Ways to detox your mind
You may be on top of your recycling responsibilities, choosing reusable shopping bags and riding your bike to work, but how’s your head? If your usual state is busy, stressed and needing some time out, you have some cleaning up to do. We all do. As individuals, we are directly affected by Western civilisation’s heady pace of life, and in between meditation sessions and yoga classes, you’d be forgiven for feeling a little unwell. We are overwhelmed by information technology, entertainment options and advertising overload, and it’s not letting up any time soon.
Like the civil rights, feminist and green movements of the late 20th century, the fight for a clean, healthy mental environment is shaping up as the defining human rights battle of the information age. Mental illness rates are higher in industrial societies than in the developing world. Just as industrial societies produce physical toxins that contaminate the natural environment affecting your physical health, they also produce psychological toxins and pollutants that harm your mental health.
Part of the difficulty in dealing with the problem is that it’s not obvious. The health department won’t take your call over this one. Yet subtle pollutants like television commercials, excessive noise and electromagnetic vibrations, combined with aggressive, subliminal marketing techniques, all contribute to the state of ill-health in Western society today.
The “mental ecology” is a psychological term that refers to the harmonious, balancing and sustaining development of humankind, while the “mental environment” refers to the sum of all societal influences on mental health. The reality is that today you are influenced from every direction. According to studies by the Mental Health Council of Australia, each year around 100,000 young Australians experience anxiety or depression and more than 60 per cent of these people don’t seek professional help. The World Health Organization also predicts that by the year 2020, depression will become the second-highest global burden of disability.
Some have called this an “epidemic of despair” heralding “an age of melancholy” in the West. Scientists are busily researching whether it’s some chemical in our food or just the fast pace of urban living, or whether it has something to do with this electronic environment we exist in today. With this influx of information, could you expect not to lose clarity of mind?
Researchers are busily questioning the causes of mental toxicity — is it the violence on TV, the numbing of our emotions through media shock tactics, dissatisfaction at the unending hype-and-letdown cycle, or empty gratification through buying more “stuff”?
Perhaps it is the sum of all of these and more. In evolutionary psychology, mental ecology research substantiates that the toxic consequences of a poor mental environment are caused by the disharmony between the mental environment humans evolved to exist within and the one we experience today. Put simply, we’re out of touch with the environment we were designed for. It’s all too complicated and it’s making us ill. If you feel like you’re being driven crazy with the non-stop stimuli of modern life, you’re not alone.
Climate change and the mind
“This is the issue of issues — the mental environment,” says Vancouver-based Kalle Lasn, editor of Adbusters magazine: the Journal of the Mental Environment and author of Culture Jam: How to Reverse America’s Suicidal Consumer Binge and Why We Must (Harper Collins). Lasn says that while Al Gore pushes for awareness of climate change, he is working for intellectual change and he believes we are at a turning point. “Thirty years ago, people became worried that the toxic physical environment was making people sick. This anxiety gave birth to the green movement. The important parallel is that the physical environmental movement took off in the 80s, when people found out that the toxins in our environment could affect us mentally as well as physically; the whole physical environmental movement took off,” he says.
“People are now realising that this mental environment is affecting people in their heads. If they want to live a healthy life and not live on anti-depressants, they have to clean up their mental environment. Now we’re in a time where people are stressed out, suffering from mood disorders, and a percentage of the population is on anti-depressants and anxiety medication. Studies show that mood disorders, anxiety attacks and depressions have gone up by 300 per cent in two generations.
“We have a big fight ahead, on a number of levels — it’s a multi-pronged, heavy-duty fight. We have to fight to stay sane,” Lasn says. “I think that — and seeing as I’m a guy who grew up in Australia — young people today are among the first generation in human history to have grown up in a mental, electronic environment. We are at the point where we find out what that means. The exponential rise in mental illness is because people grow up in the advertising-infested environment.”
As the science of mental ecology takes off, we’ll come to realise it’s not the nutritional value of what we see online or on TV, but the ratio of time spent in the real world, Lasn says. “It’s absolutely critical for everyone today in this environment to ask, ‘How is this affecting me? What is it really doing to me?’”
And what is it really doing to our children? They spend, on average, about 40 hours a week digesting popular media on TV, internet, mobile phone and iPod, and heart disease and obesity are sweeping the Western world. Psychopharmacology is the common answer; people feel a sweeping malaise and distraction from the simple pleasures and are given attention-deficit medications, diet pills, pills for “shopper’s remorse”, pills for the stresses of personal bankruptcy, for depression and emotional instability. Yet is any of this actually making us well?
Toxins in the brain
In the natural environment, toxins may be harmless in small doses, but they are lethal en masse. Chlorofluorocarbons damage the ozone layer, sulphur acidifies the rain, organochlorines cause mutation in animals. Even Western medicine, when over-prescribed, can make you ill. When the scale is tipped too far, equilibrium is compromised and you start to suffer.
The same can be said of over-stimulation in the mental environment. Donning your iPod while you go for a jog is one thing, but having a constant musical soundtrack to every waking moment is like polluting your headspace. So is being on call 24/7 for your mobile phone, Blackberry, stylus, cable TV, email, baby monitor and the rest, but we “need” to be contactable, don’t we? No wonder life’s such a buzz.
