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May 23, 2015
Your Mind: Friend or Foe
Early on in my training, I realized that our mind frames our reactions to our environment and can positively or negatively affect our health. A quiet and calm mind is one of the most powerful ways of achieving optimal well-being.

When we are happy we feel better. When we are anxious we may be fearful, irritable and angry. Our emotions make us think a certain way and then our perceptions become our reality. Sometimes this is good and sometimes this is bad. We can lose sight that we control our thoughts and our thoughts control our emotions. This is particularly true if we are faced with a crisis: health, financial family or friend issue. Our perception of the problem can get out of control and wreak havoc with our minds which ultimately affects our physical and mental health. When we really get rolling, the dominoes are hard to stop and before you know it, we feel like we are losing it. The excerpt below is from a book I may have previously recommended to you, 10% Happier, by Dan Harris.

The Buddhists called this prapańca (pronounced pra-PUN-cha), which roughly translates to “proliferation,” or “the imperialistic tendency of mind.” That captured it beautifully, I thought: something happens, I worry, and that concern instantaneously colonizes my future.

Anxiety, fear, anger and sadness are harmful to our health. These emotions cause all sorts of common and uncommon physical complaints. Negative thoughts disrupt our autonomic nervous system (palpitations, sleep abnormalities, chest pain, shortness of breath and hunger). Negative thoughts can squeeze our adrenal glands, causing changes in our cortisol and catecholamines levels. At the cellular level, it makes our T and B immune cells less functional and at the molecular level, throws off the balance of our infection and age-fighting cytokines. Our mind becomes our foe instead of our friend. Negative thoughts beget negative emotions and then we are unable to enjoy the present (a true gift). Our minds can take us to the future with worry, or the past, to beat ourselves up.

You have a powerful mind; you probably are pretty good at making yourself feel bad but the same neurophysiology can make you feel good. Take 5 minutes and play the YouTube link below and think of something pleasant. Notice how everything slows down; think of how fortunate and grateful you are for all that you have. And concentrate on your breathing; breathe through your nose, nice and slow. The music and breathing will allow you to take control of your mind. Experiment with your power. Think of a conflict or concern you have and you probably will get some clarity to it. Perhaps you will realize that your worry just does not matter. Maybe, you need to forgive someone, or even yourself, or maybe you need to just clear your mind. You may discover that your fears are just based on false evidence (F.E.A.R.= false evidence appearing real). Whatever it is, just breathe slowly and be in the moment. You may be surprised how you will feel and react.

Your mind may be your staunchest enemy or your strongest friend. A quiet mind is crucially important to our health. I'm not perfect at this, but I try to practice this every day; some days, of course, are better than others.

Sometimes we focus on trying to solve the problem causing the anxiety and we can get stuck trying to figure it out. The more we try to think it through, the more anxiety we have. Quiet your mind, breathe, meditate, and distract yourself with pleasure. Often we think we know what the answer to the problem is, not realizing we can get trapped in a small confined box. Here is a nice quote that helps me think outside the box: "Can you not be so smart and allow it to be something other than what you think it is?"

It takes work to quiet your mind. This is because many of us have unknowingly taught ourselves to be anxious. We have constructed neural pathways that are very fast and take us in lightening speed to panic, sadness and worry. But with concentration and perhaps meditation, or just thinking positive, we can reject those negative emotions. We can build super-fast neural pathways to take us to a calm, tranquil, constructive existence.

Final Thoughts

  • Do not allow yourself to be locked up with negative emotions, as they impede our creativity and our ability to extend kindness and empathy. So find ways to let it go: exercise, meditate, and distract yourself with pleasurable activities.
  • Pause and remember that your thoughts are not real, they are just thoughts. Real is this moment here and now. Sometimes thoughts can be scary but they are just thoughts, and like clouds on an otherwise sunny day, they will pass.
  • Release it, just let it go: anger, fear, envy, infatuation, greed, deception and sadness.
  • Do not medicate anxiety with gossip, alcohol, drugs, or over-eating. Face your anxiety directly. If these simple things do not work, get help!
  • Find your truth. The truth will always set you free. "The truth carries a weight that no lie can counterfeit".
  • Acknowledge that sudden unexplained horrible things happen every day that we never expected, but also take comfort that the crazy fears and worries your mind sets up to happen rarely occur.
  • Recognize there is a difference between preparing for the future rather than worrying about it. Control things you can control instead of worrying about them.

 o   In case you still don't get it, in the words of Carole King "you've got to get up every morning with a smile on your face and show  the

            world all the love in your heart":


Wishing you good health...always!


Harry A. Oken, M.D.

Clinical Professor of Medicine
University of Maryland School of Medicine
410-910-7500  Fax: 410-910-231