Previous articles in this series have touched on several aspects of aging well with a balance emphasizing the benefits of physical activity. This one focuses on some basics of the mental-emotional-spiritual side of the issues involved with aging well as long as possible.
“Attitude” has a variety of meanings and the one we’re using here is as follows: “a mental position with regard to a fact or state; a feeling or emotion toward a fact or state.” You might think of it as an internal condition — a readiness or tendency to respond in a generally consistent (default) way to events. Thus we have experience of “good” and “bad” attitudes as we notice that some individuals consistently make us feel comfortable and others do not, while some of our own response tendencies work for us and others lead to complications.
People who are “out there” in the way they present themselves to the world, assertively, confidently, or as “characters” are said to have Attitude. That can be said either with a sense of admiration or negative dismissal. There are many aspects to the attributes of “attitude,” and a good number of them have to do with aging well.
Some attitudes are associated with a sense of equanimity – a sense of balance between the extremes of emotions or opinions. These attitudes tend not to produce the often-observed lurching between antipathy and infatuation, between angry dismissal and uncritical acceptance. Those who hold such tendencies toward a moderated response to the vagaries of life have less stressful experiences than those of us who swing from one extreme to another, and therefore have less wear on their internal organs and their emotional and mental capacities. President Obama showed admirable insight into this when he commented that, ( I’m paraphrasing here) when things look terrible, they often turn out not to be so bad as they first appear, and when things look great, they tend not to be so good as the initial impression.
My years as a psychotherapist and a human being observing my own life have brought me to the conviction that one of the worst ways we can spend our time is to deny, ignore, or distort the reality of what is. We so often want things to be other than the way they are that we agonize and bemoan and rage about the difference between our preferences and the facts of the situation. It seems an obviously faulty perspective when it’s put into a coherent statement, but we may so strongly want not to accept the reality of our circumstances that we don’t want to give credence to what in fact is, because it shouldn’t be so! In my observation, though, the most sound way to move things to the way they “should” be, the way we want them to be, is to start with an acceptance of the way they, in fact, are. A simple example that most of us can relate to is being on the road: it’s pretty rare to go any distance in a car without observing something that should not be happening (as comedian George Carlin observed, “Everybody who drives slower than you is a moron and everybody who drives faster than you is a maniac”). Whether it’s a construction delay, a slow driver blocking our preferred speed, someone riding on our rear bumper, a too-fast driver taking risks that endanger them and others, or, worst of all and increasingly common, coming upon a collision that involves some combination of these and adds a fearful sense of how dangerous the roads can be. Frustrations, irritation, disillusion, fear and other emotions can get distilled into attitudes that turn our travels into dramas that change the way our bodies are functioning and our emotions are experienced. With repetition we develop response habits that affect the way we perceive events and react to them. Creeping along in traffic when we need to be somewhere and are running late can strongly and adversely impact our sense of well-being and our ability to stay rational about the situation as we compare what is with what we want, though it’s very likely there’s nothing that can magically resolve it.
The most productive thing we can do is to recognize the reality of the events in which we’re participating: those over which we have no control (the traffic and the time, for example), and those we can actually affect (such as our muscle tension, our internal commentary, our rate and depth of breathing, and driving in such a way as to move along safely). This good advice takes practice to actually do under pressure and, as with any skill, is most effectively put into place with practice in less stressful conditions.
Our brain is, in proportion to its volume, demands more energy and oxygen to function well than any other organ in our body. When we get tense, we breathe more rapidly and shallowly; tight muscles pull more energy to themselves and the brain’s share diminishes. This is a situation that goes so strongly against our well-being that it sets off all sorts of internal alarms and increases our sense of distress so that feelings of anxiety and even panic begin to build. Such a negative cycle can very quickly disrupt our ability to cope. Fortunately, the resolution is close at hand: if we let our shoulders drop, relax our jaw muscles, balance our heads between our shoulders and take several good, deep breaths, the alarms begin to turn off, our brain shifts to more effective functioning and our stress diminishes. The more we practice this sort of self-monitoring and control, the more we form attitudes that give our bodies and minds a sense of flowing with our lives, extending our ability to live well as long as possible. Practicing in our cars is a great way to start observing our reactions and adjusting them to suit our goals.
©Hugh R. Montgomery, PhD 2015