Mental Health is Contained in Language

mental health is contained in language

Our experience in life, even in the womb, is one of sensation. All our physical sense channels, collectively referred to as ‘the sensorium,’ make up the body of our experience, which is then represented with language. In other words, we can share our experiences because of representational language, because of words and pictures. It makes sense then, that a lot of our mental health is contained in language because all of  our experience of which we have identified, codified, is contained in language.

Sensation is just sensation. It is raw experience. Sensation can be described, with language, in terms of intensity, duration, frequency, temperature, weight, pressure color, hue, shade, sound, rate, rhythm, bitter, sweet, pungent, aromatic. Lots of words available to help codify and represent raw sensational experience. Sensation itself is without words,without description, without meaning, other than what we give to it, with language.

We use language every day all day, both with others, and internally in what is referred to as internal dialogue, or ‘self-talk.’ Self talk is the undercurrent of chatter, using language, to make statements about situations; those statements, valid or erroneous, become the platform then for our sense of personal self, our sense of others, the experience we recognize as our reality. A lot of that reality is ‘shared reality’ in large part because of the same language. Language is a kind of encoding, and decoding, system. We use words, spoken and printed, to convey experience, ideas, concepts, information. We also use visual images to convey the same. Visual symbols carry a lot of power. Even language is composed of visual symbols, the letters, which make up printed, and spoken, words, associated with sounds, and sights, and feelings.

We typically refer to physical gestures we make, which are visual images, both obvious and subtle, as body language or non-verbal behavior. The term non-verbal behavior is non-descriptive. It is like saying the sky is not green. But, what it is it? The sky is blue; non verbal behavior, or gestures, is visual communication. It is sight. Words, images, behaviors are all used in communication. Behaviors, from slumped in a chair with depression to ecstatic acting out in mania, is communication. We communicate with others, and within ourselves, using language, primarily composed of words and pictures. Words and pictures makes up the bulk of our thinking. Thinking is using words and pictures to define and give meaning to our sensory experience.

The sensorium, the collection of different senses, is composed of the 5 channels we are all familiar with: sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. The content of our sensorium, our raw sensory experience, through these basic 5 channels, is the material we use to build our reality, through codification, with language. One of our more sensational channels in the sensorium is touch, and body feelings, technically referred to as ‘kinaesthetics.’ Our kinaesthetic experiences are preverbal. We feel sensation before we describe it. A child of 1 year feels a lot, and has no auditory or visual representations for it, yet. We codify our kinaesthetic feelings with words, and pictures. In some cases, those feelings are so intense, or so sublime, they cannot adequately be codified by language; they cannot be expressed; they are ineffable, inexpressible.

Mental health is a poorly understood term; but then, so is health, and so is mental. We typically think of health as the absence of disease when in fact it is so much more than that. To say a person has gone mental is to suggest they have lost their mind, when in fact it could mean they have gained insight, understanding or have had a transformational breakthrough, what is sometimes called ‘metanoia,’ which is kind of like a ‘new mind.’ We use the term mind a lot, not really knowing what it does, how it works. Learning a bit about how we use language within ourselves, and with others, can help us understand the relationship between mind and body, mental and physical, because the language we use on ourselves, and with others, does influence state of mind, which does have influence over state of body, just as state of body has influence over state of mind. The language we use on ourselves can generate hormones in the blood, just as seeing somebody bleeding generates self talk.

We use words a lot, perhaps too much; that undercurrent of self-talk chatter is actively interpreting and evaluating and commenting upon sensory experience of sights, sounds, feelings, smells, tastes, situations, contexts. Kinaesthetic sensations, ie,, the sense of touch and body feelings, as one of the sensorium channels, is often overshadowed by sight and sound but may at times be more valid than conclusions arrived at through the more visual and auditory processes. There is a lot of ‘body intelligence’ that communicates through kinaesthetic sensations. How does one talk about kinaesthetic sensations, ie, feelings, in, and on, the body, using language? How do we incorporate kinaesthetics into our self talk, and into our thinking, more consciously? How do we invite feeling into thinking?

