around us seem overwhelming.
Establish and Maintain a Positive Mental State
Are you having a mental conflict due to a new enforced behavior and belief that doesn’t align with your own? Check in to see if you have been this way for the past eight months –
• Feeling uncomfortable.
• Attempting to avoid conflict.
• Ignoring the facts and telling others to do as I say, not as I do.
• Rationalizing with conflicting evidence.
• Getting overwhelmed by emotions of shock, shame and guilt.
Mental-health officials recommend establishing and maintaining a positive mental state, because it helps you to cope with stress, work meaningfully and productively, contribute to your greater community and maximize your full potential. The best ways to achieve and maintain positive mental health include:
• Knowing when to seek professional help.
• Connecting with loved ones.
• Physical activity.
• Proper nourishment and drinking water.
• Adequate amounts of sleep.
• Cooperating with and helping others.
• Prayer and/or meditation.
• Surrounding yourself with positivity.
• Limiting your exposure to toxic people and substances.
• Focusing on what you can control and let go of anything you cannot.
• Mindfulness and breathing.
• Before bedtime, writing down three things you are grateful for.
• Challenging negative thoughts by searching for concrete facts that show otherwise.
• Creating simple and do-able affirmations.
• Being less judgmental of, and more kind to, yourself.
Finally, start thinking critically and question situations or relationships that don’t sit well with you. If you find a slight hesitation and inner disturbance, don’t dismiss this feeling. This is cognitive dissonance, which according to Oxford Dictionary is “the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs or attitudes,” especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.
Don’t passively shift into helplessness. Protect your mind from being influenced from outside sources, know your truth and live your best and most authentic life.
Dr. Chad Sato graduated from UCLA in 1995 with a bachelor’s degree in biology and earned the Doctor of Chiropractic degree with honors from Life Chiropractic College West in 1998. Sato founded his practice, Aloha Chiropractic (alohachiro.biz), in Mänoa valley, O’ahu, on Oct. 1, 1999. He is a sought-after educator, speaker, author and mind-body specialist who helps people reach new levels of empowerment when it comes to their health and wellness by staying present with their body signs, making appropriate life choices and utilizing stress instead of managing it.