Acceptance, exercise, and art equal happiness

For many folks, the diagnosis of a mental illness most often comes with a prescription for medication. In many cases, this is a good thing because the truly shattering symptoms of illnesses like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia can be greatly relieved by careful chemical assistance.

But, as good as many medications are, many patients do not respond positively to them. Indeed, many feel some clinical benefit while having to endure significant negative side-effects. Some of these can include weight gain, insomnia, and loss of libido – which can be emotionally devastating.

Every day I field questions about mental health issues, but this one is the most common: Beyond medication, are there ways I can make my life happier?

Yes! There are lifestyle and social choices that can dovetail nicely with pharmaceutical interventions and lead to a more gratifying and positive future.

The first is love and acceptance – and this area I address to family and friends of folks living with a mental illness, and to the community in general.

The stigma borne by people with mental illness is strong, and it is a sad fact that many sufferers isolate themselves to avoid it. This only makes matters worse. Just knowing there is support, understanding, and acceptance can make symptoms feel less horrible.

The second is exercise. In my days as a personal trainer, I saw daily the positive influence on mood that regular exercise causes. There is abundant research that links an up-tick in mood following physical exertion. Part of the problem with folks suffering mental illness is motivation; and this brings up the point I made above. With love and support, that motivational push can come from a friend or family member who cares.

A few years ago, I worked with a massage therapist with a group of psych patients at a Lower Mainland hospital. For a month, I led a daily session of stretching, a fast walk, and another stretching session. This was followed by 30 minutes of massage. The effect was dramatic. Our feedback forms revealed that all patients said their mood was improved and their outlook more hopeful.

There are many theories about why exercise works. My own belief is that the mind and the body are one. An unquiet mind feels and is influenced by an active body and positive body image. Move the legs, and the spirit will follow.

Art – I can’t stress enough the value of creative expression and its ability to bring peace to a tortured psyche. There are many high-minded theories about the role of art and its influence on mood – stuff like elevated serotonin levels and the like. But I take a more simple view. I think that art comes from our core self, the place that is truly “me” and which can be accessed only with the most honest intention.

I have the great honour to know and count as friends many members of the Arrowhead Clubhouse, many of whom have artistic abilities and inclinations. I have seen incredible works of art produced by members and am overwhelmed by the beauty and inspiration in their work – and by the clarity and peace of mind the act of creating art can cause.

So, a loving and accepting social environment, lots of vigorous exercise, and the freedom to express artistically: these are essential components for a happy life.

Hugh Macaulay- Community Columnist and Board Member of Arrowhead Clubhouse

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