Mental health is contained in language; it is about how language organizes the content of the sensorium in a way that is coherent, comprehensive and wholistic, or not so, in which case, dis-ease and dis-comfort would be expected. The sensorium is somewhat like a complex woven tapestry of many threads in many colors with shifting scenes, sights and sounds and smells and tastes, and feeling, like a living garment, woven day by day, hour by hour, by our own thinking and use of language; a web, if you will, in which we are entangled, by thought and language, trying to get out, to understand, to know. In a crazy world in which we drive on parkways and park on driveways, language can have us parking in the street,or driving in the park, just as it can also have us drive well on the highway and park comfortably at home.


Yoga: The Life Breath of Generations

Yoga: The Life Breath of Generations

Yoga is generally considered to be a set of physical postures; often a class to which millions of people throughout the world go to stretch this way and that. Yoga, however, is a much grander philosophy which encompasses not just physical health but mental well-being and spiritual regeneration. Yoga is often ridiculed and made fun of in today’s modern materialistic societies; it has also been revered in many of yesterday’s ancient spiritual societies.

Yoga goes back thousands and thousands of years. It is an ancient and time tested approach to physical health, mental well-being and spiritual regeneration. It is the ultimate self-care, and could be considered a requirement if not for surviving then definitely for thriving. Throughout these ages and ages, there have been many excellent teachers expounding this comprehensive view of physical health, mental well-being and spiritual regeneration which is Yoga. One such teacher was the East Indian Yoga Master Patanjali. Patanjali expounded Yoga as having eight limbs. Each limb is a practice or set of practices, some for physical health, some for mental well-being, and some for spiritual regeneration. These limbs are not hierarchical; they are systemic. That is, one does not necessarily lead to the next. All eight limbs, like the tentacles of an octopus, are independent, though connected through that ninth element of the whole octopus itself.

The language of Yoga is Sanskrit, an ancient technical and scholarly language which translates to English as ‘refined speech.’ The word Yoga itself is Sanskrit and translates to English as ‘yoke’ or ‘union.’ The terms used to label these limbs of Yoga are Sanskrit as are many terms used within the field of Yoga.

The limb, or tentacle, of postures and bodily positions, of stretching this way and that is called Asana. But, that is just one limb of Yoga. Two other limbs are called ‘Yama’ and Niyama.’ These two limbs are along the lines of guidelines for behavior which are conducive to physical health, mental well –being and spiritual regeneration. Yama is more concerned with physical behaviors and actions, such as having compassion for others or being honest in relationships whereas Niyama is more concerned with psychological behaviors and actions, i.e., thoughts and decisions, such as self-examination and self-discipline. Another fairly well known limb or tentacle, and one which is often associated with Asana, is Pranayama. Pranayama is the myriad of breathing exercises of which there are multiple dozens. It doesn’t take much awareness to realize that our life, our personal existence, is more dependent upon breath than just about anything else. One can go many weeks without food, many days without water, but no more than minutes, and more often seconds, without breath. Breath is Life. Learning to breathe properly and well has extra-ordinary benefits for both physical health and mental well-being. Coupled with Asana, which is a tremendously positive influence on the nerves, muscles, joints, glands, organs and skeletal system, these two limbs of Yoga go a long way towards physical health and mental well-being.

The fifth through eighth limbs are concerned primarily with spiritual regeneration and can be clumped together under the umbrella of Meditation. Meditation is the process of redirecting awareness from outward to inward and then transcendence of the subject-object duality. This transcendence is a ‘melting’ of individual, dualistic consciousness into non-dual, universal wholeness. It is referred to as Samadhi and considered the fruit of Yoga. There are as many forms and styles of meditation as there are postures and positions of Asana, or breathing exercises of Pranayama.

