fordCecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years.

 

The holidays are over; you’ve probably spent more time relaxing with your family than at any other time of year, and you are now facing the less charming parts of the New Year: going back to work, harsh weather conditions, flu season, and a very long time until your next vacation. There are actually some fairly simple things that can be done to help mitigate these harsh realities and boost your overall physical and mental health.

Much has been made of the mind/body connection, and in recent years, evidence has kept piling up to support its importance. A strong mind means a strong body, and vice versa. Here are three very easy things you can do to keep both mind and body healthier in the months to come.

7343890656_e40d16e3a9_zImage from Flickr via (Creative Commons License)

1.

GO OUTSIDE

I know it’s cold outside, but it turns out that it’s not just sunshine that is good for you. Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, caused by lack of exposure to sunlight, affects a great many people during the winter months, and can be corrected somewhat by the use of special lamps. Even though the sun’s rays are diminished and often hidden this time of year, it can still be helpful to go outdoors directly. And it seems that just being outside can be good for you. A recent article in The New York Times discussed the benefits of exercising outdoors and discovered that people exercised for longer periods and enjoyed it more when compared to those who exercised in gyms. They also burned more calories.

It has also been found that people have lower levels of cortisol, a hormone that is released during stress, after exercising outdoors. While exposure to sunlight may play some role in this, there is some ineffable role that just being in the outdoors can play. A recent paper in Biopsychosocial Medicine suggests that “nature ministers to the mind” as well as to the body. The authors look back over a century to the biologist John Arthur Thomson, whose concept of “medicatrix naturae” referred to healing properties inherent in connecting with the natural world.

Florence Nightingale, who famously believed in the healing properties of fresh air, may have been right in the end. It is now believed that today’s hermetically sealed hospital environments may not be all that good for patients after all. Since outside microbes are not allowed to circulate in the air, the pathogens in the hospital air have no “competition” and therefore have all the more ability to dominate. This is one of many instances when hospital science has overruled many years of what “old wives” have always known. Primary school teachers in Winnipeg bundle up their students to get them out at recess, and no good British nanny would ever let a day go by without taking the baby out for a bracing walk in the pram. But don’t expect to be able to open your hospital window anytime soon.

2.

LAUGH

No one yet has said that the funnybone is the most important organ in the body, but it may come close. Study after study has revealed the importance of laughter when it comes to our mental and physical health. “Laughter therapy,” as it is now officially called, can be traced back to a writer, Norman Cousins, who was the editor of  Saturday Review for 30 years. In 1976, doctors could do little to alleviate his pain, and gave him no hope of recovery. He embarked on his own treatment program: megadoses of vitamin C and the Marx Brothers, taken liberally and often. He found that 10 minutes of “belly laughter” would allow him two hours of pain-free sleep — something that modern medicine had failed to achieve. Cousins eventually recovered and wrote about his experience in a book, Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient, which was an international bestseller.

Laughter has an impact on many of the body’s systems, and as it does, it burns calories. According to the Mayo Clinic, 10 to 15 minutes of hearty laughter burns about 50 calories.  And WebMD reports that when we laugh, the following changes take place:

Blood flow: Researchers at the University of Maryland studied the effects on blood vessels when people were shown either comedies or dramas. After a screening, the blood vessels of the group who watched comedy behaved normally — expanding and contracting easily. But the blood vessels in people who watched the drama tended to tense up, restricting blood flow.

Immune response: Increased stress is associated with decreased immune system response. Some studies have shown that the ability to use humor may raise the level of infection-fighting antibodies in the body and boost the levels of immune cells as well.

Blood sugar levels: One study of 19 people with diabetes looked at the effects of laughter on blood sugar levels. After eating, the group attended a tedious lecture. On the next day, the group ate the same meal and then watched a comedy. After the comedy, the group had lower blood sugar levels than they did after the lecture.

