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Positive psychology, health, and healing: a mental practice
Cheryl Alvarez, Psy.D.
Adapted by Alzheimer’s Family Center
The World Health Organization defines mental health 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.” According to Dr. Cheryl Alvarez, Psy.D., Director of Outpatient Behavioral Health at Alzheimer’s FamilyCenter (AFC), different stressors can cause deterioration of one’s mental health, including environmental stress, circumstantial stress, biological changes, and health conditions. “The negative effects of stressors include changes in sleeping/eating, reduced ability to cope and increased forgetfulness,” she says. “It can cause a withdrawal from social activities and increased isolation.” She adds that continuous stress can change your brain, affect brain size, structure and how it functions.
The good news is there are four mental practices that can positively impact one’s mental, spiritual, and physical health: an optimistic state of mind, gratitude, meditation and spirituality, and harnessing powerful thoughts for good. These four practices can help lower the impact of stressors resulting in improved health. Here is how you can engage in each practice.
Adopt an optimistic state of mind. “Optimism refers to the general expectation that good things will happen,” Dr. Alvarez notes. Optimistic people have more than just a cheerful disposition-they are more likely to explain negative things that happen in ways that promote coping. Optimists are more likely to see difficult situations as temporary, manageable, and the effect of negative events is more contained. They might see a flight being cancelled as an inconvenient, but temporary delay– not something that ruins the whole trip. Optimists have an 11-15% longer life span, and have greater odds of living past 85 years (Lewina, 2019). Optimists are more likely to engage in physical activity, have fewer cardiovascular illnesses, and improved lung function. Emotionally, optimists have less extreme emotional reactivity, have a faster recovery from acute stressors, and better emotional regulation.
Practicing gratitude has been linked to improved sleep, increased exercise, reduced pain, and lower blood pressure. Gratitude ties into social bonding, reward and stress relief that can lend itself to more generosity, less depression, improves coping with stress and an improvement in social relationships.
Mediation and Spirituality
A relationship with God (or other transcendent being) is linked to multiple emotional differences in populations. An accountability to God is associated with a greater sense of dignity, meaning in life and mattering to others. People who have faith or practice a religion recover from illness or injury more rapidly and completely (Uderman, 2000). “Comfort and feelings of control can improve coping skills and ease anxiety,” Dr. Alvarez says. Spirituality and religion appear to slow cognitive decline, and help people use coping strategies to deal with their disease and have a better quality of life (Agil, 2015). Prayer as a special form of meditation can help one let go of unhelpful feelings, become less reactive, reduce heart rate and reduce blood pressure. It can also improve melatonin and serotonin levels, boost immune response, and reduce anxiety and pain (Andrade, 2009).
Harnessing Powerful Thoughts for Good
Emotions can affect health by changing the body’s state (Peterson & Seligman, 1987). Bitterness can be dangerous for one’s heart, as anger and hostility has been shown to contribute to cardiovascular disease (Merkes, 2011). Positive self-talk has been linked to a higher resistance to the common cold, better cardiovascular health and reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease (Scheier, 1989). “Shifting to a positive emotional state where we become aware of our thoughts and reframe them to find the silver lining is important for one’s health,” Dr. Alvarez states. “Sneaky thoughts such as filtering, personalizing, catastrophizing, and an ‘all or nothing’ mindset can have negative impacts on one’s health. It is also important to listen to yourself talk, as your inner critic can have a negative effect on immunity and higher rates of illness.” Positive self-statements can be a great way to shift this narrative, such as “I’m not good at bowling” to “I’m a great Pickle ball player!” Other mood shifters include music, walking, laughter, finding consistency, processing emotions, mediation, yoga or Tai Chi.
Sometimes managing stress can be hard but the following are actionable activities you can do to help mitigate stressors in your life.
- Relaxation techniques
- Pleasurable activities
- Using external memory aids
- Keeping a journal (daily or weekly activity)
- Finding meaning in small movements
- Small joys build a reserve to help through difficult times
- Writing personal thank you notes
- Expressing gratitude in person
Exploring Pandemic “Opportunities”:
- Reframing a difficult situation into an opportunity
- Save money
- Chores done
- Slowing down & relaxing
- Family time
- Focused routine
- Investing in self
- Finishing house projects
- Trying new recipes
- Pick up a new hobby
- Making new friends
- Reconnecting with neighbors
Make a Change for the Better
“Awareness and reframing are significant to committing to a mental practice that fosters positivity,” Dr. Alzarez states. “How do you feel when you expect negative things to happen? How do you feel when you expect the best outcomes? Allowing yourself to spend energy on rewarding thought or feedback can prompt a positive mental shift.” She advises that those seeking a more positive life experience set aside skepticism and negative expectations – don’t be invested in “being right about things going wrong.” Be flexible and reframe when life throws a curve ball. Talk about the good news of the day. Surround yourself with positive friends and loved ones. Doing so will not only improve your mental health, but your physical health too.