Holistic approaches to mental health and wellness have been catching on in popularity in Western culture, appealing to those who are looking for a different approach to feeling better.
Rather than treating symptoms of illness, a holistic approach means treating the whole person rather than only one aspect of a person’s health. While not necessarily excluding pharmaceuticals, treating holistic health includes treatments that can affect a sense of overall well-being. A holistic approach to mental health may bring in medical, social, psychological, psychiatric, behavioral, and spiritual aspects as well as consider the lifestyle of the person.
While some of these approaches may have a financial cost, many do not. Consider these:
A number of studies show a correlation between meditation and mental health. Meditation — sometimes also referred to as mindfulness — is a practice that uses techniques to raise self-awareness and focus attention with the goal of calming the mind and emotions.
Meditation as a mystical and spiritual practice has been around for thousands of years and within many cultures, mostly in Eastern traditions. Recent studies show that meditation can create measurable and beneficial results on physical as well as emotional health.
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In a 2012 U.S. survey, 1.9 percent of 34,525 adults reported that they had practiced mindfulness meditation in the past 12 months and 73 percent of the responders reported that they meditated for their general wellness and to prevent diseases. Approximately 92 percent reported that they meditated to relax or reduce stress.
To achieve a meditative state, one must practice being a passive observer of one’s thoughts without suppressing them or making them disappear. Finding a quiet place and focusing inward for about 10 minutes as a daily practice is a good way to start. It can involve maintaining a mental focus on a particular sensation, such as breathing, a sound, a visual image, or a mantra.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NIH), a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, recent studies have investigated whether meditation or mindfulness helps people manage anxiety, stress, depression, pain, or symptoms related to withdrawal from nicotine, alcohol, or opioids, and even for effects on weight control and sleep quality. Although much of the research is preliminary, results point to positive outcomes.
Studies conducted in 2018, 2019, and 2021 showed that mindfulness-based approaches were as effective as evidence-based therapies in reducing anxiety and depression. A 2020 study on the effect of mindfulness on lowering high blood pressure showed significant reduction. Numerous studies showed a reduction in pain, improved sleep quality, slightly reduced cravings in substance abuse disorders, a reduction in PTSD symptoms, improved management of eating-related behaviors, and with some positive effect on weight control, but results were inconclusive on managing attention deficit disorders.
Other studies, conducted by Johns Hopkins University and UCLA, showed evidence of meditation maintaining a “younger” brain, preserving the brain over time while increasing connectivity with other parts of the brain, improving attention, concentration, and overall psychological well-being.
Research shows that keeping an attitude of gratitude can bring a bounty of benefits mentally and physically.Gratitude
Practicing gratitude is about more than saying “thank you.” Research shows that keeping an attitude of gratitude can bring a bounty of benefits mentally and physically. A 2018 white paper titled “The Science of Gratitude” by the Greater Good Science Center sums up benefits found in numerous studies: being aware and grateful for the positive aspects in one’s life can improve happiness and a positive mood, satisfaction in one’s life, better physical health, better sleep quality, and less fatigue. It also has been shown to reduce levels of cellular inflammation that can be associated with disease. Gratitude, practiced regularly, can increase patience and resiliency. It can also strengthen relationships and improve job satisfaction.
Ways of practicing gratitude include journaling or writing letters of thanks, whether delivered to anyone else or not, focusing more on what is good over bad, acknowledging positives in others, counting our blessings, and even the act of smiling, whether we feel happy at the moment or not.
Focusing on what makes us grateful shifts attention away from toxic, negative emotions and onto positive feelings, releasing a chemical called dopamine, known as the “feel-good” chemical, in the brain.
Participants in another study who completed a four-week gratitude contemplation program reported greater life satisfaction and self-esteem than control group participants (Rash, Matsuba, & Prkachin, 2011). A study on the effects of gratitude on depression, coping, and suicide showed that gratitude is a protective factor when it comes to suicidal ideation in stressed and depressed individuals (Krysinska, Lester, Lyke, & Corveleyn, 2015). Numerous other studies show that being thankful can make us less materialistic and more giving toward others while generally increasing optimism.
People who exercise regularly report an improved sense of well-being, better quality of sleep, increased energy throughout the day, and a profound impact on levels of anxiety, depression, and ADHD.