Pratyahara is the beginning of meditation. It is the embarking upon a journey inwards, with ever increasing focus and awareness leading to the transcendence of subjectivity, and its intimate partner, objectivity. The ever deepening experience over time is called Dharana, and then Dhyana, leading to Samadhi. The path of Pratyahara to Samadhi can be lengthy; but, it is not unheard of to be instantaneous. These eight limbs of Yoga, though often believed to develop in a linear fashion from ‘first’ to ‘eighth’ is not necessarily factual. Certainly, and traditionally, linear development beginning with the proper behaviors leading to postures and breath, then to and through meditation, arriving in Samadhi, is a route taken by many. But, like the tentacles of an octopus, which do not develop in a linear fashion, but rather holistically and systemically, so too a glimpse of Samadhi, that transcendental consciousness, described, in the language of Yoga, as Sat, Chit Ananda (Truth, Consciousness, Bliss), can be the initial igniting force behind a life-long love affair with Yoga. Such a person is then described as a Yogi, or Yogini (female). Because the nature of Samadhi is often described as nectar, it is not surprising that the path of Yoga is populated with hundreds of millions of people throughout the world.

These adherents to Yoga all tend to align with various emphasis on some limb or another. Hatha Yoga tends to emphasize the Asanas and Pranayama, but would certainly not discount Yama and Niyama, or Dhyana. Those who are called to service, practice Karma Yoga, of which there are millions in every walk of life, every corner of the world, every race and creed and of both genders, while those who travel the path of knowledge are Jnana Yogis. Many a scientist is Jnana Yogi. Bhakti Yoga is all about love, surrender and devotion. Many an artist is Bhakti Yogi. Tantric Yoga is for those who have a proclivity towards the mystical and is the one which can be, and often is, most misused. Because of the potential for misuse, and injury – physically, mentally, and spiritually, in any aspect of Yoga, the Guru is not only the instructor, guide, mentor and model, but also a protector. In today’s global world, there are many mentors, models, guides and instructors to access, most all available to some degree online. Protection comes about through the most subtle and effortless acceptance of Samahdi.

Yoga, as a comprehensive educational philosophy for health and well-being , accommodates a wide variety of personalities and nationalities. It is generic like aspirin. It is some of the very best information available in the world about physical health and mental well-being, which combined together is spiritual regeneration. The information, and the spark of animating energy that gives it breath, has been available for a very long time, and will remain so far beyond the foreseeable future. It is the life breath of generations.

A Key to Healing Trauma

the key to healing trauma

A Key to Healing Trauma Today Is….

What do world class athletes and special-forces combat soldiers have in common? They both perform, very well, under high stress and pressure, what might for us be a traumatic experience. How do they do that? It is the very same process used as a key to healing trauma.

To understand how some people can perform so well under acute stress and almost unbearable pressure, without becoming traumatized, and how people heal from trauma, we need to understand a little bit about how our brain works. Without getting overly technical, there are two pertinent functions of the brain involved, our executive functions, and our emotions. The executive functions, such as rational thinking and planning are referred to as higher brain functions. Our emotions, such as feelings of joy, and fear, are more basic brain functions. When we are in high stress situations, we are often frightened. The more basic brain functions, primary of which is survival, become highly activated and over-ride our higher brain functions. This is a basic neurological wiring for survival. When we are in situation of perceived danger or very high stress, we don’t think, we automatically react with what is called the ‘fight or flight’ response. If we cannot fight, and cannot flee, we are trapped, stuck, frozen. And that then becomes the trauma. Being stuck, frozen, for an extended period of time; not being able to fight or flee, not being able to act, in a high stress, dangerous, painful, scary, situation, is a traumatic event.

When in this traumatic situation of being stuck, trapped, frozen, unable to think or plan, and at the mercy of our emotional brain centers, our higher brain functions are actually shut down, offline, not available. It is as if our emotional brain has hijacked our higher brain, kind of like a classroom of unruly kids taking over and disallowing the teacher from performing their assigned duties. But, those unruly kids are being told there is a crisis! Because our higher brain functions have to do with planning, when they are shut down, we don’t have a sense of past or future. We are in the immediate present, which in a traumatic situation, is scary, frightening and may be painful. So, any time we remember this traumatic situation, even months, or years, after it has happened, our higher brain function shuts down again, goes offline, and we believe the stress and danger is real, right now. The brain does not distinquish between memory and fantasy. It is visual imagery, rapid commentary, and complex changes in breathing, skin response, neuro-chemistry and awareness. The brain does want to resolve this trauma, and so we do have intrusive thoughts, memories, flashbacks, in an attempt to help us get unfrozen, to fight, or flee, or do something. But, what happens is we just get re-traumatized because there is nothing to fight, and no where to flee; We are again stuck, traumatized. What if we could maintain our higher brain functions even in high stress? Even in neutralizing the trauma?

