Interview: Discussing Mental Wellness with Dr Christopher Jensen

When we think of wellness, our thoughts normally initially turn to physical wellness, such as eating healthy food and exercising enough; however, mental wellness is a vitally important part of our overall wellness. To find out more about this important topic, GOCO Hospitality spoke to Dr Christopher Jensen, a practicing physician and GOCO Hospitality’s Director of Strategy and Investments, on the topic of mental wellness.

GOCO Hospitality (GH): What exactly is mental wellness?

Christopher Jensen (CJ): Mental wellness is having a clarity and presence of mind and being whole within yourself. It is about having positive feelings about who you are, along with self-awareness, kindness and empathy; all these things come from being clear.

Everyone wants to be happy, and part of that comes from mindfulness and being consciously aware of your own mind and where you are. It’s about being at peace with yourself and not being in a place where you are digging up the past and negative emotions.

The way we have been conditioned is to have all of this stuff in our brains, when what we really should be doing is concentrating on the moment. One of the reasons yogis concentrate on the “Om” is just to keep themselves in the centre of the moment.

The reason that we get all cluttered in our brains is that we are never in the moment, but are focused on what has been happening in the past or what might happen in the future. What I call the ‘washing machine in our mind’ has us ruminating, and this bring us down.

GH: What sort of problems can a poor mental wellness cause?

CJ: I often see people who are in trouble. Part of my work is surgical, part is in the emergency department and another part of my work is police related.

When I see people who are in trouble, they are often very nervous. Part of my job, especially if they have never been in trouble before, is to help them understand why they are feeling nervous.

I help to give them coping methods for how to feel better whilst they are in the hospital with an illness or a judicial process and facing a difficult process ahead. I explain to them that every process has a beginning, a middle and an end. That’s the case with just about everything in life. It’s your ability to process that which allows you to be stronger in life or weaker.

Inputting the positive is one way that is very helpful in doing that.

GH: How can we do this? How can we all be more positive in life and improve our mental wellness?

CJ: A lot of people use positivity as an important tool. They will get up in the morning and say positive things to themselves. These are called positive affirmations. Some professional athletes are known to do this. They get up in the morning, look themselves in the mirror, and tell themselves why they are positive and how positive they are 100 times.

Tiger Woods is said to get up and say, “I am really really excited about my day. I’m going to win win win win win”.

Visual imagery is a good technique that allows people to feel well inside. Another is knowing your own breath and breathing from within, and being able to understand where you sit within yourself and turn off the ‘washing machine’ in your head.

GH: What’s the connection between mental wellness and physical wellness?

CJ: If you are not well in your mind, then you will not be well in your body. In fact, there are cells in your stomach and your brain that are the same. These are known as the interstitial cells of Cajal. What this means is that when you feel bad in your brain and your stomach starts to ache, there is an actual mind-body connection there.

Sometimes when you have a stomach ache, it could be that you have gastroenteritis, but it could also be that you are really nervous about something. Why do people who get a really bad piece of news often throw up? There is a part of our body chemistry and nervous system called the 5-HT3 receptor, which is part of a chemoreceptor trigger zone. It’s a neurotransmitter pathway in the brain that helps control the vomiting centre. We have drugs that can target that part of the brain and stop people from vomiting. However, there are also ways to target the brain without drugs, just by calming the brain and reaching a higher state of relaxation and contemplation and caring and empathy. That to me is mental wellness.

The body can’t be separated from the mind. So if you’re not taking care of your mind, you’re not taking care of your body. We disregard our mind many times and we think we don’t need to treat it as an organ, but it is an organ, a very important one that takes up the majority of the blood flow. Skin may be the largest organ, but the processing and blood flow is needed for the brain.

GH: Are there any long-term physical problems that might be caused by a poor mental wellness?

CJ: It is very interesting to look at the research of Professor Robert Sapolsky at Stanford University. He studied a troop of baboons and would take blood samples from individuals at different levels of the social hierarchy to see how much stress they were under. The ones at the top of the hierarchy, the dominant males, would have lower stress and would beat up on the ones with a lower social status and would get better food, have more females as mates, as well as having a better cardiovascular output and fewer problems with the gut and brain. And in general they would live longer than those in subordinate positions.

He then takes this research to England and starts studying lawyers in the British civil service. He looks at a lawyer at the top of the hierarchy and then a lawyer a little bit lower and then one a little bit lower and compares their level of happiness and wellbeing within themselves and how they understand their place in society. The person who is subordinate to fewer people tends to be a happier person and has better socio-economic outcomes and that then translates into physical health.

GH: What sort of symptoms should we be looking for in people suffering with a poor mental wellness?

CJ: These would be the similar to those of depression. People having a lack of interest and enjoyment in life, socialising, sex. People who are eating more, smoking more, drinking more and getting in trouble with the law. These issues usually come along with stressors like marriage and divorce, loss of a loved one, children, financial stress, stress from work and people who have been recently fired from their jobs.

People need to be conscious of their mind-body connections. Having good people around you who are caring and who you love can really help a lot.

GH: What can the spa and wellness sector do to help with these issues?

CJ: What we want to do is prevent health issues from occurring, and we can do that through screening tests and education. We can prevent most of everything by first keeping people’s minds well. If we keep people drug- and alcohol-free and keep people from eating a poor diet, we can do away with a lot of unnecessary hospital admissions and a lot of the long-term costs of people being unwell.

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