Mind & Spirit

In our discussion of Healthy Aging and the Body we noted the importance of both physical fitness and keeping the mind active in aging well.  In this section we talk about the Mind and Spirit and the important role they play in helping seniors age well and live well.

An article on the website FamilyDoctor.org  describes the  Mind/Body Connection: How Your Emotions Affect Your Health:

“People who have good emotional health are aware of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. They have learned healthy ways to cope with the stress and problems that are a normal part of life. They feel good about themselves and have healthy relationships.

However, many things that happen in your life can disrupt your emotional health and lead to strong feelings of sadness, stress, or anxiety.

Good changes can be just as stressful as bad changes. 

Your body responds to the way you think, feel, and act. This is one type of “mind/body connection.” When you are stressed, anxious, or upset, your body reacts in a way that might tell you that something isn’t right. For example, high blood pressure or a stomach ulcer might develop after a particularly stressful event, such as the death of a loved one. The following can be physical signs that your emotional health is out of balance:

Back pain
Change in appetite
Chest pain
Constipation or diarrhea
Dry mouth
Extreme tiredness
General aches and pains
High blood pressure
Insomnia (trouble sleeping)
Palpitations (the feeling that your heart is racing)
Sexual problems
Shortness of breath
Stiff neck
Upset stomach
Weight gain or loss

Poor emotional health can weaken your body’s immune system, making you more likely to get colds and other infections during emotionally difficult times. Also, when you are feeling stressed, anxious, or upset, you may not take care of your health as well as you should. You may not feel like exercising, eating nutritious foods or taking medicine that your doctor prescribes. Abuse of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs may also be a sign of poor emotional health.”

This connection between the mind and the body holds for everyone, no matter how young or old.  As you read a little further, the authors offer the following guidance:

“How can I improve my emotional health?

First, try to recognize your emotions and understand why you are having them. Sorting out the causes of sadness, stress, and anxiety in your life can help you manage your emotional health. The following are some other helpful tips.

Express your feelings in appropriate ways. If feelings of stress, sadness, or anxiety are causing physical problems, keeping these feelings inside can make you feel worse. It’s OK to let your loved ones know when something is bothering you. However, keep in mind that your family and friends may not be able to help you deal with your feelings appropriately. At these times, ask someone outside the situation, such as your family doctor, a counselor, or a religious advisor, for advice and support to help you improve your emotional health.

Live a balanced life. Try not to obsess about the problems at work, school, or home that lead to negative feelings. This doesn’t mean you have to pretend to be happy when you feel stressed, anxious, or upset. It’s important to deal with these negative feelings, but try to focus on the positive things in your life too. You may want to use a journal to keep track of things that make you feel happy or peaceful. Some research has shown that having a positive outlook can improve your quality of life and give your health a boost. You may also need to find ways to let go of some things in your life that make you feel stressed and overwhelmed. Make time for things you enjoy.

Develop resilience. People with resilience are able to cope with stress in a healthy way. Resilience can be learned and strengthened with different strategies. These include having social support, keeping a positive view of yourself, accepting change, and keeping things in perspective. A counselor or therapist can help you achieve this goal with cognitive behavioral theraphy (CBT). Ask your doctor if this is a good idea for you.

Calm your mind and body. Relaxation methods, such as meditation, listening to music, listening to guided imagery CD’s or mp3’s, yoga, and Tai Chi are useful ways to bring your emotions into balance. Meditation is a form of guided thought. It can take many forms. For example, you may do it by exercising, stretching, or breathing deeply. Ask your family doctor for advice about relaxation methods.

Take care of yourself. To have good emotional health, it’s important to take care of your body by having a regular routine for eating healthy meals, getting enough sleep, and exercising to relieve pent-up tension. Avoid overeating and don’t abuse drugs or alcohol. Using drugs or alcohol just causes other problems, such as family and health problems.”

In a very interesting article on Mind-Body Exercises, the Cleveland Clinic talks about harnessing the power of the mind-body connection:

“The mind-body connection means that you can learn to use your thoughts to positively influence some of your body’s physical responses, thereby decreasing stress. If you recall a time when you were happy, grateful or calm, your body and mind tend to relax.

Research has shown that when you imagine an experience, you often have similar mental and physical responses to those you have when the event actually happens. For example, if you recall an upsetting or frightening experience, you may feel your heart beating faster, you may begin to sweat, and your hands may become cold and clammy.

