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Quieting your mind: Maximize your mental health

When a new year dawns, words like “change” and “resolutions” are frequently batted about, usually regarding our physical health. But what about our state of mind?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, there were an estimated 43.6 million adults aged 18 or older in the United States with a mental or emotional disorder in 2014 – that’s 18.1 percent of all U.S. adults. The NIMH also published research stating that chronic stress may be linked to mental and physical ailments.

Although science says physical and mental health are co-related — and equally important — most adults don’t seem to prioritize maintaining their inner peace as highly as they do hitting the treadmill. But in this busy, loud world where we are constantly tuned in and stressed out, experts say there are plenty of ways to quiet our minds and ensure our mental health is in good shape.

One tactic is seeing a therapist or counselor, says Karl Shallowhorn, director of community advocacy at the Mental Health Association of Erie County and Compeer Buffalo.

“I think at one point or another, everybody should see a therapist,” Shallowhorn said. “Life has lots of up and down stressors. There may be times when we might have a particularly difficult experience we’re going through that could be best served by speaking to someone that could be objective, as opposed to talking to someone with an emotional attachment or lack of knowledge.”

Shallowhorn said counseling doesn’t just benefit those suffering from a mental health disorder. For example, someone who may be in mostly good mental health may not have the coping mechanisms to deal with a traumatic situation.

“There is a spectrum from well to unwell, and everybody falls somewhere in between,” he said. “Some people are better able to handle stress than others. It’s good having someone to listen to them. In the end, we just need people to listen to us, hear us and help us get through it. The best therapists aren’t the ones who tell you what to do, but listen.”

One major barrier stopping some people from seeking help in the form of counseling is the fear of being stigmatized.

“A lot of people don’t seek help because they don’t want to be perceived as crazy or labeled; they’re afraid of what their friends and family will say,” Shallowhorn said.

That can lead to a cycle of declining mental and physical health, as the two are interrelated.

“The way we feel mentally and emotionally definitely affects us physically,” he said. “For example, if we’re depressed, we feel tired.”

Shallowhorn said physical activity like walking, hiking and yoga are just a few ways to boost physical health – and mental health in the process.

“There are also spiritual methods such as prayer and meditation that can help,” he said. “Meditation is used to help a person calm their thinking, and there’s even a physical connection there. Your heart rate and blood pressure can all be healed through it.”

Mindfulness through massage and yoga

Evolation Yoga owner David Drost said yoga is not goal- or results-driven, but about quieting the mind and finding greater serenity.

Then there are ways to find respite that are more about pampering yourself.

“It comes down to self-care,” Shallowhorn said. “If someone can afford a massage, that’s a great way to manage stress, a great way to feel better and pamper yourself. Everybody deserves that, to take a moment to indulge.”

Massage has many benefits, including the obvious ones — relief of pain and tension in muscles and joints — but it also can do wonders for the mind. A big component of stress for adults is their inability to live in the moment because they’re too focused on the past or worried about the future. Massage provides a way to be present in the present, says Gena Elliott of Relaxation Station in Elma.

“Most people are rather tense, but when they leave, normally you can see the tension erased,” Elliott said. “A big part of it is the human-to-human contact. Massage gives the same chemical reaction as when you hug someone for an extended period of

time. In the world we live in, people don’t take time to have those connections. So when you’re lying on a table for an hour with someone touching you that whole time, there’s a huge release of endorphins. Having a massage is very similar to a meditative state. You’re entirely in the moment and your mind isn’t wandering. You’re focused on the feeling.”

Achieving a meditative state is also possible through yoga, a physical activity that anyone can do, says David Drost, owner and instructor at Evolation Yoga in Buffalo. Yoga, while great for improving physical health, can also offer a spiritual component, though it’s not attached to religion. It also differs from other physical activities because it’s not a results-based approach.

“Anybody, any shape, any size, any age can come to any class exactly as they are,” Drost said. “They need some willingness to do some things that are going to benefit them without being tied to the results. You do it for the fact that it’s good, not what you’re going to get out of it. It’s not goal-driven. You get better internally. That’s how it begins to quiet the mind and you’re dealing with what’s in front of you rather than what’s coming, living a day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis.”

And that concept of living in the moment — mindfulness — is a big part of yoga. Mindfulness is the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis.

“Mindfulness is thoughtfulness about what matters; your wants and needs,” Drost said. “You can put anything into a mindful practice.”

For example, Drost said doing things like preparing your own food, taking a walk or leisurely bike ride (instead of a run), or opting to read a book rather than watch TV are mindful practices for everyday life. The goal is simply to cut down on your stress.

“It’s not to say we’re not thinking about those things, the past and the future, but we learn from the past and prepare for the future, as opposed to obsessing about both,” he said. “One common theme between most scholars, theologians or religious and spiritual folks is ‘be the change you want to see.’ Want peace? Gotta be peaceful. Want serenity? Being driven by expectations is not going to bring you serenity; it’ll bring you stress. Stop asking your life and your body to do things for you and begin to do some things for your life and your body.”

Fresh air for mindfulness

Black Rock Canal Park. (Dave Jarosz)

Looking for a way to unwind, unplug and quiet your mind, but don’t necessarily have the funds for yoga classes or a weekend spa retreat? Try getting outdoors. Greg Olma, deputy commissioner of the Erie County Parks, Recreation and Forestry Department, offered his opinions on a few parks in the Buffalo area that are perfect for finding inner peace while taking in great views.

Akron Falls — 44 Parkview Drive, Akron. “Akron Falls is a good place to go,” Olma said. “There are scenic falls and a lot of stone structures. It’s a nice little park, well-manicured. There are nice areas down by the lake and trails to walk along the babbling brook.”

Emery Park — 2084 Emery Road, South Wales. The Department of Parks, Recreation and Forestry says Emery Park is “considered the most unique park, combining natural beauty and solitude.” Olma said the park has nature trails, is good for picnicking and is lightly used, so it’s rarely too crowded.

Black Rock Canal Park — 16 Black Rock Harbor, Buffalo. Visitors of Black Rock Canal Park can utilize the paved trail for walking and biking. “It’s a nice place to sit and watch the boats go by on the river or just to park your car and read the newspaper,” Olma said. Black Rock Canal Park is part of the Riverwalk, a path that leads from downtown Buffalo to the City of Tonawanda along the Niagara River. The park also boasts an off-leash Bark Park for dog owners.

Chestnut Ridge — 6121 Chestnut Ridge Road, Orchard Park. Chestnut Ridge is best known for the Eternal Flame Falls, a waterfall with a flame at the bottom that burns from a natural gas emission. “People are obsessed with it,” Olma said of the Eternal Flame. “It’s a nice walk to the falls, it gets you out of the house and it’s an interesting natural feature.”

The Erie County Department of Parks, Recreation and Forestry has a complete and detailed listing of its parks system.

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