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Shades of Gray

by Jeremy McCarthy

I have a confession to make. This column is based on a false dichotomy. “Mental Wellness” doesn’t really exist, at least not the way we think it does.

We humans think in false dichotomies all the time. The mind likes to simplify things down to “black and white” rather than acknowledge the complexity of reality. So when we think about well-being, we find it simpler to look at mental wellness and physical wellness as two distinct realms. In some ways, this is helpful. It allows us to organize our thinking. We can begin to classify health disorders into their categories. Physical wellness includes heart disease, obesity, respiratory illness, etc. Mental wellness includes depression, anxiety, loneliness, etc. And we can categorize the solutions as well. For physical wellness, we should exercise and eat well. For mental wellness we should practice meditation, gratitude, cognitive therapy, etc.

But this model doesn’t hold up very well to any kind of careful scrutiny. First of all, mental and physical health are completely intertwined. Often, our mental worries and anxiety are related to our physical state. Likewise, mental stress is considered one of the largest contributing factors to physical ailments. The solutions are also intertwined. A psychiatrist will recommend physical exercise as one of the first and most powerful prescriptions for a patient with depression. And a physician who is treating a patient with obesity will have to work on their mental strength before they can effectively get them to improve their exercise and diet habits.

Yoga is a good example of an intervention that doesn’t fit well into either category because yoga is, by definition, about finding union between the mind and the body. Modern yoga is far from perfect, but philosophically, yoga’s holistic view of wellness is more accurate. More complex, but more accurate. Yogic wellness is when what we think, what we say, what we do and how we move are all in alignment with our highest values. This is a better representation of human wellness than the illusion we tend to fall back on that physical and mental are separate domains. In our case, you can’t separate the software from the machine.

So, you might ask, why am I writing a column about “Mental Wellness” if I don’t think it really exists? The first answer is because my editor asked me to. And she asked for good reason: because this is what people are interested in. In the last issue, I talked about how Mental Wellness had risen to the top of the wellness pyramid.

The second answer is that it is helpful to think about mental wellness, because this is the part of the dichotomy that we tend to neglect. We spend far more time thinking about and working on the physical, tangible world that we can see. When a new injury, blemish or ache appears in or on our body, we immediately seek professional advice. But the aches in our heart are the ones that we leave to fester or fizzle out on their own.

As we age, we are far more motivated to look after our physical machine. We take steps to maintain our appearance, nourish our bodies nutritionally, exercise appropriately, etc. We are proactive in our pursuit of physical wellness. But how much effort do we put in, really, to maintaining and improving our mental well- being? For most of us, the answer is not enough. We could do much more.

The mental/physical dichotomy is a good one if it gets us to take care of our minds and our hearts the same way we take care of our bodies. If we set aside time each week to practice intentional exercises to develop our mental strength and resilience. If we practice mental nutrition, feeding our minds with information that is educational and uplifting, and avoiding “junk” that leaves us hollow and empty. And if we maintain and develop better awareness of our mental states, so that we can seek help when we feel pain. This is mental wellness. It may be an illusion. But it is a positive one.

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