How do we get back our higher brain functions? How can we reinstate our executive functions? How can we think, clearly, and know that the trauma is not now, is not a threat or a danger anymore? There are two points to consider along these lines. One, as mentioned in Waking The Tiger, by Peter A. Levine, a classic book in the field of sexual abuse and trauma recovery, is learning how to ‘shake it off.’ Animals in the wild, pursued by a predator, and escaping, are not traumatized the next day, or next month, or next year. Somehow, they shake it off. Exercise, vigorous and demanding, is a way of shaking it off. There is an interesting proximity to the word ‘exercise’ and ‘exorcise.’ We need to exorcise the build-up of stress chemicals in the body which have had no outlet, no opportunity to fight, or flee, and exercise is a good way of doing that. The other helpful approach is learning how to relax the body. In a relaxed body, the higher brain functions are much less susceptible to being hijacked by the emotions. A lot of trauma therapy is based on pairing a relaxed state of body, and mind, with exposure to traumatic memories. This can result in the executive functioning of the brain, distinguishing between past, present and future, between seeing, and feeling, the trauma as something in the past, not the present; and that goes a long way in diminishing symptoms. The trauma itself is now seen as an historical event, one which does not pose a threat to the present. This is the key in healing trauma. It’s not a trauma anymore. We need to relax before we can make the distinction between then and now.

We generally don’t know how to relax the body well. It is something we need to learn how to do. By taking proactive steps in learning how to relax the body before a stressful situation, we are more likely to be the executive than the unruly child in that stressful situation, which itself can be an effective prophylactic to trauma.


Are You In Need of Eustress?

iao stream


Eustress is good stress. It is a term coined by Dr. Hans Selye, a Canadian medical doctor, in the 1950’s. We often think in terms of stress as being bad as in “I’m all stressed out.” But, if we had a life of no stress at all, we’d be bored, lethargic, unmotivated and apathetic. We need some stress in our lives. We might say that good stress, eustress, is the “spice in our life.” Of course, some people prefer more mild spice whereas others may like it hot. Each person has their own threshold for their optimal level of stress. What is eustress for one person could be “distress” for another. Distress is the word used to represent those pressures, tensions and strains upon us that can make us ill; it is the “bad” stress.

Stress, either eustress or distress, is not entirely caused by external situations such as pressures on the job or conflicts in the home. Stress is caused as much, or more, by how we interpret our situation. Still, if we are experiencing distress, we are likely not happy, healthy or performing are our best. Some of the symptoms of distress can be moodiness, irritability, depression, insomnia, excessive worry, poor memory, feeling overwhelmed, loss of appetite, decreased sex drive, substance abuse and pessimism. Though these symptoms may be caused by problems other than distress, they are, nevertheless, signs that something is not quite right.

If you are experiencing distress and telling yourself you need to get rid of or reduce your stress, perhaps that is not the best approach. It’s difficult, if not altogether impossible, to visualize a negative. It works a lot better to visualize a positive, which would be to increase the eustress in your life. What does that look like for you? What is positive stress for you? Stress reduction methods are important, such as relaxation techniques, watching a pleasant movie or something as simple as a walk in the park. But, those are not necessarily eustress activities. Eustress activities are stressful; they add some tension and pressure to our life. But, they are fun. They are exciting. They are uplifting.

Some activities that can generate eustress include: learning something new, engagement in a meaningful project, travel to a new place, meeting new people, stretching yourself outside your comfort zone. Of course, all of these can generate anxiety as well. However, anxiety and excitement are very similar. Physiologically, i.e., the body response such as sweating, increased heart rate, faster breathing, etc, it may be difficult to distinguish between anxiety and excitement. What makes a situation anxiety producing or exciting has a lot to do with how we interpret the event. Just understanding that stress can be positive and healthy, that we actually need some stress in our lives, can transform what we was distress into eustress. And, of course, the amount of stress we subject ourselves to is important. Eustress can become distress if it is prolonged. Exercise is a good example. A one-mile walk can be eustressful; but, if it should become a 10-mile walk, it may become distressful.

