A New Year — A New You?

January is Mental Wellness Month, which is an excellent place to start.

The World Health Organization defines mental wellness as “a state of well-being in which an 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.” The clean slate that the new year offers makes it the perfect time to evaluate how we are holding up mentally and emotionally–and what we need to do in order to feel even better. 

 In the field of psychiatric treatment, research points to the effectiveness of mind-body practices to foster psychiatric recovery. Research-based evidence also indicates the value of a more integrated and comprehensive approach to psychosocial rehabilitation.

 At Ellenhorn, our wellness clinicians are an integral part of each client’s PACT team and work hard to create a personalized program that integrates all the factors that influence health and wellness, whether mind, body, spirit or community.

 Some clients are ready, able and willing to dive into integrative wellness practices–and some are not. Since each client’s lifestyle, nutrition and resiliency affects their ability to partner with their team in clarifying and working toward their psychosocial goals, we meet each client where they are, assess their ability, find their best starting points and build from there. 

  Below are some tips from Ellenhorn’s wellness team on ways to boost your mental wellness this January—and far beyond. 

Mindfulness: Noticing the five senses can be powerful, so get out those aromatherapy oils, some incense or maybe a candle–and take a nice deep breath. Buy yourself some flowers. Take time to eat mindfully by focusing on what tastes you are experiencing and how it actually feels to nourish your body. Get cozy under a soft blanket–or head outside to take a walk and feel the sun on your skin, even on the cold days. Put on some music, or simply be still–what sounds do you notice most?  

Hydration: Drink that water! Yes, it can be hard to drink when it’s so cold out, but in the dry winter it is just as important to stay hydrated as it is in summer. For a warm alternative, add some lemon and honey to some warm water or consider a cup of herbal tea.  

Movement: When you’re feeling down, lounging around and doing nothing might feel like the preferable option, but inactivity can actually increase negative emotions. Physical activity, on the other hand, engages both your brain and body, and can increase the feel-good chemicals in your brain. The idea of physical activity might seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. You don’t always need to push yourself to get in a long run or head to the gym to lift weights. It can be as simple as doing some light stretching, going for a walk around the block or even cleaning your home.

Spirituality: Remember to look for opportunities to develop your spiritual well-being in every-day life. Taking time in the morning (or even before bed) to breathe deeply (in and out, in and out) for even a few minutes will help you build a sense of balance in both body and spirit–and allow time for self-reflection. Consider which rituals ground you, what you do to make yourself laugh, what your dreams are like lately or the ways you enjoy moving your body–

thinking of spirituality can mean many things! 

Meditation: Meditation does not necessarily have to be a sedentary activity. Mix it up by taking a quiet walk (no talking) and try to use all five senses to engage with the world around you. Meditate without a guide, and try some music playlists that you’ve never tried before. (Consider, perhaps, tunes by Alucidnation, Benn Jordan or Shpongle.) Set the stage with an invocation of your choice, i.e., clear the energy by lighting sage or incense or consider using an eye mask, pillow and/or blanket. Stretch or shake out any tension before meditation begins in order to encourage fluidity in your mind. Set an intention or pick a mantra to use as an anchor.

If you find yourself feeling more stressed than relieved by your chosen self-care activities, don’t beat yourself up. Mental wellness is a long, nonlinear journey. Be patient with yourself, and don’t let a “failed” self-care attempt dissuade you from continuing to prioritize your mental wellness–even if that means trying multiple self-care activities in order to find what works best for you. 

Remember: If you are struggling with a substance-use disorder, addiction or mental-health disorder, simply improving your overall mental wellness is not always enough, and it may be a good idea to seek treatment.

 Ellenhorn’s multifaceted assessment approach to treatment provides a stable, thoughtful and holistic picture of where each client is as they begin. It reflects a person so thoroughly that it provides a base from which they can seek and receive the right kinds of interventions throughout their lives. Our assessments are living documents focused on creating both a diagnostic picture and a highly personalized plan for recovery. Once an assessment is complete, the client and their PACT team meet to develop a comprehensive, multidisciplinary treatment plan. 

Our treatment plans are made for each individual and include traditional therapies as well as mindfulness, yoga, nutrition and music therapy. We believe in integrating mind, body and spirit in our approach to recovery. 

