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Reframing How We Look at the Relationship Between Physical and Mental Health

We often treat physical health and mental health like they are two different things, but the reality is that they are connected and we should not talk about one without talking about the other.

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The year 2020 had many people concerned about getting and sharing a virus, but a dark undercurrent of the pandemic was the mental health consequences of forcing people into isolation and separating them from the people and activities that gave their lives purpose. Purposeful activity isn’t limited to recreation, as the many people who lost their jobs and their ability to provide for themselves and/or people who depended on them for support. Beyond that, the inability to get out and follow daily routines – such as exercise – in the same way as they did before.

It’s not uncommon to have conversations about physical health. It is less common (but becoming for normal) to have conversations about mental health. It is even less common to discuss the relationship between the two – the fact that physical and mental health are linked. In that sense, approaching your mental health becomes incomplete without a discussion of your physical health. After even a quick look at a medical blog it is easy to see that the fact of the matter is, if your body is unhealthy then it struggles even more than it may already be disposed to struggle when dealing with imbalances of serotonin, melatonin, and the other tools your body uses to help regulate your moods and behaviors. In that sense, the weight of your negative feelings is compounded by the extra weight your body carries around.

So, with that in mind, let’s talk about some of the feelings people are dealing with and how approaching those feelings from a perspective that addresses both your body and your mind can help you cope with the extra stress.

Loneliness and Depression

One of the big challenges that many people are facing as we come out of the pandemic is the effect of prolonged isolation. Isolation is probably one of the more dangerous feelings, considering that recent research indicates that solitary confinement – a common practice in jails for problematic inmates – has incredibly negative physical and emotional consequences for those subjected to it. Social interaction of some kind is so essential to the human experience that being alone can cause your permanent physical and mental harm. Some of these are extreme examples, but sudden and involuntary isolation from friend and family (or even just the interesting strangers and acquaintances coming from everyday living) seems to take something from us.

Even if you’ve been able to keep working, or if you live with family or roommates, the inability to gather with friends and change up our social links has left many of us feeling extremely isolated and lonely. So, what do we do about it?

Loneliness and isolation can lead to depression, which can be fatal if not addressed and taken seriously. Over the long-term, living in a depressed state can damage your heart. It’s no wonder, because if you know or have depression, the toll it takes on you every day can be overwhelming to the point of despair. So how do we address this, especially if we are depressed introverts with very small and out of practice social batteries?

Find someone to talk to about it. It has to be someone you can trust, which can mean a therapist but doesn’t have to. It can be about accountability if you think that would help, but you are ultimately accountable to yourself, so you don’t have to go seeking an outside judge if your internal one is always banging the gavel. Having someone to talk to, even remotely, is the beginning of social interaction. You don’t have to go to a club. You don’t have to host a huge party. All you need to do is start with finding someone who makes you feel safe when talking to. Stretch that social muscle and give it time to rest and heal stronger than before.

Keep in mind also that you can be isolated even when you aren’t alone. The oppressive presence of people you are around can also be destructive if the people are part of what is contributing to your problems. Saying that people can be toxic sounds trite and overused, but there is some utility in recognizing that taking yourself away from people keeping you confined from time to time can ease your feelings of isolation. Remember that safety is key – if you don’t feel safe with or around a person then that’s a good sign that you need to find someone else to help you with your isolation issues.

Anxiety

It’s been a nervous year and more. Even the healthiest person, facing job loss, financial worries or health concerns, may become anxious. Anxiety can impact your life in many destructive ways. For example, you may

  • struggle to fall asleep due to unhelpful thoughts that run through your mind at bedtime
  • struggle to stay asleep as anxiety fills in the gaps of your sleep cycle
  • be unable to focus enough to do your job effectively
  • develop unhealthy habits or digestive issues
  • eat poorly or engage in dangerous activities

Safety is another key factor in dealing with this problem. If you are anxious, you are pushing your body into a fight, freeze, or flight response. For some this means angry outbursts, for others it can manifest with panic attacks, and some people just shut down.

Mentally, find a way to feel safe again. Practice exercises to calm yourself down like counting the number of books on your bookshelf or the colors/names of objects you can see. Outside of the moment of anxiety, it is important to look properly at what is making you feel unsafe in an open, honest, and above all consensual way. Therapy can be excellent for this, but a trusted friend can help you as well as you talk and sort out what exactly it is that is making you feel unsafe. Once you know what it is that is making you that way, you can know how to manage it. I say “manage” because not all problems can just go away, but it’s much easier to safely paddle your boat down a river when you know where the rocks are.

Physically, your body will be better able to regulate your fight/flight/freeze reflex if it is in better shape. Beyond that, if your blood pressure is high or you are suffering from a complication from another health problem, the spasms and increased heart rate associated with panic attacks can damage or complicate those issues. It’s important to be on top of your overall health so you don’t leave a problem unattended long enough to shorten your life or put you in a precarious at-risk position. Physical activity also wears out your body, making it easier to sleep and helping you manage your restlessness.

Physical and Mental Solutions

Physically speaking, exercise is super important for dealing with depression. That’s probably almost a cliché to hear at this point. “Feeling depressed? Why don’t you go outside and exercise and let nature fix that right up for you!” Of course, that’s a half-baked approach. First of all (aside from the fact that nature isn’t a cure-all for facing your internal demons), you don’t have to go outside or go to a gym to exercise. In fact, if you are just starting out, a giant step like that is likely too much to handle. Setting a series of small, achievable goals is often the pebble that can cause a health avalanche. Once you have proven to yourself that you can do a small thing or make a small change, then the strength of that small victory can fuel you to the next incremental growth. Accomplishing something small and meaningful means that you have proven to your depressed, self-doubting self that YOU CAN do something to improve your situation. A small victory is a brick, and when you accumulate enough of them you can build solid walls that you need for your home.

What does an achievable goal look like? Aim for the point that pushes you further than what you are doing now but is still within reach. It could be something like taking the stairs when walking to the second floor of a building, it could look like parking an extra 100 feet away from the door to a store so you walk just that little bit more, or it could look like doing some pushups or sit-ups after each round (win or lose) of your favorite videogame. There’s always something within your reach.

Exercise, even a simple walk around the block, benefits people in many ways. First off, walking is habitual. This frees up your brain to lend a creative focus to problems that you may not be able to tackle when sitting on the couch absorbing content from a screen. Secondly, exercise increases the effort of your heart and lungs, fully oxygenating your tissues and lifting your mood.

Remember, incremental success is complete success, and some small setbacks are normal. Improvement isn’t an exponential curve – it looks more a like a stock market trending up. It’s always dipping and rising, but it’s moving in a positive direction.

Combining this with support from friends, family, loved ones, and medication (when necessary) can help you immensely. Don’t look at your mental health struggles as all in your head – they are related to your body (to which your head is attached to) and that connection matters.

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