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Sunday, September 24, 2023
Dr. Brown: NOTL library series focuses on positive psychology and mindfulness
Dr. William Brown. File Photo
The brain is incredibly complex – so complex that some scientists – including Nobel Prize-winning particle physicist Steven Weinberg, were prompted to wonder whether humans will ever fully grasp how this marvellous organ functions.

Other than focusing on simpler subsystems such as vision, hearing, position sense, facial recognition, skin and muscle senses and the motor systems, will we ever really understand it?

Highly integrated complex systems such as emotion, thought processes and especially the nature of attention and consciousness and many behavioural and psychiatric disorders, are whole other matters well beyond our reach, probably for a long time.

Fortunately, we don’t have to understand all the molecular and cellular details of how the brain operates to help others and ourselves deal with stress-caused symptoms without resorting to drugs to calm troublesome chronic anxiety, depression, headache and a host of other stress-related symptoms.

For much of the 20th century, the focus in clinical psychiatry and psychology was on recognizing and managing a broad range of psychiatric, behavioural and cognitive disorders using descriptive manuals of nervous and mental diseases. 

As well, there was a small range of drugs with limited effect if any one disorder and too often they had troublesome, sometimes, long-lasting side effects.

Little attention was given to what patients might do to help themselves by building on their personal strengths. Nor was much attention given to the broader public, whose symptoms might not meet the international criteria for this or that psychiatric or psychological disorder but who need help managing their symptoms daily without recourse to drugs. 

That’s one of the reasons why the field of positive psychology was launched in the latter half of the last century – to harness the power of mindfulness and positive personal resources to overcome negative emotions and symptoms.

The power of positive psychology, mindfulness and meditative practices to manage stress and improve mental and physical well-being and health has been credibly shown many times, including rigorous clinical studies.

That’s why major health care organizations such as Harvard and the Mayo Clinic embrace what they now accept as legitimate helpful assists or alternatives to standard medical care. 

Until recently, the major roadblock to adopting mindful therapies in family practice clinics has come from the medical profession, many of whom were wary of practices they didn’t understand and had little experience with. 

Indeed, many health care professionals suffer from similar stress-related symptoms and until not long ago were equally clueless about dealing with them.

That’s changing rapidly because not only have alternatives to what have been standard medical practices proven to be effective, in some instances they help reduce health care costs. 

There has been a sea change in general acceptance of positive psychological approaches not only by the medical establishment but influential major companies such as Google, which offers similar programs to their employees.

Positive psychology and closely related mindfulness and some meditative practices provide patients with effective ways to minimize negative thoughts and emotions, while strengthening their more positive equivalents. 

Most of us, most of the time are barely aware of how we’re feeling except when we become vaguely anxious or upset in some way, often without connecting the dots between our symptoms, our feelings and what causes them.

Our bodies and brains were engineered by evolution to deal with acute stress (the classic fight or flight response), but chronic day-to-day stress is a whole other matter. 

Why? Because lasting too long without resolution, chronic stress increases blood pressure, makes platelets stickier (increasing the risk of heart attacks and strokes), releases pro-inflammatory factors that can damage heart muscle (causing arrhythmias and even lead to heart failure), damage the kidneys and gut, and impair the immune system.

And those are just some of the more important downsides to chronic stress.

To reduce risks to our health we need to reduce those stress factors that are within our power to change. Or if that’s not possible, we need to manage our stress in more creative and positive ways by fostering the power of positive thinking and emotions, while dwelling less on factors we can’t change.

  • The upcoming series on Mindfulness and Meditation is designed for beginners and seasoned practitioners alike by providing an overview of positive psychology, mindfulness and meditation, including some of the underlying science, and will offer practical workshops to start us on the way. David Elkins and I hope to see you beginning next Wednesday, Aug. 30, at 2 p.m. in the NOTL Public Library and thereafter at weekly intervals for six weeks.

Dr. William Brown is a professor of neurology at McMaster University and co-founder of the InfoHealth series at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library.  

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