Whether you have been diagnosed with an illness or need to prepare for a medical procedure such as surgery, it is very important to minimize the negative effects and maximize the healthy, healing aspects of your mind-body connection.

A variety of calming and empowering mind-body exercises have been proven to help people:

Decrease anxiety
Decrease pain
Enhance sleep
Decrease the use of medication for post-surgical pain
Decrease side effects of medical procedures
Reduce recovery time and shorten hospital stays
Strengthen the immune system and enhance the ability to heal
Increase sense of control and well-being
While the exercises described are not alternatives to medical or surgical treatments, they provide a powerful way for you to actively participate in your own health care, minimize pain and insomnia and promote recovery.”

They provide brief guides to a variety of Calming/Relaxation Exercises:

“The goal of calming and relaxation exercises is to help change the way you perceive a situation and react to it — to help you feel more in control, more confident or secure, and to activate healing processes within the body. Become aware of any tension, anxiety, change in breathing, or symptoms that you recognize as being caused or worsened by stress. When you take about 15 minutes daily to practice these exercises to help “quiet” your mind and help your body become more relaxed, you can then call upon this ability with a shorter relaxation exercise at a stressful time.”

The exercises they advocate include: Relaxation Breathing Practice, Progressive Muscle Relaxation, Mind Relaxation, Guided Imagery, Healing Services Touch Therapies Program, Mind-Body Coach, Spiritual Practices, Music and Art Therapy and
Relaxation and Massage Suites.

The practice of Meditation, well-known and widely practiced for centuries is increasingly recognized as an effective therapy for handling both physical and emotional conditions.

A variety of options are available in the Bay Area for individuals interested in learning and/or practicing these techniques in group settings.

The US Government organization Administration for Community Living (ACL) is a proponent of Brain Healthwhich they define as  the ability to remember, learn, plan, concentrate and maintain a clear, active mind. Their website provides many useful resources for those interested in pursuing this subject further.


A topic one hears a lot about recently is Mindfulness.  Rooted in Buddhist meditation practice, it refers to maintaining awareness and accepting our state, our thoughts and feelings without judging them. The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley has a good discussion of Mindfulness:

“Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.
Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.
Though it has its roots in Buddhist meditation, a secular practice of mindfulness has entered the American mainstream in recent years, in part through the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, which he launched at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979. Since that time, thousands of studies have documented the physical and mental health benefits of mindfulness in general and MBSR in particular, inspiring countless programs to adapt the MBSR model for schools, prisons, hospitals, veterans centers, and beyond.”

Quoting further from their website:

“Why Practice Mindfulness?

Studies have shown that practicing mindfulness, even for just a few weeks, can bring a variety of physical, psychological, and social benefits. Here are some of these benefits, which extend across many different settings.

  • Mindfulness is good for our bodies: A seminal study found that, after just eight weeks of training, practicing mindfulness meditation boosts our immune system’s ability to fight off illness.
  • Mindfulness is good for our minds: Several studies have found that mindfulness increases positive emotions while reducing negative emotions and stress. Indeed, at least one study suggests it may be as good as antidepressants in fighting depression and preventing relapse.
  • Mindfulness changes our brains: Research has found that it increases density of gray matter in brain regions linked to learning, memory, emotion regulation, and empathy.
  • Mindfulness helps us focus: Studies suggest that mindfulness helps us tune out distractions and improves our memory and attention skills.
  • Mindfulness fosters compassion and altruism: Research suggests mindfulness training makes us more likely to help someone in need and increases activity in neural networks involved in understanding the suffering of others and regulating emotions. Evidence suggests it might boost self-compassion as well.
  • Mindfulness enhances relationships: Research suggests mindfulness training makes couples more satisfied with their relationship, makes each partner feel more optimistic and relaxed, and makes them feel more accepting of and closer to one another.
  • Mindfulness is good for parents and parents-to-be: Studies suggest it may reduce pregnancy-related anxiety, stress, and depression in expectant parents. Parents who practice mindfulness report being happier with their parenting skills and their relationship with their kids, and their kids were found to have better social skills.
  • Mindfulness helps schools: There’s scientific evidence that teaching mindfulness in the classroom reduces behavior problems and aggression among students, and improves their happiness levels and ability to pay attentionTeachers trained in mindfulness also show lower blood pressure, less negative emotion and symptoms of depression, and greater compassion and empathy.
  • Mindfulness helps health care professionals cope with stress, connect with their patients, and improve their general quality of life. It also helps mental health professionals by reducing negative emotions and anxiety, and increasing their positive emotions and feelings of self-compassion.
  • Mindfulness helps prisons: Evidence suggests mindfulness reduces anger, hostility, and mood disturbances among prisoners by increasing their awareness of their thoughts and emotions, helping with their rehabilitation and reintegration.
  • Mindfulness helps veterans: Studies suggest it can reduce the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the aftermath of war.
  • Mindfulness fights obesity: Practicing “mindful eating” encourages healthier eating habits, helps people lose weight, and helps them savor the food they do eat.”

