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Toward Integration: Mental Health Defined

What exactly does it mean to be mentally well?

The river of well-being
Source: jacf5244/fotolia

When it comes to mental health, we tend to seek symptom relief without defining what we want to move toward.

We know a lot about what can go wrong in the brain, as well as how mental disorders manifest in symptoms and dysfunction. But while illness is about how things break down—both in how they function and in the way we study them—health is about integration. No matter what the condition, the goal is to move toward making the brain more whole. We want it to function as more than the sum of its parts—whatever those parts may be. The more integrated the brain is, the more resilient and capable it becomes.

Psychiatrist Dan Siegel, a pioneer in the study of the neurobiology of mindfulness and healthy attachment, uses the analogy that mental health can be thought of as a flowing river, with one bank representing chaos and the other bank representing rigidity. The goal is to avoid either extreme and to flow nicely down the river, exerting more control when needed and letting go when stuck. Individuals who navigate the river well tend to have a more integrated brain, reflected by certain features, for which Siegel offers the acronym FACES—flexible, adaptive, curious, energetic, and stable. [1] Thus, in regards to children, the goal is for a child to be more flexible and less rigid; adaptive when encountering stress, change, or challenges; curious about themselves, others and about the world around them; energetic, not depleted; and stable or self-regulated, not dysregulated.

So what are the conditions that support optimal integration? First, the brain cannot become healthy if it is under constant stress. While we encounter stress every day, and small amounts can be tolerated and even helpful, chronic stress is detrimental. Second, the brain requires adequate downtime, or rest, to recuperate from daily stress and to process information and emotions.

Third, the brain requires nurturing, including eye contact, talking and sharing of feelings, touch, being held or hugged, having basic needs met, and being understood. Fourth, the brain needs a variety of stimulation but in appropriate amounts at appropriate times; this is most easily achieved by interacting with and learning from the natural environment, along with periods of low stimulation.

Lastly, the brain needs the body to move and feel, to obtain both gentle and rigorous exercise, to move in rhythmic ways and in different directions, and to experience a variety of sensory experiences, including deep pressure, in order to integrate the entire nervous system.

Many of the above factors are related to right-brain functions. Fittingly, the right brain is the more holistic side of the brain, and right-brain stimulation heals us both psychologically and biologically. Bonding, movement, creativity, emotion, and abstract thought all stimulate the right brain, and they also help integrate the entire brain, including the frontal lobe, as well as help connect the brain to the body.

The left brain, on the other hand, is much more literal. It likes information. When you read an article like “This Is Your Child’s Brain on Video Games,” your right brain relates to the story (of a boy having a meltdown after prolonged gaming) and makes sense of the big picture. Your left brain, on the other hand, remembers the more scientific details about dopamine, melatonin, and cortisol.

In general, because screen-related activities are information-heavy, they tend to overstimulate the left brain and understimulate the right, which makes the entire system more compartmentalized and less connected. [2] Thus, when the nervous system begins to dysregulate, we need to emphasize right-brain activity as well as cut back (or eliminate) screen-based activity to get back on track.

We all have an intuitive “knowing” of what it means to be whole. Our language reflects this: When we speak of someone’s ego or psyche being integrated, we might describe him or her as “so together,” “resilient,” or “with it.” But if an individual’s ego is easily fragmented, we might say, “She falls apart so easily,” or “He can’t handle any stress. He just comes apart at the seams.” When a child’s mind is organized, it’s easier for that child to complete routines, like getting ready for school. We might refer to that child as “being on top of things,” while a disorganized child “can’t get themselves together.”

Clinically, we know wholeness, too: When an individual’s psyche or ego is strong but flexible, we know it can withstand stress, while a weak one “fragments.” When the brain’s hemispheres and the body’s sensory-motor system are well-integrated, the child will learn easily, thrive in new and stimulating environments, and demonstrate synchronized motor movements. The child with sensory integration dysfunction, on the other hand, easily becomes overstimulated and disorganized and will demonstrate inefficient movements and a dysregulated mood.

Indeed, our bodies also have an intuitive knowing, as integration and synchronization can occur at every level, from the cell to the nervous system to the psyche. At the cellular level, when circadian or body clock cells are in sync with nature, all cells throughout the organism are more synchronized, and hormones and organ functions follow suit. Similarly, when stress hormones are low, the heart produces more coherent electrical rhythms, and the brain’s rhythms become more coherent—improving cognitive performance—as well. In fact, coherent heart patterns can have a positive impact on the brain waves of another person standing nearby. [3]

The point here is that breaking stress cycles can yield unforeseen benefits that build on one another. Holistically, there is nothing that occurs in isolation, and integration at any level helps create virtuous rather than vicious cycles. In the case of screen-time impacts, once the brain is liberated and returned to a more natural state via an electronic fast, once it’s had a chance to rest, rejuvenate, resync and reset, then the entire system becomes more organized, integrated, and whole. Then, so long as adequate screen limits continue, our systems tend to keep going in that same direction, finding the middle of the river more often.

Adapted from Reset Your Child’s Brain: A Four Week Plan to End Meltdowns, Raise Grades and Boost Social Skills by Reversing the Effects of Electronic Screen Time


[1] Dan J Siegel, “An Interpersonal Neurobiology Approach to Psychotherapy,” Psychiatric Annals 36, no. 4 (April 1, 2006)

[2] Christopher Mulligan, “The Toxic Relationship: Technology and Autism,” 2012, teenvideogameaddiction

3] Rollin McCraty and Mike Atkinson, “Influence of Afferent Cardiovascular Input on Cognitive Performance and Alpha Activity,” in Proceedings of the Annual Meeting of the Pavlovian Society (Tarrytown, NT, 1999); Rollin McCraty, Mike Atkinson, and William Tiller, “The Role of Physiological Coherence in the Detection and Measurement of Cardiac Energy Exchange Between People,” in Proceedings of the Tenth International Montreux Congress on Stress (Montreux, Switzerland, 1999)

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