These days our mental health is under assault more than ever before.

The stress caused by the fast pace of our lives with news bombarding us 24/7 along with the uncertainty and unknowns about the COVID-19 virus have created a perfect storm of anxiety and angst for everybody. It is essential at this time that we learn to soothe ourselves and meet the world’s confusion with some inner calmness.

Our enduring and grounding spirit is like a candle burning inside us, resisting the storms outside. What we think, do and say every day strengthens or weakens that flame.

It is amazing how a thought can change everything. If we even think we are in danger, regardless of facts that may prove otherwise, our body will brace itself for danger. The oldest most basic part of our brain is charged with a simple task; keeping us alive. This primitive emotional part (known as the limbic system) controls life support systems, such as breathing and heart rate, while constantly monitoring our surroundings for any threat to life.

This simple and crucial part of our brain doesn’t think, but reacts to threats, whether they be real or perceived. It asks one yes or no question: “Am I safe?”

The answer affects everything. A “yes, I am safe” answer helps slow the heart, relaxes the breathing and skeletal muscles, opens blood vessels and allows the intestines to digest food.

A “no, I am not safe” speeds the heart, makes breathing shallow, tightens skeletal muscles, constricts blood vessels and shuts down the intestines.

This “Fight-or-Flight” reaction allows the body to escape danger, but comes with a price. Too many of us live with some degree of “Fight or Flight” every day, which also worsens blood sugar, hormone levels, pain, moods and so on. Meditation and prayer are powerful ways to ground ourselves and hear what is going on inside these brains of ours!

What you eat and drink also affects your inner calm. We often use foods to speed us up or slow us down. Food processors know we crave sugar, fat and salt. It is important that we be mindful about caffeine and alcohol because they change the way our bodies work.

Moderation in everything — including moderation!

A variety of simple, fresh whole foods helps give our bodies what they need to function optimally. Everyone is unique so it is important for each one of us to connect with our own individual bodies, to listen and pay attention to the feedback our bodies are always giving us. When we deeply listen to our bodies, we will choose healthy foods and avoid those which do not nurture us.

Movement creates health. Whether we call it exercise, dancing, gardening or any number of other things, all are healthy for us because they move the body. Deep breathing, running, stretching or weight lifting all increase circulation of blood, lymph and oxygen throughout our bodies. Breathing exercises are especially useful because they are powerful and can be done anywhere. Deep breathing and prolonged exhalations are calming; ever notice how you “breathe a deep sigh of relief” but “gasp” tensely when startled?

Current challenges and unknowns require greater resilience from each of us. Now is the time to take steps to keep our inner flame burning brightly!

As we understand more about how interconnected we are inside and outside, we see that any mental health improvements we make will improve our overall physical health too.

Everything affects everything.

While our brain tells the body what to do, the brain is equally influenced by the body. If the brain senses pain, muscle tension or an upset stomach because of anxiety and other environmental stressors, it may feel “unsafe.”

On the other hand, if we just enjoyed connecting with a loved one or taking a brisk walk in the natural world and a glass of water, our bodies will feel strong, energized and relaxed, which is calming to the brain.

Movement, healthy food, time outdoors, meditation, prayer, connecting with those we love, and conscious breathing will all improve our mental and physical health and resilience. Choose something that works for you and get started!

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John Winters is a naturopathic physician who recently retired after operating a practice in La Grande since 1992. He can be reached atwintersnd@gmail.com.

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