Health psychologists have a dual mission: to help prevent mental and physical illness and disease and to promote healthy living. From cancer to diabetes, health psychologists deal with a wide variety of issues underlying physical illness and chronic disease. According to Maureen Lyon, Ph.D, clinical health psychologist and associate research professor in pediatrics at George Washington University, health psychologists use their knowledge to “enhance the quality of life of individuals.”
Interestingly, much of what health psychologists teach (deep breathing, mindfulness, stress reduction, etc.) works for everyone. Our fast-paced life and increased dependency on technology often results in disconnection, stress and lack of sleep, which all wreak havoc on our health. Fortunately, there are simple steps you can take today to begin living a healthier life.
Here, two health psychologists offer tips for living more happily, peacefully and mindfully.
- Breathe deeply. Want to do something in the next five minutes that will change your life? Breathe deeply. Clinical health psychologist Amanda Withrow, Ph.D said that unconsciously “we breathe into our chest.”
The way we should be breathing, however, is diaphragmatically. “Diaphragmatic breathing is slow, deep breathing into our bellies.” It is an important stress management tool and great because it’s free, can be done anywhere and at any time. “What’s really cool these days is that there are smartphone applications that can guide you through deep breathing and help you to practice properly.” In fact, one of our World of Psychology bloggers, Summer Beretsky, covered three of them here.
- Give and get a hug. According to Lyon, “Give and receive four hugs a day.” Why? Research shows that hugging makes you live longer. Human beings need touch. It “soothes and calms us,” Lyon said. “It brings down that reactive arousal system that can get activated when we feel threatened in any way and especially in stressful situations.” And hugs don’t have to be just of the human type — dogs and cats count too.
- Be mindful. Forget about that mounting to-do list, the fight you had with your best pal, or your Facebook update or Twitter account. Take time out to get back to the present moment. Withrow uses this exercise to help patients be more mindful. She asks them to list five things they see, hear, feel, smell or taste. Doing this helps pause worrying and refocuses attention on the present moment.Another way Withrow suggests we be more mindful is by paying attention to our inner dialogue. A lot of our thoughts are like the acronym for FEAR: false evidence appearing real. If you can learn to be mindful of your thoughts and think more objectively, it can have a positive impact on your behavior and your life.
- Stop the cruel talk. What’s one way you can start being kinder to yourself? Learn to be more self-compassionate. “I think this whole thing about being cruel to oneself, judgmental, attacking one’s self is really endemic in our culture and is really a problem,” said Lyon. And it is not indicative of how much money you have, the house you own or your job. People in other cultures who are not financially wealthy have more social support and are nicer to themselves and each other. Why? Because of the thoughts and beliefs they have about themselves.Lyon said that negative thinking about one’s self is a contributing factor to a lot of depression and anxiety. Depression is often anger turned back onto one’s self. Labeling and name-calling yourself stupid, for example, can have a negative impact on your life. Health psychologists like Lyon work with people to “stop the war with themselves” through helping individuals recognize negative self-talk when it happens and showing them the link with depressive symptoms.
- Create your own family of choice. You cannot control the family you’ve been given. But you can create your own. Lyon said that she has many clients who come from a difficult childhood where family members were abusive, physically dangerous and emotionally harmful. She said longitudinal studies show people who have been humiliated, abused or neglected “are at a much higher risk of dying at a younger age and developing a complex chronic condition.”So how do you reap the benefits of having a supportive family if your own family continues to be abusive or toxic? Create your own. Find friends and even older people who can act as parental figures for you. “Rather than encouraging you to, let’s say, drink to excess or use drugs, they would actually support you making healthier choices for yourself. Instead of holding you up for ridicule, this would actually be about doing something good for yourself.”
- Love yourself and then love your neighbor. In their pre-flight instructions, flight attendants demonstrate how to use the oxygen mask if needed, and tell passengers to put on their own mask first before helping others with theirs. The same applies to self-care.“It’s a distortion to think that self-care is selfish,” Lyon said. Realistically, you will not be able to help anyone else unless you first take care of yourself.
- Take care of your physical health. This may be a shocker, but Lyon said that the optimum recommendation for physical activity (including aerobic exercise and strength training) is 90 minutes a day. That might seem overwhelming for most. But the good news is that 20 minutes three times a week or ten thousand steps a day is enough to help you increase longevity.
- Take back control. There are a lot of things in life that we have no control over. But the key to healthy living is focusing on what your thoughts and reactions — the things you can control. Remember the Serenity Prayer? Even nonreligious folks can reap the benefits from following these words: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” Withrow said this is a good rule of thumb for stress management. It can be empowering to focus on what you can control and then let go of the things that you can’t.
- Make sleep and healthy eating priorities.Getting enough sleep is vital to your mental health and physical wellbeing. A healthy average is seven to nine hours a night. How many hours do you get on a regular basis?
Lyon said that making sure to eat regular, nutritious meals is also important. With summer around the corner, people are getting anxious about bathing suit season and often go on diets. However, she believes that diets and restricting your food intake can sometimes trigger eating disorders in individuals. Stick with eating at the same time of day every day so that your body is less likely to enter starvation mode and you’re not restricting yourself and your body.
- Find someone you can confide in. You don’t need millions of Facebook friends or even hundreds of in-person ones. According to research, you just need one trustworthy friend you can confide in to live longer and recover faster from illness. Lyon said that part of the recovery program in some countries includes having someone to talk to about it. Social support is that important.