Photo by Alysha Rosly on Unsplash

Yoga, Life and Me

There are literally millions of articles on the web about yoga and its benefits. These include increased well-being and self-esteem, improved physical health and sleep, less stress, and eventually being able to manipulate the physical world with your mind. Okay, maybe that last one is more of a personal goal. But the point is, it’s all been written about to such an extent that, to many, yoga now seems like eating your vegetables and flossing: something everyone agrees should be done but which makes people roll their eyes when you urge them to do it. That’s because people like me tend to make it seem either spacey and weird, or like a boring daily chore.

I want to take a different path and talk about the real-world benefits yoga has given me. Not benefits such as “I can stand on my head on a mat in a hot room that smells slightly of urine,” but rather, benefits that actually help you interact with the universe and/or other humans.

Yoga has helped me deal with many crises — or more accurately, what should be termed “mini-crises” — that I would most likely otherwise have made into much bigger issues (i.e., the aforementioned crises) if I hadn’t been able to approach them with balance.

In the past I was what one would call “reactive,” and would fire back at people when I felt I was wronged or disrespected, or would freak out if anything unanticipated got in my way. Basically I would overact to the daily personal situations we all encounter. This often left me feeling ashamed, or even just angrier than I was over the original incident (Road Rage, anyone?).

It wasn’t until I started doing yoga and was able to, for example, hold Plow Pose and be comfortable, calm and in control while encountering a stressful physical situation that I learned I could, well, be comfortable, calm and in control while encountering a stressful situation in general. I realized that traffic jams were not personal insults and barriers that God put there just to impede my existential progress! Phew.

One of the yogic concepts I “hold” dear is that one never “holds” a yoga pose; rather, one is always flowing into it. This basically means that “the only constant is change,” and for someone who is prone to rigid thinking (see above traffic jam example), practicing flexibility and flow is the perfect antidote. It has helped me both personally and professionally deal with my attraction to the novel. In the past, my rigid thinking would cause me to truncate my options and dismiss new situations before I actually, you know, tried things. I would make up my mind and wouldn’t let anything, not even direct experiential evidence, sway me. In yoga, I learned there is comfort and joy in relaxing into new positions and situations, and that you learn a great deal about yourself when doing so.

This is the birthplace of growth and creativity and joy, I’ve found, and this is what we get by giving ourselves over to novel situations in an authentic way. Early in my yoga career I loved, then struggled with, the pose Warrior One. I found that because it was a pose, I had early “success” when I rigidly held myself to a pattern of hitting it “perfectly.” But when I started struggling with balance in the pose, a teacher told me it was due to arching my back and sticking my ribs out. Basically, I was holding Warrior One with a puffed-out chest. My pride in “holding” the pose was leading to imbalance and frustration. The same thing would happen in life situations. Rigidity would lead to inauthenticity and a feeling of repetitiveness and perfectionistic thinking and voilà, life stinks. Yoga taught me that for life to not stink I just have to relax into things. Then I can make a true assessment of the stinkiness of myself and/or the situation and act from a place of reality rather than from inaccurate, rigid thoughts.

The last thing I can’t deny is that yoga is the first, and only, thing I’ve even been able to do that 1) is enjoyable 2) is something I look forward to 3) is always interesting 4) for which I get to wear funky clothes and 5) still qualifies as physical exercise! Growing up in a sports-mad house and community, everything I did physically was either a game or preparation for a game.

As I got older and didn’t become a professional athlete, the frequency of games lessened and I tended to turn toward what I had otherwise known as exercise, which basically meant weight-lifting and running. As to the latter, while I tried to jog for health, I have two things working against me. First, my body is not built for long distances. It’s thick and logy and runs hot. Like lava. Secondly, due to the sports I grew up loving (basketball, baseball and football), running will forever be encoded in my brain as punishment. In those sports, a mistake in practice meant one thing:  laps. I can therefore never enjoy running, and I consider marathoning to be a form of protracted suicide.

So running is out, and speaking of the aforementioned thickness of my body, I knew weightlifting would be an exercise in adding more thickness and tension.. In the past, while it increased strength it also resulted in a stiffer, thicker, more tensed physical body. What I learned is that I needed to increase flexibility and calmness. When I began doing yoga, I literally said things like “I can’t believe this is even exercise.” As I started to care about progressing in my practice, I started going to more classes. As my body began to change, my brain said, “How about cutting out the Cokes and large Italians every afternoon?” And before I knew it, I was eating a much better diet.