Stress management is part of our overall health maintenance. It is a topic of considerable importance in the medical field, as well as in business, for we all know that stress causes both physical and mental health problems. But, let us remember that we don’t want to eliminate stress. We want to keep our distress down, and our eustress up.

The Positive Intention of Negative Behavior

leaning tree

All behavior has behind it some intention and some purpose. Behavior is creative and strives to meet a need or fulfill a want. However, the behavior may appear to be irrational and dysfunctional from a “normal” perspective. For example, it’s certainly not logical for self sabotage to be in some way helpful or useful, but it often is. Self sabotage can protect a person from facing success which can be terribly frightening. I’ve worked with several college students who suffered with text anxiety. They knew the information cold but when it came time to take the test, they would freeze up, do poorly and get a C or worse on the test. In just about every case, after some discussion, it became clear that if they were to get an A on the test they would feel the pressure to keep it up and by only getting C’s, that pressure was eliminated. They sabotaged their success to avoid stress and pressure. There is a positive intention in that – it is somewhat protective. Now, the problem was no longer text anxiety but rather the pressure and stress of maintaining success, which was addressed.

Another common example is a child who misbehaves in the home. In many cases the misbehavior is tied to parental conflict. When the parents are fighting or in some form of conflict, the child misbehaves in an attempt to draw the attention away from their conflict and to the child. And, it often works. If parents are squabbling about something, when the child misbehaves, the squabbling stops and they have to focus on the child’s behavior. There is a very positive intention in that misbehavior! Even if parents are not in conflict, a child’s behavior is often a means of getting attention. In a child’s mind, negative attention is often better than no attention at all. For a child, gaining parental attention is a positive intention. Or, take a situation in which an adolescent is involved in gang activity. The gang offers a sense of belonging which the adolescent may not get at home. The motivation to belong has behind it a very positive intention.

Emotional states such as depression and anxiety can also have at their basis a positive intention. Depression can keep a person from facing difficult challenges in their life. Although this is avoidance, it is also protective. A person with fragile self confidence may feel threatened by the possibility of failure and rather than acknowledge that and work to improve their confidence, they simply create a situation wherein they are not able to meet that challenge – they become depressed. The depression is protecting their sense of confidence. Granted, this is somewhat irrational. But, the mind is a funny place and can “make a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven.” The same is true for anxiety or panic attacks. The positive intention behind these emotional/behavioral experiences can in some way be highly protective. Obsessiveness too can be protective in that it occupies the mind with recurring thoughts about something irrational while something else more important, more pressing, but which may also be painful or difficult to deal with, is pushed aside. Protection is a very powerful motivator and although we may protect ourselves in odd ways, the underlying intention is still protection, which is positive.

Even some horrific behaviors such as rape or murder can be viewed as having a positive intention behind them, although there is no argument that the behavior itself is unacceptable. These behaviors are almost always an expression of power and control. Rape is not about sex and murder most often does not have as its goal the ending of the other person’s life. The goal in these cases, more often than not, is to experience a sense of power and control and that, in itself, is a positive intention because we all need to feel, to some degree, a sense of power and control over our life. People who strive to experience power and control through these types of behaviors are clearly maladjusted. But, it’s hard to argue against the positive intention of seeking a sense of power and control. The question is how can we best satisfy that intention, without harming others? Wars are fought to try and ensure security. Who would say that seeking security is not a positive goal? Destroying “enemies” is about seeking safety. Who would say that safety is not a positive objective? Suicide is an escape from intolerable pain. Or, in some cases to escape dishonor. Those are not negative intentions. That course of action is so often not a wise choice; yet, the underlying motivation is positive.

Despite the fact that so much of our negative behaviors arise from underlying motivations which are reasonable and, in some cases, even noble, we too often focus on the behavior. We criticize and condemn behaviors without considering the needs from which those behaviors arise. This is not to suggest that we should condone such behaviors. But, we could, and should, place much more emphasis on correction than on punishment. For, one of the hallmark qualities of being human is our capacity to be corrected, to adjust, to change….given the proper education and support. We can learn better ways to satisfy the intentions which give rise to our behaviors.