Education and Health Communique #8
National First Vice-President and Chairperson of Education and Health Fran Lucas, January 23, 2018
Last November, I advised of the upcoming focus on mental health. Becky Kallal, health sub-committee chairperson, began with the article “Promoting Mental Health Through the Lifespan: Children and Teens”. Please find below the next article focusing on the second age group to share with diocesan and parish education and health chairpersons.
Promoting Mental Health Through the Lifespan: The Mid-Life Years
At first blush, it might appear the middle years in adulthood should be relatively simple. The children are growing up or have gone and started on their own path, careers should be established, and the aches, pains and difficulties of old age haven’t quite arrived. Yet a closer look may find this demographic possibly in a mine field of challenges! Many mid-life individuals find themselves caught between generations: caring for adolescents/young adults trying to make their way through high school or university to get established in new careers; newlyweds and new parents requiring guidance from mom and/or dad; their aging parents who are living longer than before due to better nutrition and medical care.
Careers may not be so stable with economic downturns and downsizing, and people in their 40’s and 50’s may find they have to re-invent themselves. Throw in a spouse with a medical issue, and you may have an unexpected multilayered challenge. Some mid-lifers find themselves alone through either the death of a spouse or divorce, which may impact finances. Women are especially vulnerable in a society that although we’re making strides toward equality, still supports the advancement of men’s careers and women as caregivers. Hence, if there is an elderly parent to care for, it is usually the woman’s role to quit her job and be caregiver. The many changes in mid-life like retirement, widowhood or divorce, and the demands of caring for someone else can lead to a decrease in the size of the social network, leading to feelings of isolation. This may be sounding very bleak, but many people face these challenges and come out in pretty good shape. The resilience that carried us through childhood and adolescence will continue to be of aid to us getting through the middle years.
The ability to recover quickly from difficulties, a certain toughness, can be learned in adulthood if one did not learn it as a child. Dr. Dennis Charney, American biological psychiatrist and researcher and co-author of the book Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges sets out a resilience prescription. In it are ten things that he has found common among those who have gotten through horrific traumas (like Vietnam prisoner of war camps) and the type of challenges that most of us face at some time in our lives like loss of job, moving, divorce or loss of a loved one. What follows is a very brief description of his resilience prescription.
1) Have a positive attitude. Optimism is part genetic but it can also be learned. It triggers our reward centers in the brain and acts opposite to learned helplessness. This is not a “Pollyanna” type optimism, but rather retaining faith that you will prevail in the end regardless of difficulties while keeping in mind your current reality.
2) Cognitive flexibility. We can re-evaluate our experiences, put a different spin on them or rewrite them, accept our circumstances and recover, and recognize that failure is an essential ingredient for growth.
3) Embrace a personal moral compass. This means having a set of core beliefs that very few things could shatter. For many, faith in conjunction with strong religious or spiritual beliefs is associated with resilience. Having a purpose in life and altruism (helping others) are also strongly associated with resilience. Attending religious services on a regular basis reinforces that faith but also puts us in touch with supportive community.
4) Find a resilient role model. Imitation is a powerful mode of learning. Surround yourself with positive people who seem to get through a myriad of troubles or challenges relatively unscathed.
5) Face your fears. Fear is normal and can be used as a guide. Facing fears can raise one’s self esteem. We can learn and practice the skills necessary to move through fear. Courage is the ability to experience fear.
6) Develop active coping skills. This means minimizing the appraisal of the threat and creating positive statements about one’s self such as, “I’ve done this before and gotten through it, so I can do it again.” Seek the support of others and ACT.
7) Establish and nurture a supportive social network. Very few people can “go it alone.” We gain emotional strength from close relationships with people and organizations like church, Mother Against Drunk Driving and the like. It’s important to have a safety net during times of stress.
8) Attend to physical wellbeing. Physical exercise has positive effects on physical hardiness and mood and improves self-esteem. Physical exercise actually plays a role in the generation of new brain cells, which was once believed not to occur. It can also help in the regulation of our emotions and improve our immune function.
9) Train regularly in multiple areas, in an effort to improve emotional intelligence, moral integrity and physical endurance. This requires systematic and disciplined activity. It also requires support.
10) Recognize, utilize and foster one’s own signature strengths. What are your character strengths? Engage them to deal with difficult and stressful situations.
For a more complete discussion on the subject, consider obtaining a copy of the book, co-authored with Dr. Steven M Southwick, or watch the webinar from the Brain and Behaviour Research Foundation available at youtu.be/AEWnTjgGVcw.
It is impossible to get through life without challenges, however, we can improve our skills at resilience which can have a positive effect on our mental health. How we deal with mid-life challenges will have a direct impact on the senior years, both mentally and physically. Mental health in the senior years will be the subject of the next article.
National First Vice-President and Chairperson of Education and Health