Healthy: Inside and Out

Balancing your physical and mental health

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We tend to think of the outside of ourselves as how we look – our faces and physical attributes – and inside as either our internal workings or minds, but let’s open that up a bit.

We are all bombarded by a huge amount of images every day, and you would think this would help us to see diversity and enjoy all the different ways people look. In fact, of course, the opposite is usually true. It can encourage people to be more and more conventional – particularly teenagers and young people, who may try to model themselves on the most common or fashionable way to look, and feel bad if they aren’t successful.

Sometimes negative thoughts about ourselves physically can have an unhealthy effect on how we are inside – in this case, our minds. So, if we are going to reverse that, to use our bodies and how we look to good effect on our minds and how we see ourselves, then we have to find a healthy way to fight against the pressure to conform.

One reason we can get in such a muddle about ‘inside versus outside’ is because it is still common for people – at least in many of the cultures present in the UK – to split their minds and bodies, and think about them separately. But it can be much more positive to consider these things as a whole. And if we then try to think of illness and health as a whole, rather than separating mind and body, we may begin to perceive mental health problems as a much less frightening idea.

Our brains are constantly processing our experiences in ways which make them understandable to us as humans. They allow us to think about our experiences, give them categories such as good or bad, construct an explanation of its meaning or cause, and reach a conclusion about how to respond: to try to increase the experience if pleasurable, or reduce it if not. For some experiences, such as pain or major discomfort, we will nearly all go through a similar process and reaction, although we may find different meanings or explanations for the pain. On the other hand, different people will feel quite differently about some experiences, attribute a different meaning to them, and react quite differently. A simple example is how different people react to loud music, which can vary depending on factors like age or preference.

The same thing happens with a mental experience, where people may experience the same things in different or even opposite ways. One person may enjoy feeling peaceful and quiet, whilst another may find that experience boring and isolating. However, because mental and emotional experiences come partly from inside ourselves and are partly provoked by our relationships with people and things, how we think about the meanings and explanations, and how we all respond is much more complicated and variable. For example, a demand for an affectionate hug or cuddle may be seen by one partner as a welcome show of love, whilst it may be seen by another as a demand and a wish to control. One person may experience a flood of ideas as exciting, whilst another may experience it as being flooded or overwhelmed.

We all know that physical pain and discomfort or illness affects how we feel and think. It may be less obvious that how we feel and think can affect, not only our brain development and functioning, but also how our body works and its vulnerability to illnesses. So when we think about our bodies we need to think about our minds and vice-versa.

Because thinking about mental processes is often more complicated than thinking about physical causes and meanings, and because children aren’t often encouraged to develop a ‘mental map’ to make experiences in their mind more understandable, there can be a tendency to think and talk about mental processes as though they are physical. Many people will find the idea of disturbed mental processes or mental illness frightening; so they may express their distress, or even perceive it and believe in it, as something physical. They may also see this way of talking as being less subject to stigma.

So here’s the message whether you are a child or young person, or whether you are a parent thinking about your child or just about yourself: we will all feel inadequate if we feel we must always measure ourselves against some norm which other people make us believe is the right one. If we can enjoy our different bodies, and recognise that our minds and bodies are ‘talking’ to each other all the time, then we should also be able to value the different ways our mind’s work, and then value our own independent ideas.

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