However the most important reason I was able to stick with yoga, and also the main reason I used to abandon every other form of exercise, was that it wasn’t about personal appearance! It was about how I felt! After my first yoga class I remember giggling during Shavasana (the final resting pose, a.k.a. Corpse Pose) over how good I felt. I can still remember the chorus to the song that was playing: We shine like diamonds in the sun….I didn’t care that I was the fattest dude in the room. Actually, I was the only dude in the room (and was about 300 lbs) — but I didn’t care!

After establishing some yogic consistency I began to reflect on all those times in the past when I would get flashes of motivation and go nuts with going to the gym for a week or two, or fire up P90x for a few days, and then be disappointed that my appearance hadn’t changed. I’d also be stressed-out and worn-out from killing myself for a week (out of the blue, with no prep). This left me feeling that if personal appearance was the goal of exercise, and if the path to that was to absolutely kill myself consistently with egregious exercise that left me questioning existence, I would never achieve anything. I’d then say “screw this” and retreat into a world governed by The Simpsons and cheese curls.

Yoga was the only physical activity during which I discovered I was after a feeling —  I’m hooked on a feeling! I’m high on believing! — a felt connection with my mind and body. A felt connection with myself and the universe and others. The funny thing was that this resulted in a complete bodily transformation. Appearance, flexibility, functioning, strength. The whole pupusa! I felt kinda bad, as if I’d tricked my body into bending to the will of my mind but that is kinda the goal too!

If you struggle with exercise or well-being in general and other forms of physical activity have left you unsatisfied, I highly recommend trying yoga. It is also a valuable addendum to other physical regimens, such as weight lifting or running, as yoga touches your body in different ways. In the end, yoga is a highly personal and exciting path to take, and I hope this account of my experiences has given you one example of how it works.

Mindfulness: A Simple and Approachable Guide To Getting Started

For many, starting a mindfulness practice can be daunting. Mindfulness asks you to be present, practice with regularity, dedicate time, and set a commitment to yourself. But it doesn’t have to be a practice of sitting for 30-45 minutes daily. Even so, this can still be daunting, but if you acknowledge that and still make room for other experiences, such as self-compassion, curiosity, and understanding, you may have a very different experience.

Where to begin? Some people choose yoga, meditation, relaxation techniques, body scans, tai chi; these are all wonderful practices and very accessible. Yoga is particularly wonderful because it is often practiced within a community. And nowadays, if you look online, you could also find a group practicing meditation, tai chi, and relaxation techniques together.

With our purpose of beginning a practice that is approachable and doable, let’s try this (yes, right now, please): Notice your inhale. Pause. Notice your exhale. Pause. When I say notice I don’t necessarily mean to slow and deepen your breath (however, if you feel like breathing slow and deep go for it!). I only mean to observe where your breath is in your body and how it feels as the breath enters and exits your body. What muscles are engaged? Is the breath shallow or deep? Can you follow the breath entering your nostrils and down your trachea? Can you feel your chest expanding and, if so, in which directions? Ok, let’s try this again: Notice your inhale. Pause. Notice your exhale. Pause. That, my friend, is you being present for a moment in time. This is a great starting point.

You can expand upon this by repeating these steps for longer periods of time. You may also experiment with closing your eyes or finding an object to gaze upon. Maybe you’ll prefer to have a dedicated space in your home that complements your practice. You may enjoy practicing with others or carving out a solitary moment in your day. It turns out that you do have to breathe, so you can practice these steps anywhere and no one will know you’re taking a mindful moment for yourself. There are also many apps (Headspace, The Mindfulness App or Mindfulness Daily) and videos online that will walk you through breathing exercises for varying amounts of time. And regarding time, it’s usually more effective to practice regularly for brief moments of time from 1 to 5 minutes each day as opposed to long sessions of 30-45 minutes, 1 or 2 times per week. That being said, this is your practice of presence, self-compassion, curiosity, and understanding– there is no right or wrong way to go about it.

Here at Prakash Ellenhorn, each client will meet with a clinician from our Integrative Medicine Program and complete a mind-body-wellness assessment. If a client expresses interest in developing or maintaining a practice, he or she will be connected with a mindbody clinician who will be on their treatment team to explore their practice together and possibly experiment with different practices. They’ll flesh out what contributes to a practice…and what may get in the way. Over time, the client will be practicing on his or her own and/or within the community. It is our belief at Prakash Ellenhorn that with support and community, people can achieve psychosocial recovery. Mind Body practices are an important part of our “whole person” philosophy in that we partner with each of our clients on their own individual journeys to a fuller, richer, and more meaningful life.

Below is a short and beautiful video from mindful.org. It’s never to late (or early!) to start being more mindful.