Relaxation and sleep: See above, about how Norman Cousins’s 10 minutes of laughter allowed him two hours of pain-free sleep.

So if you are feeling like reading or watching TV,  try a comedy. Also, bear in mind that we’re 30 times more likely to laugh when we’re with other people than when we’re alone. Laughter is infectious, and a good comedy is usually even better if you can enjoy it with friends and family. Which leads directly to the third and most important health directive: spend time with others.

3.

CONNECT WITH OTHERS

Whether it’s with friends, family, or even eating lunch more often with co-workers rather than at your desk, time spent interacting with others will probably improve your mental and physical health. It is probably the single most important thing you can do. Any level of contact, from attending a social group or going to church, to the intimacy of marriage—being with other people seems to be good for us. And the lack of companionship is decidedly unhealthy. It’s been found that pain experienced in a social situation—from a rejection, for example—is experienced in the same part of the brain as physical pain, according to Science. In a study entitled “Social Relationships and Health” (House, et al.), social isolation was seen as more dangerous to physical health than obesity, high blood pressure, or even smoking.

At the turn of the 20th century, leading child experts advised parents that too much coddling was bad for babies and advised strict limits on kissing and even holding children. After World War II, when John Bowlby observed that medically well-cared-for but orphaned infants were “failing to thrive” because of lack of human contact, “attachment theory” was developed as a way of explaining our primary need for interaction. According to The New Republic’s Judith Shuvelitz,

“In a way, these discoveries are as consequential as the germ theory of disease. Just as we once knew that infectious diseases killed, but didn’t know that germs spread them, we’ve known intuitively that loneliness hastens death, but haven’t been able to explain how. Psychobiologists can now show that loneliness sends misleading hormonal signals, rejiggers the molecules on genes that govern behavior, and wrenches a slew of other systems out of whack. They have proved that long-lasting loneliness not only makes you sick; it can kill you. Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. A partial list of the physical diseases thought to be caused or exacerbated by loneliness would include Alzheimer’s, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and even cancer—tumors can metastasize faster in lonely people.”

The good news, however, is that much of the damage can be reversed: orphans’ missing brain connections can be repaired if the children are put in adequate care situations; lonely people will make fewer stress hormones, and, over time, become ill less often if they are less isolated; even caring for a pet will cause measurable improvement on subjects’ scores on the UCLA Loneliness Scale.

From a practical point of view, wherever you stand on the “connectivity scale,” pay attention to this need, because that’s what it is—a need.  If you are already in close contact with many people, more the better. Remember to nurture those relationships and treat them with care. If you are losing touch with old friends or finding you don’t have enough time for family or social activities, try to make them a priority. If you are someone who is lonely or socially avoidant, make sure you examine this issue, because it could possibly be dangerous to your health,  if not your happiness. Even small, less intimate kinds of interaction, like joining a choir or a reading group, can make a difference.  Alternately, having just one intimate friend or contact (this could even be a counselor, therapist, or clergyman) can be a significant help. Remember also to look beyond your immediate circle, and be creative. Lately, many people have opened up new avenues of social experience by reconnecting with old friends on Facebook.

Here’s one idea to get through the winter that incorporates all three suggestions: organize a neighborhood walking group once a week and then take turns going to a different house to watch a funny movie.

Here’s a list of some of my favorite comedies (in no particular order):

Office Space
A Fish Called Wanda
What’s Up, Doc
Bringing Up Baby
There’s Something About Mary
Young Frankenstein
Take the Money and Run
To Be or Not to Be
Superbad
The Pink Panther
Best in Show
Raising Arizona
Animal House
A Night at the Opera
Arthur
Remember to report back to WVFC your favorite comedies.

 

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  • JP January 7, 2016 at 9:06 am

    Movies that make me laugh…

    -Wayne’s World if you are from the right era 🙂
    -The Thin Man series (Myrna Loy is amazing)
    -Bridesmaids- ridiculous and crude, but laugh out loud moments

    Reply