When I was in Air Force pilot training we used to say, "I'm okay, you're messed up." It was our way of insisting in our own minds that we were holding it together, even when it seemed the whole world had gone mad. So, to be frank, we were trying to enforce a level of mental hygiene within. As mad as that may seem, perhaps there was something to it. I offer the following, stolen word for word from a chapter in Mozart's Brain and the Fighter Pilot.
[Restak, chapter 13.]
In the nineteenth century, many psychiatrists and psychologists (William James among them) emphasized the importance of healthy mental attitudes and practices. They coined the term, "mental hygiene" to describe the measures a person can take to make the brain function more efficiently. Just as the body benefits from exercise, good diet, and a temperate lifestyle, the brain works better if a person follows certain mental guidelines. The most important guideline involves not paying too much attention to our feelings.
"There is no better known or more generally useful precept in one's personal self-discipline, than that which bids us pay primary attention to what we do and express, and not to care too much for what we feel. Action seems to follow feeling, but really action and feel go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not," according to James.
Over the years, James' point of view fell out of favor. Remember the injunctions a few years ago to "let it all hang out"? And if we needed help, there was always primal scream and other therapies that emphasized getting in touch with our feelings and, most importantly, expressing them in some way, whatever the consequences for other people's sensibilities. Additional knowledge about the brain has revealed the perils of placing too much emphasis on the unrestrained expression of our emotions. Nor can we give in to negative emotional states.
For instance, people suffering from depression exhibit abnormal PET scans and other measures of brain activity. Moreover, this abnormal brain activity accompanying depression can cast a pall over events of the past. When depressed we tend to dwell on the losses and hurts we've encountered in our lives. Even good things appear paltry and inconsequential when viewed through the distorted lens created by low moods. "The self-same person, according to the line of thought he may be in, or to his emotional mood, will perceive the same impression quite differently on different occasions," wrote James.
Research shows that brain changes indicative of depression can occur in non depressed volunteers if they allow themselves to think sad or depressing thoughts. This result suggests that, at least in the initial stages, it is the negative thoughts and attitudes that unfavorably alter brain function, rather than the other way around. In time, as the depression deepens, this sequence may be reversed; the depressive thoughts, ultimately culminating in illness and even suicide. But at least, in the earliest stages, this sequence can be favorably influenced by mental attitude.
One important attitude change involves keeping ourselves physically and mentally occupied. Internal distress often results from having too much empty time on our hands. Physical and mental inactivity lead to boredom, anxiety, and depression. In turn, these uncomfortable states exert powerfully negative effects on our functioning. We start to dwell on the negative, perhaps a holdover from the time when our ancestors had to contend with so many threats to their survival, health, and well being.
Today most of our perceived threats don't involve death or severe physical impairment. If we could learn to take our situations and ourselves less seriously, we would be better able to cope. To be sure, some of life's more serious threats, such as the loss of a job or the breakup of marriage, are not trivial matters. But neither do they involve life or death.
Whatever the threat, worry and other forms of negativity make things worse because they always exert a powerfully destructive effect on the brain's functioning. When worried or experiencing other negative thoughts, we find ourselves drawn toward imagined disasters. For instance, even though we may be in excellent health, we're inclined to focus on whatever minor ills may exist at the moment. A such times, our attention is exclusively focused on the threatening and the negative — whether involving other people or just us.
Since the brain can keep only one thought at a time in the foreground of consciousness, it's important to emphasize uplifting rather than depressing and negative preoccupations. While this tendency toward the morbid can be overcome by encouraging positive thinking, we can't depend entirely on pure willpower. That's why it's important to keep your brain active, challenged, and curious.
Restak, Richard, M.D., Mozart's Brain and the Fighter Pilot — Unleashing Your Brain's Potential, Three Rivers Press, New York, 2001.