Newsletter #457 – Lifestyle and Mental Health

Lifestyle and Mental Health” is the title of the lead article in the October 2011 issue of American Psychologist.  I almost skipped the article when I saw that the author, Roger Walsh, was arguing that unhealthy lifestyles are powerful contributors to psychological disorders and physical problems. Of course we all know this. But Walsh goes much further with a clearly written, well-documented review of research showing how our lives and our work with others are impacted by lifestyle factors that include nutrition, exercise, relationships, stress management skills, religious and spiritual involvement, and service to others. Of special interest is the research documenting the value of exposure to nature, the reduction of “media immersion” and the value of recreation. Walsh argues persuasively that “therapeutic lifestyle changes are sometimes as effective as either psychotherapy or pharmacotherapy and can offer significant therapeutic advantages…. In the 21st century, therapeutic lifestyles may need to be a central focus of mental, medical and public health.” The article is worth reading carefully and you can do so by clicking here.

The benefits of healthy lifestyles are well known and documented but mental health professionals and other leaders rarely emphasize or recommend them. What are some reasons for this?

  • Cognitive Dissonance. People-helpers whose own lifestyles are unhealthy are reluctant to mention lifestyle issues to others.
  • Society issues. Most of us live in a culture where whole industries are geared toward encouraging unhealthy choices.
  • Professional bias. “Even when changes in lifestyle would be more effective, doctors and their patients [among others] believe that for every ailment and discontent there is a drug” or a therapy that is better.
  • Patients. Many resist healthy, research-supported, cost-free lifestyle changes that are readily available and have no side effects. Making changes is too much effort and perceived as less valuable than a medical intervention.

What is your attitude about this? In light of this research how much are lifestyle choices important in your personal health, treatments or recommendations to others? Where can you make changes?

    • Chaplain Michael Sawyer
    • October 27th, 2011

    Hello Gary,

    I will agree strongly with the finding that people make too many unhealthy choices. I’ve certainly made more than my share. And my own experiences have led me to see that we, as a nation, are absorbed in the “Kingdom of Me” and the great majority of the unhealthy choices we make stem from our culture of “Meism” and the mad dash to satisfy our own desires ahead of what is truly good for us. I have seen countless times the good changes that come to lives that are steered from the alter of self to the alter of service. Those who make that change universally experience greater joy, peace and health…be it mental or physical…than they had ever previously known.

    As for professinal bias, there is much resistance, for example, in the psychiatric community to the inclusion of neuthetic counseling, even for Christian believers. Generally speaking, psychiatry tends to make “me” the focus of discussion and disection as opposed to focusing on the man or woman we’re called to be. The esult i tht it takes us back to “all about me”.

    In my chaplaincy work, I strive to help people who are struggling with making unhealthy choices to see beyond themselves to identify the “Kingdom of Others”…those who need us and the strength and support that is available uniquely through each serving soul. The fact is that, when we pursue a life that emmulates Christ, we are doing exactly that…making healthy choices through serving others, just as He did…and still does.

    Grace and peace,

    • Good observations Michael. It is not just psychiatry; we all live in me-centered environment. I wonder if Corinth or Athens were like that? We can still live in environments that disdain God even as we keep ourselves and our clients aware of his presence.

  1. The importance of nature struck a chord with me — I live in China and realized about a week ago that I have not stepped on anything natural (not concrete or asphalt) for … and then i couldn’t really remember and that is not good! I do wonder the impact of living in large cities the world is going to have on people. AND the challenge of believing in the importance of taking care of yourself but realities sometimes thrwarting / trumping desires.

    • Sobering, isn’t it! I live in a suburb of Chicago but it is so easy to miss nature. And spending time in God’s creation is so uplifting. Remember we can always look up. Even in smog filled environments the sky can be beautiful and reason for thanksgiving.

  2. There is certainly a challenge to persuade the masses of truth when it comes to healthy living. As a “mostly” vegan (I am still a social eater and will not offend my host), I find very few people who are open to taking responsibility in areas that require significant lifestyle adjustments.
    Seeing the difficulty of persuading people to make these kind of lifestyle adjustments gives me additional patience in helping others to learn what it means to fully live for the glory of God.

    • Thanks Bruce,

      Of special interest to me is the realization that those of us who know the value of healthy lifestyles still do little or nothing to change. Getting up earl;y and going to the fitness club seems like a struggle every morning even though I know it is good for me and I enjoy the workout once I get into it. It is easy to understand why so many people would rather pop a pill. It is a lot more convenient.

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