Exercise can be practiced in a great many forms, from a lazy stroll to an Ironman triathlon. That some form of exercise is good for your physical health has long been acknowledged by the medical field. Newer studies show that exercise is also good for our mental health.
NIH reports that lifelong exercise is associated with a longer health span, delaying the onset of 40 chronic conditions and diseases. It isn’t only the physical body, however, that benefits. People who exercise regularly report an improved sense of well-being, better quality of sleep, increased energy throughout the day, and a profound impact on levels of anxiety, depression, and ADHD. Exercise reduces stress and can lead to a more positive outlook on life. Through a release of endorphins, exercise can improve memory, concentration, and mood. It can relieve tension and help in coping with trauma and PTSD.
How much exercise and how often? Even small amounts can make a measurable difference. Working out for hours in a gym is not necessary in order to enjoy positive effects. Thirty minutes of moderate exercise five times a week are ideal. Starting with a short walk of five or ten minutes can build up energy over time. Just doing chores or walking around the room for a few minutes can increase energy and well-being.
On the other hand, too much exercise can erase or reduce some of these benefits. A study by Preventive Health in 2012 showed that mental health benefits from exercise can plateau after 7.5 hours per week, after which benefits actually begin to drop. After 25 hours per week, mental health in people equaled that of sedentary people.
A little is great; too much can tax the body and mind. In general, guidelines are to choose activities that you enjoy, wear comfortable clothing, schedule workouts for times when your energy is at its highest, and consider inviting friends along for the activity.
Spending time in a park or nature preserve can help reduce stress and aid in bringing about a sense of well-being.
Where you choose to exercise can bring benefits, too. What surrounds you and what you see can affect mental health as much as the exercise itself. Research from the University of Bristol and the University of British Columbia (2021) shows that being in nature lightens the cognitive load on our brains whereas being in urban surroundings can tax our brains. Participants in the study slowed their gait and looked around more when walking in nature.
Researchers found that walking can involve more complex cognitive activity than expected and that this may be a factor in why older people living in urban areas are more inclined to avoid outside activity. The amount of activity around them may be disconcerting, whereas walking in nature can have a calming effect.
A similar study was done in 2022 by Sonja Sudimac, Vera Sale, and Simone Kuhn, titled “How Nature Nurtures: Amygdala Activity Decreases as the Result of a One-Hour Walk in Nature,” and published in Molecular Psychiatry. Findings showed that a one-hour walk in nature decreased activity in the amygdala — the part of the brain that processes stress — whereas it remained stable after a walk in an urban environment. These results suggest that going for a walk in nature may act as a preventive measure against mental strain and potentially disease.
If you live in a city, even spending some time in a park or nature preserve can help reduce stress and aid in bringing about a sense of well-being.
Pet ownership has positive effects on physical health and 2008 study includes mental health benefits, reducing depression while improving a sense of psychological well-being.Pets
Ask any pet owner if their pet brings them joy, and chances are that they will enthusiastically respond — yes! Research has long backed up such claims. A 1993 study (Patronek & Glickman) found that pet ownership has positive effects on physical health, reducing the likelihood of developing heart disease, but a 2008 study (Antonacopoulos & Pychyl) went further to include mental health benefits, reducing depression while improving a sense of psychological well-being.
Both systolic and diastolic blood pressures were significantly lower when the participant’s dog or cat was in the room with them. Quality of sleep for pet owners is greater as is the frequency of taking walks, both of which factor into a sense of well-being. Pet owners also report feeling less lonely.
Pet therapy is frequently used in hospitals, senior care facilities, veteran care centers, funeral homes, and other places where isolation, anxiety from trauma, anxiety, and stress may affect people.
Not only cats and dogs bring mental health benefits to their owners. Most any domestic animal can bring comfort, alleviate loneliness, and reduce stress in their human companions.
A well-fed body and mind are better at handling stress. Diet
What we eat and drink can affect not only our physical health but also our mental health. Food and drinks that are high in added sugars and processed carbohydrates may cause blood sugar levels to go up and down during the day, which can affect mood and energy levels. Sugary foods include processed foods, soft drinks, and many snack foods. Depression can worsen when drinking alcohol, and for some, caffeine can also contribute to depression.
Eating disorders are closely tied to mental health, correlating with depression, and anxiety. Body dysmorphic disorder is a mental health condition in which a person can't stop thinking about one or more perceived defects or flaws in appearance, whether those flaws exist or not.
