The 21st century has proven itself to be an incredibly interesting time in which to live. Modern science and technology is progressing at a rate that, up until a few years ago, would have been unfathomable. I recently heard a statistic that is mind blowing: more new information has been produced during the last 10 years than all the previous years of mankind! While I am not sure that this is actually true, it does point out the obvious, we are living in the world of George Jetson. We are more connected and plugged in than ever before yet, at the same time, many seem to be more disconnected. Many appear to be disconnected from themselves.
Alienation from the self is one of the fundamental reasons for human emotional discomfort. Without question, modernization has brought alienation. We use technology to try to satisfy some basic, fundamental human needs. We need to connect to larger groups and use technology for that purpose. How many of you have a greater connection to family, friends, and formerly distant relatives through Facebook? How many of you have your cell phone on your person, or at least nearby 24/7? Used properly, these innovations can be incredibly healthy and useful. We were able to reach out to others anyplace on the planet in ways that would have been unimaginable even 25 years ago. As with all new technical developments, there is an upside and a downside.
Some people have become disconnected and removed from their physical selves. Psychiatry has discovered that this disconnection has led to maladies that previously did not exist, at least not on a recognizable scale. Seasonal Affective Disorder, Seasonal Depression, existential alienation, and emotional disturbances caused by a lack of connectedness to the physical self and nature are very obvious to those of us that practice in the field of mental health. In the 20 years that I have worked in the field I’ve noticed this change. What’s going on? What are some of the causes of this, and what are the solutions?
A recent trend in the fields of psychotherapy and counseling has been a return to some of the wisdom of previous generations. Despite all the new psychopharmacological solutions, innovations, psychotherapy, and research studies, results are often gained with age old wisdom. Here is some of that wisdom distilled down into usable parts:
1. Get connected. Up until the mid-20th century most humans had more contact with others than they do now. While we have more ways to connect to people than ever before through the Internet and text messaging, these methods are not as therapeutic as face-to-face, physical, contact. Using contemporary technology is incredibly beneficial, but sometimes conversation is better. Seeing the person that you’re speaking to makes a heart-to-heart conversation more powerful and meaningful. If you have friends that you communicate with over long distances, consider Skype as a way to increase your connectedness with them. If you haven’t done this, I’d suggest you give it a try. It’s free, visual, auditory, and far more personal than either a phone call or email can ever be. If you are a baby boomer, this is a variation of the George Jetson telephone conversation, George speaking to Judy on a telephone/television type device. Next time you make contact with that old friend from high school give Skype a try and see what you think.
2. Get outdoors. For over 99% of the history of the human race man was intimately connected with nature. People had to be outdoors to get a lot of basic human needs met. There was wood to be gathered to stoke the fire, out houses to walk to for bathroom purposes at 2 AM, cows to be milked, eggs to be gathered, and a variety of things that put people outdoors daily. Getting outdoors was a necessity, today it has become a luxury that many of us don’t have time for.
Meditation and mindfulness-based practices have been shown to cause significant, positive changes in the lives of those struggling with moderate levels of anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. There is a learning curve with meditation and such practices that often frustrates a person and leads them to quit the practice before they develop adequate skills to benefit from it. A simple solution to this is to get outside every day. Yes,EVERY day, regardless of weather or time of year. If you can exercise outside the benefits are even more powerful and magnified. A simple routine of walking, stretching, and calisthenics done outdoors would serve the same mood elevating purpose that Abe Lincoln got chopping wood. If you are not Lincolnesque, then getting outside for 5 to 10 minutes for some deep breathing will also do the trick.
3. Spend some time in the company of people that are important to you. Through most of mankind’s history fire was a source of communal connectedness. People had to be together, huddled around a fire, for warmth and food. The byproduct of this was human connection, meaningful conversation, and a sense of tribal community. As recently as 100 years ago the fire, wood stove, or family kitchen was the central focus of daily life. Finding ways to re-create this in your life is beneficial, providing good feelings instantly. Just remember, no texting or phone calls!
4. Be open to strangers. Yeah, I know, in the modern world “stranger danger”is often good advice, but I’m talking about people that are safe. People that work in your building, the guy that works at the convenience store you frequent daily, the mailman, the secretary at your doctor’s office etc. Ever notice how people seem to open up to others during times of common stress such as snowstorms, power outages, long lines at the bank, and getting stuck in an elevator? People begin to talk to people, connect, and commiserate. People feel good doing during these times because they feel that “we have something in common, we are all in this together,” type of connection. Simple eye contact, and a how are you today attitude can make you, as well as them, feel better.
5.EXERCISE! If you are a regular reader of this blog you knew that I’d eventually get around to this. Exercise is one of those things that used to be built into daily life. A cave man didn’t have to go to the gym, all he had to do was live his life. In previous eras of human history, the very act of getting basic human needs met provided a reasonable level of physical fitness. In fact, if you are a member of the Baby Boom generation, you probably ate a lot of Hershey bars, Twinkies, and drank “sugary drinks” quite regularly,and you probably had and acceptable BMI. I’d also guess you were reasonably fit, at least as a child, from doing some dangerous things like running in the schoolyard at recess, climbing trees, riding a bicycle, – horrors, without a helmet – and walking home from school. It wasn’t until the 1960s that President John Kennedy realized that American kids were getting out of shape.
Exercise is a basic necessity for physical and emotional wellness. Everyone should have something that they do on a regular, if not daily, basis to elevate their heart, utilize their muscles, and break a sweat.
As with many things, balance is a key element. Trying to keep a balance between old school wisdom and the modern culture of technology is a challenge for everyone. Combining old-school with new school can make better students of us all.
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