Most of us will, if we stop to think about it, agree that modern life is not good for our mental health. People may be talking about weaning themselves off the mental environmental toxins and getting back to basics through nature, yoga, nutrition and meditation, but when it comes to initiating these changes for good, we start realising how difficult it is.
How often do you leave your mobile phone at home? How often do you go a whole day without checking your email? How often do you leave the phone off the hook so you can relax, uninterrupted? Do you ever just let it ring? It’s not that easy. It seems that to get away from the pressures of life today, you have to initiate extreme “time-out”, to be free from the “conveniences” of technology. Taking a weekend retreat and making a big deal of being uncontactable are becoming normal ways to “get away from it all”.
“This is the first generation to grow up digital. [They’re] coming of age in a world where computers, the Internet, video games and cell phones are common, and where expressing themselves through these forms is the norm,” says Jonathan Fanton, president of The MacArthur Foundation (Chicago).
The MacArthur Foundation is a private, independent grant-making institution dedicated to helping groups and individuals foster lasting improvement in the human condition. This year, they granted a $50 million initiative to study how digital media is transforming youth and their learning processes. “Given how present these technologies are in their lives, do young people act, think and learn differently today? And what are the implications for education and for society?” Fanton asked, and he’s not the only one opening up a discussion.
“I think the issue about mental illness is there’s a lack of information about it,” Sebastian Rosenberg, Deputy CEO of the Mental Health Council of Australia says. “Mental health problems account for 15 per cent or so of the disease burden in Australia and receive only 7 per cent of funding. It’s reflected in research funding as well.”
The Mental Health Council of Australia’s current drive is to increase the attention given to mental health care in Australia. They’re calling for a promotional awareness campaign including awareness of steps people can take to look after their own mental health, and more funding for mental health research and initiating preventive treatment options. “The vast majority of mental illness occurs before you’re 25,” Rosenberg says. “Something like 14 per cent of 12- to 27-year-olds will have an episode of mental illness in any given year. We know it’s an illness that affects the young.”
Rosenberg says we have to be careful about the messages we give out about mental illness. “The paradox is there’s no national campaign regarding mental health. Young people don’t go to the doctor, they don’t go to the hospital — the whole area of youth mental health remains a really significant gap, even though they’re the most at-risk group in the Australian community. This whole issue is about wellbeing.”
Rosenberg says there’s a major problem with the general stigmatic perspective that there is little or no chance of recovery from mental illness. “The situation is critical. When people are left unassisted, they are left alone and they become worse. Especially young people. That affects them for their whole life, in a very profound way. The push for mental health and wellbeing is a positive one.”
The inner ecology
Mental environmentalism may be the most important notion of this century. Mass medication and lack of awareness of mental health issues are the tipping point for the mental environmental movement, just as climate change is a tipping point for the environmental movement.
Future generations may suffer for what we do now. Our approach towards dealing with our children’s increasing anxiety, depression and attention deficit is a direct reflection of the world we have created, which we are bestowing on them.
While there is a fragile balance to creating mental harmony, analogies are not easy to draw. The mental environment is not like a pristine wilderness untrammelled by humanity; our mental ecology has been shaped as long as we’ve been in existence. It is formed by images, ideas and skills, having been shaped over millions of years. It is a landscaped reflection of human cultures, experiences and emotions.
Every generation and every community has had a mental environment — it’s just that the Western mindset is now suffering from the refuse of today’s consumer world, as Kalle Lasn says. It’s time for change and climate change is not the only concern; our mental landscape is saturated with information debris. The World Health Organization predicts that in 20 years, mental disease will be bigger than heart disease is today. We are at the edge of something serious and we need to bring it into the light, with appropriate assistance, research and funding.
The mental environment is the other side of the coin to the physical environment. What we need now is a mental environmental movement that parallels the physical one. To support the mental environmental movement is not to say that all mental health issues are due to our culture — we have neural chemistry and genetic makeup in the equation, too. It’s not to say that technology should be shunned and that we should all go back to the cave. There have been beneficial advances in scientific, economic and health research from our futuristic tools, but there is a negative impact from these changes that requires acknowledgement.
We are developing better integration of technologies and ways of processing the perplexing range of choices available to us, making a more streamlined society through progressive technology. Perhaps we are getting closer, through this maelstrom of techno-activity, to making life simpler. We may just be able to clean up the mental environment before it’s damaged forever.
- Turn off the TV.
- Leave your mobile phone at home when you go for a walk or out with friends.
- Only check your email three times a day — don’t hit refresh every time you’re stumped for ideas.
- Go outside with your family — get away from electricity.
- Get out of the city for a weekend more often to be free of billboards, traffic jams and noise pollution.
- Designate one day a week as electricity-free in your house, with no distraction from radio, TV, phone, internet or electrical devices.
- Choose independent media instead of media conglomerates.
- Don’t rely on outside entertainment for relaxation — meditate, do yoga or cook instead of watching TV, DVDs or internet.
- Write letters to distant loved ones instead of calling them.
- As often as you can, turn off all appliances, listen to the silence and let go. Then let go some more.
10 simple ways to detox your mind