Stress management and reduction

It is an unfortunate fact of life that many of us live high-paced stressful lives balancing the demands of career and profession, family and social demands.  Even seniors who are no longer as active as they were earlier in their lives still continue to deal with stress brought on by a variety of factors.  The ability to handle and actively reduce the burden of this stress is highly necessary for our physical and emotional well being.

There are several sources that provide guidelines and advice on stress management. One such is HelpGuide.org.  In an article “Stress Management: How to Reduce, Prevent, and Cope with Stress” they describe stress management:

“We all respond to stress differently so, there’s no “one size fits all” solution to managing stress. But if you feel like the stress in your life is out of control, it’s time to take action. Stress management can teach you healthier ways to cope with stress, help you reduce its harmful effects, and prevent stress from spiraling out of control again in the future.

No matter how powerless you may feel in the face of stress, you still have control over your lifestyle, thoughts, emotions, and the way you deal with problems. Stress management involves changing the stressful situation when you can, changing your reaction when you can’t, taking care of yourself, and making time for rest and relaxation. The first step is to recognize the true sources of stress in your life.”

Further, they discuss ways to identify the sources of stress in your life, and detail an 8-pronged Stress management strategy:

#1: Get moving

#2: Engage socially

#3: Avoid unnecessary stress

#4: Alter the situation

#5: Adapt to the stressor

#6: Accept the things you can’t change

#7: Make time for fun and relaxation

#8: Adopt a healthy lifestyle

We refer the reader to their website for more details.

Another resource that provides information and support for stress management and resiliency  is Dr. Amit Sood’s  Stressfree.org.  Dr. Sood is Professor of Medicine at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in Rochester, MN. He also serves as Chair of the Mayo Mind Body Initiative and Director of research and practice at Mayo Clinic Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program. He writes:

“I believe I can offer useful insights into human stress, well-being, resiliency, and happiness. My life’s mission is to share this scientific and practical approach with as many as I can so we live a peaceful, content and happier life, and thereby make the world a better place for ourselves and our children. Further, although I remain and will always be a work in progress, I strive each day to live by the principles I share with others.”


Gratitude Journal

A gratitude journal is a written record you keep — in a notebook, diary or an electronic medium (there are even apps for it today!)  where you make a note of all the things, little and big,  for which you which you are grateful, while making conscious note of how and why you are grateful for it. It could be one line or a few sentences or a few paragraphs. An article in GreaterGood provides Tips for Keeping a Gratitude Journal.  In the article the author says:

“…studies have traced a range of impressive benefits to the simple act of writing down the things for which we’re grateful—benefits including better sleep, fewer symptoms of illness, and more happiness among adults and kids alike.”



Spirituality and religious faith and practice are intensely personal, and it is the right of every individual to make their own decisions regarding these pursuits.  We do not make any recommendations in this regard, However, the health benefits of spirituality and religious practice have been widely researched and a number of scholarly articles have been published on this subject, and we offer links to some of these to our readers.

A recent article entitled ” Health Benefits of Spirituality,” states:

“A growing body of research suggests that religion and spirituality may help some people better cope with illness, depression and stress.

Although religion and spirituality may not cure illness, they can have a positive effect on your health. Several medical studies show a connection between religious beliefs or practices and a decreased risk of self-destructive behaviors such as smoking, substance abuse and suicide. Other studies suggest that people who have regular religious practices tend to live longer and may be better able to enjoy life despite health issues like chronic pain.”

Other interesting articles on this subject include:

What is Spirituality?

Why is Spirituality Important?

How Can Spirituality Affect Your Families’ Health?

The Role of Spirituality in Health Care