Self-reflection, metacognition, and emotional well-being

Mental illness IS physical illness. This is because all emotion results from body chemistry, and negative emotion is poor body chemistry. If you can control your body, then you can control your mind.

Image courtesy of Marisa, Germany

As has long been recognised in Eastern culture, what we think has a major role in determining our sense of well-being. According to Buddha, “We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. “

Buddha also noted a connection between our thoughts and our fate: “To enjoy good health, to bring true happiness to one’s family, to bring peace to all, one must first discipline and control one’s own mind. If a man can control his mind he can find the way to Enlightenment, and all wisdom and virtue will naturally come to him.”

John Milton (1608–74) expressed a similar sentiment in his epic poem ‘Paradise Lost’:

“The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

Put more prosaically, it’s the old glass half-full / half-empty paradox. How we think determines our outlook on life and thus affects our mental and physical well-being. Positive thinkers are more likely to feel good than those trapped in a gloomy cycle of hopeless pessimism. Easy to say, but often difficult to achieve!

Meditative practices such as yoga encourage students to reflect upon their own thoughts, in other words to think about what they think about, and to evaluate such thoughts with respect to their own emotional state. It is the practice of consciously monitoring thoughts which would otherwise remain subconscious. Self-help manuals refer to this subconscious narrative as ‘internal dialogue’ or ‘self-talk’. Tuning into this often noisy ‘chatter’ will better enable you to control its direction, and thus assist you in ensuring that the flow is from negative to positive rather than vice versa.

Body chemistry and emotion

Such a major transition in your thinking is more achievable, however, if you are also aware of the connection between bodily tension and the brain chemistry which creates such powerfully destructive emotions as anger and resentment as well as those dreadful sinking feelings which we interpret as heartache or anguish. Medical science often describes this as a “chemical imbalance” and explains, for example, that low levels of a neurotransmitter called serotonin are associated with depression.

Of course, the reality is infinitely more complex than this might suggest. As is explained in an article on the Harvard Medical School website entitled ‘What causes depression?’ (Updated: June 24, 2019 – First published: June, 2009):

“It’s often said that depression results from a chemical imbalance, but that figure of speech doesn’t capture how complex the disease is. Research suggests that depression doesn’t spring from simply having too much or too little of certain brain chemicals. Rather, there are many possible causes of depression, including faulty mood regulation by the brain, genetic vulnerability, stressful life events, medications, and me.

“To be sure, chemicals are involved in this process, but it is not a simple matter of one chemical being too low and another too high. Rather, many chemicals are involved, working both inside and outside nerve cells. There are millions, even billions, of chemical reactions that make up the dynamic system that is responsible for your mood, perceptions, and how you experience life.”

Put mechanistically, whatever the root cause of an individual’s depression might be, it is the innumerable combinations of our body chemistry which allow us to translate our life experiences into emotion – those numerous shades of feeling which span the vast gulf between misery and elation.

As with a battery, these chemical reactions create an ‘electrical’ frequency and it is the vibrational level of this frequency, plus the degree of its stability, which we interpret as emotion. After all, our bodies are composed of atoms, so this is true of all sensation. It is just as true of physical discomfort as emotional discomfort.

Another fundamental yoga insight: the practice of breathing deeply from the abdomen as opposed to taking shallow breaths from the upper chest enables you to calm the solar plexus region and thus dispel the harmful rigidity which helps to generate all those chemical blends associated with negative states of feeling.

One way to envisage this sensation of relaxation is to imagine that you have just climbed out of the swimming pool at your local leisure centre and are scurrying back to a changing cubicle feeling very self-conscious about not being as toned as you might wish. Once inside and safely concealed from prying eyes, you breathe a sigh of relief and automatically relax the stomach muscles which you have tensed in order to achieve that seemingly slimmer shape. 

This sensation of relaxation within the solar plexus chakra – chakra meaning point of spiritual energy – is achievable at will when you become more self-aware, more ‘mindful’. By regularly monitoring this area of your body as you go about your daily life, and by consciously keeping it relaxed, it is possible, over time, to redress a negative “chemical imbalance” and thus improve the quality of what you feel and, therefore, what you think.

Conversely, a tight knot of tension within this area releases a chemical cocktail which can cause real emotional pain, ranging anywhere from mild stress to agonising despair. The solar plexus is the place where, if you look in a mirror, you can see the pulse of your own heartbeat. No wonder it is often referred to as the seat of the emotions!

Square breathing

In order to enable you to relax your solar plexus completely, you could try Square Breathing / Box Breathing. If really stressed, then perform this technique regularly.

Medicate or meditate?

The closest that the UK education system seems to get to such deep spiritual insights is the type of GCSE English examination question which requires students to summarise an author’s thoughts and feelings in a random comprehension passage. Unfortunately, there appears to be little focus on helping our children to comprehend the infinitely more important relationship between their own thoughts and feelings.

And yet the physical and mental health of our students should be of paramount importance. The NHS business services authority has revealed that the number of prescriptions for Ritalin in England rose from 158,000 in 1999 to 661,463 in 2010. There is also much concern in many quarters about the side-effects of Ritalin which can include insomnia, anxiety, nausea, decreased appetite, dizziness, headaches and skin problems.

Interestingly enough, a study conducted by Colorado University in 2010 explored the effectiveness of using cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) when treating young people diagnosed as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Out of a group of 300, 150 were given CBT plus a Ritalin-type drug whilst the remaining 150 were given CBT and a placebo. At the end of the course, both groups experienced an equally significant reduction in their symptoms and thus the determining factor in modifying their behaviour appears to have been the CBT rather than the drug.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as: “psychotherapy especially for depression that emphasizes the substitution of desirable patterns of thinking for maladaptive or faulty ones.”

And lo and behold, we have suddenly been transported back several millennia to the fundamental teachings of the Buddha. What goes around comes around. Karma and all that.

So, the solution may well be: Meditate, not Medicate. But only if you are sufficiently self-aware.

From personal experience of trauma, I can honestly say that when the ‘electrical’ vibrational frequency which determines my emotional state becomes too disturbed, I am very much at its mercy and meditation is unlikely to do it for me. Because I don’t practise meditation on a regular basis, and thus can become too immersed in the drama of my own life, I can easily allow my emotional frequency to become so out of control that I can very quickly become seriously ill.

The last time this happened, I really did need to resort to three months of medication in order to enable me to begin to gain a degree of control over this frequency. It took the best part of year to recover from a collapse that occurred over just two days.

But had I been more self-aware, I could have avoided the collapse in the first place, and thus saved myself from one of the worst years of my life!

(Originally published in 2013 but updated August 2020)

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