Beyond Tender Loving Care: 'TLCs' Promise Health and Happiness
changes -- such as getting more exercise, time in nature, or helping
others -- can be as effective as drugs or counseling to treat an array
of mental illnesses, according to a new paper published by the American
Multiple mental health conditions, including
depression and anxiety, can be treated with certain lifestyle changes
as successfully as diseases such as diabetes and obesity, according to
Roger Walsh, M.D., PhD. of the University of California, Irvine's
College of Medicine. Walsh reviewed research on the effects of what he
calls "therapeutic lifestyle changes," or TLCs, including exercise,
nutrition and diet, relationships, recreation, relaxation and stress
management, religious or spiritual involvement, spending time in
nature, and service to others. His paper was published in American
Psychologist, APA's flagship journal.
Walsh reviewed research on TLCs' effectiveness and
advantages, as well as the psychological costs of spending too much
time in front of the TV or computer screen, not getting outdoors
enough, and becoming socially isolated. He concludes that "Lifestyle
changes can offer significant therapeutic advantages for patients,
therapists, and societies, yet are insufficiently appreciated, taught
or utilized," The paper describes TLCs as effective, inexpensive and
often enjoyable, with fewer side effects and complications than
medications. "In the 21st century, therapeutic lifestyles may need to
be a central focus of mental, medical and public health," Walsh said.
According to research reviewed in the paper, the many often unrecognized TLC benefits include:
- Exercise not only helps people feel better by
reducing anxiety and depression. It can help children do better in
school, improve cognitive performance in adults, reduce age-related
memory loss in the elderly, and increase new neuron formation in the
- Diets rich in vegetables, fruits and fish may
help school performance in children, maintain cognitive functions in
adults, as well as reduce symptoms in affective and schizophrenic
- Spending time in nature can promote cognitive functions and overall well-being.
- Good relationships can reduce health risks
ranging from the common cold to strokes as well as multiple mental
illnesses, and can enhance psychological well-being dramatically.
- Recreation and fun can reduce defensiveness and foster social skills.
- Relaxation and stress management can treat a variety of anxiety, insomnia, and panic disorders.
- Meditation has many benefits. It can improve
empathy, sensitivity and emotional stability, reduce stress and
burnout, and enhance cognitive function and even brain size.
- Religious and spiritual involvement that
focuses on love and forgiveness can reduce anxiety, depression and
substance abuse, and foster well-being.
- Contribution and service, or altruism, can
enhance joy and generosity by producing a "helper's high." Altruism
also benefits both physical and mental health, and perhaps even extends
lifespan. A major exception the paper notes is "caretaker burnout
experienced by overwhelmed family members caring for a demented spouse
Difficulties associated with using TLCs are the
sustained effort they require, and "a passive expectation that healing
comes from an outside authority or a pill," according to Walsh. He also
noted that people today must contend with a daily barrage of
psychologically sophisticated advertisements promoting unhealthy
lifestyle behaviors such as smoking, drinking alcohol, and eating fast
food. "You can never get enough of what you don't really want, but you
can certainly ruin your life and health trying" lamented Walsh.
For therapists, the study recommends learning more about the benefits of TLCs, and devoting more time to foster patients' TLCs.
The paper recognizes that encouraging widespread
adoption of therapeutic lifestyles by the public is likely to require
wide-scale measures encompassing educational, mental, and public health
systems, as well as political leadership.
For more information on the American Psychological Association, visit www.apa.org