Let's face it, life isn't always peachy, despite the constant stream of happy images we see on social media. Sometimes the truth is that we don't feel happy at all. To the contrary, we may feel sad, depressed, lonely, anxious, insecure, overwhelmed, afraid, angry, etc.
I tend to write a lot about physical health because it's the area where I have the most formal training. However, in this post I wanted to take some time to write about mental health, which is extremely important to our overall well-being.
The Relationship Between Physical and Mental Health
As a clinician, I am very aware of how physical health affects mental health, and vice versa. An obvious example would be a patient who suffers from severe depression due to an injury that caused physical disability.
Conversely, It's common for patients to see a health care provider due to physical symptoms, and after a thorough history and physical, as well as tests to rule out other causes, it becomes apparent that the patient's mental/emotional condition is contributing to physical symptoms.
I want to clarify here that this does not mean that the patient's symptoms are "in their head." Just as a person's face might turn red when they feel embarrassed, these can be very real physical symptoms brought on by emotional triggers. The symptoms can affect any area of the body, ranging from headaches, to chest pain or shortness of breath, to vomiting or diarrhea, to severe fatigue, to chronic pain.
In medicine we have a lot of different medications to treat a lot of physical symptoms. But if we're not getting to the root cause of symptoms, then the medication may be acting merely as a Band-Aid, not addressing the real problem.
Sometimes the best thing I can do for a patient is to recognize that I'm not the person who can best help them. After ruling out other problems, sometimes the most helpful thing I can do is to connect them with a mental health professional who can better address the root cause of symptoms.
Even as I write the last sentence, I don't like how it sounds. Unfortunately the words mental, psychological, and emotional are too often associated with words like crazy. This is sad because it puts discriminatory labels on people who are going through extremely common conditions that are important to address. In fact, approximately 1 in 5 adults in the US experiences mental illness in a given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Taking Care of Our Mental Health
Since the focus of this blog is on preventive measures we can take to improve our overall health, I wanted to write about five things that I feel are important in regard to nurturing our mental health.
1. Start with your health care provider. Honestly, I don't think it's a good idea to assume that symptoms are purely psychological. It's good to start with a medical evaluation, to ensure there's not something else going on. For example, infection, thyroid disorders, and neurological problems (to name a few) can mimic psychiatric problems.
2. Dealing with a mental health issue doesn't mean something is "wrong" with you. Depression, anxiety, loneliness, insecurity, fear, overwhelm, anger, grief, etc. -- these are all normal emotions that every human experiences to some extent. Certainly, for some these emotions can be severe, debilitating, and harmful. Yet for others, they may be completely normal reactions to unfortunate situations or traumatic events. In fact, in some situations, to not experience these emotions would be abnormal.
3. Get help. If you broke your leg, you probably wouldn't decide to "get through this on my own." Yet when emotional factors severely impact our quality of life, there is a tendency to do just that. Sometimes we can't effectively do it on our own, and it's smart to recruit the help of a professional who specializes in such matters. As the saying goes, "The healthy ones seek help."
Keep in mind also that "help" doesn't have to mean medication. For example, cognitive therapy has been shown to be as effective as antidepressant medications in treating depression. If your preference is to try non-pharmacological methods first, find a mental health professional who will work with you in this way.
4. The Power of Exercise. Dr. Charles Glassman has written, "Food is the most abused anxiety drug. Exercise is the most underutilized antidepressant." I fully agree with this. As I have mentioned before, I use exercise more for my mental health than anything else.
Our bodies are meant to move. Through exercise, the body naturally releases endorphins, which make us feel good. And with exercise we don't have to worry about medication interactions or negative side effects. In fact, exercise offers the positive side effect of improved physical condition!
Michelle Steinke-Baumgard has written some great stuff on this topic. After losing her husband, she turned to exercise to help her deal with grief and handle stress. She blogs at onefitwidow.com. I have mentioned her work to many people.
5. The importance of "sitting with" your emotions. Although it's good to get up off the couch and do something, it's also important to allow some time to sit with our emotions. As with most things related to health, the extremes are rarely good for us. Just as dwelling on our emotions is not healthy, constantly suppressing our emotions is not healthy either.
Constantly doing something can be a coping mechanism that keeps us distracted so that we don't have to face our underlying emotions. However, we cannot truly heal until we face those emotions. Instead of running from the discomfort, it's important to take some time to sit with the discomfort, acknowledge it... feel it. It's not fun, but it strengthens you in the long run and leads to healing.
A meditative technique that I find helpful is to name the various emotions that come up while sitting in silence. For example, This is grief... That's anger... There's anxiety... Hello, fear... Here comes insecurity... etc. I find that confronting these emotions makes them less scary.
Facing our emotions may lead to tears, but that's okay. A good cry is one of the best things you can do for your mental health. Crying is cathartic, and the release of suppressed emotion can provide a great sense of relief.
I believe that our emotions are a part of us that we should not try to fight, but to treat with love and acceptance. As Dr. Lissa Rankin has described, our emotions are parts of our ego that we should treat "like a small child we love." We can allow the small child "in the car" without allowing them to take the wheel. In other words, we can lovingly accept these parts of ourselves without letting them define who we are.
This post was originally published on July 26, 2016.