Remember: a well-fed body and mind are better at handling stress.
Art is available everywhere and to everyone.
Art and Creativity
Art therapy for mental health has been in use since the 1940s. By the 20th century, art therapy was recognized as a field requiring training and certification — but art is available to anyone. While more serious cases of trauma, grief, and depression may require working with professionals, anyone — from the youngest child to the oldest adult — can embrace some form of creative expression. Painting, drawing, sculpting, writing, music, or simply building sandcastles on the beach — the possibilities are endless. Artistic expression has become a common form of therapy in mental health and residential treatment facilities, schools, shelters, nursing homes, and others. Art is available everywhere and to everyone.
Michigan State University cites extensive research that indicates art in its many forms has been shown to reduce pain, decrease symptoms of stress and improve quality of life in adult cancer patients. Art has done the same for children, reducing anxiety when dealing with the frightening symptoms of cancer or asthma.
Studies have also shown stimulation of mental function in patients with dementia when participating in an art form. Music, especially, has been shown to stimulate memory in these populations. In Parkinson’s disease patients, art has been shown to reduce depression. A 2020 AARP study on the benefits of music point to the easing of stress and anxiety while improving mood and a general sense of well-being.
What feels better than a warm hug from a loved one, a partner, a child, or a friend — or even a stranger? It helps us create bonds with other human beings.
What feels better than a warm hug from a loved one, a partner, a child, or a friend — or even a stranger? Oxytocin, a hormone produced in our hypothalamus and released into the bloodstream through the pituitary gland, soothes and eases pain and stress during such times as childbirth or sexual activity. It helps us create bonds with other human beings. And it is released into our bloodstreams during hugs. Indeed, it has earned the name of the “love hormone.” Some research has stated that human beings need four to eight hugs a day for good mental and physical health.
Social connections in general are greatly beneficial to mental health. A landmark study in 1988 (University of Michigan) showed that lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking, or high blood pressure. People who feel more connected to others have lower levels of anxiety and depression.
Those of us who enjoy social connection also have higher self-esteem, greater empathy for others, and are more trusting and cooperative. Social connectedness generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional, and physical well-being. It has even been associated with much-improved longevity.
Volunteer work to help others in need can restore perspective at times when it may seem that our own problems are surely the biggest problems in the world.
Unfortunately, recent years show a steep rise in people reporting loneliness and isolation. Loneliness is the main reason people seek psychological help. An antidote to our lack of social connectivity can find its cure in reaching out to help others. Showing compassion returns benefits to the giver as well as to the recipient. Volunteering can improve the community in which we live, but it can also improve our sense of having purpose and being needed by others.
Volunteer work to help others in need can restore perspective at times when it may seem that our own problems are surely the biggest problems in the world. Odds are, they are not. Helping others can restore a more balanced view of the world we live in.
The more we do for others, the more we do for ourselves. It can be argued that altruism is the most selfish thing we can do for our own mental health. Evidence shows that volunteering brings about a rise in self-esteem.
According to National Alliance on Mental Illness research suggests that religiosity reduces suicide rates, depression, and substance abuse.
Whatever one’s religion or belief system, having faith in a higher power has long been proven to have a positive influence on mental health. Rooted in a search for meaning in life, faith and spirituality help a person tolerate stress by generating a sense of peace, acceptance, and purpose. Religion often connects us to others of similar beliefs, so providing social connection.
According to National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, research suggests that religiosity reduces suicide rates, depression, and substance abuse. It offers a sense of community, helps people to cope with difficult situations, offers guidelines to living, teaches gratitude and forgiveness, and provides structure to our lives.
Prayer, says anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, author of How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others
(2020), works much like cognitive behavioral therapy. It helps one achieve a sense of gratitude and to shift focus from the negative to the positive.
The above is just a partial list of the many ways that one can achieve improved mental health and wellness without cracking open the wallet. Readers will surely have more. Free of cost can sometimes really be the best value.
This story is part of the Mental Wellness Project, a solutions-oriented journalism initiative covering mental health issues in southwest Michigan, created by the Southwest Michigan Journalism Collaborative. SWMJC is a group of 12 regional organizations dedicated to strengthening local journalism. Visit swmichjournalism.com to learn more.