Oftentimes, it feels like our minds and bodies are at war. Sometimes, we stare at the ceiling at night, physically exhausted but unable to shut our thoughts off to go to sleep. Other times, we may set ambitious goals for our diet and exercise but not see any physical results despite our discipline.
For those who struggle with substance abuse, every day can feel like cravings and withdrawal symptoms override rationality, or the social and emotional pressure to use substances is prioritized over the inevitable physical consequences. While they may feel like separate entities entirely, the mind and the body are intimately connected.
The Importance of Acknowledging Mental Health Symptoms
There is a saying that claims, “There is no health without mental health.” For a long time, there was denial about the very existence of mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and substance use disorder (SUD). Those symptoms were chalked up to laziness, moral depravity, and attention seeking. Unfortunately, some threads of these misconceptions remain today, but acceptance and tolerance are becoming the rule rather than the exception.
Even with the acknowledgment that mental illness does exist, there is often the assumption that sheer force of will can help a person overcome mental health problems. We would never hold that same perspective on a physical ailment. We would not ask a person with a broken leg to abandon their crutches and cast and just start walking normally again. We would not expect a person with diabetes to drop the act and just will their pancreas to produce the right amount of insulin. It would be entirely ludicrous if we expected those physical conditions to be wished away.
Why does mental health not get the same treatment? Just because we cannot see the exact mechanism that is failing does not mean that mental illness does not share similarities with physical illness. It is a very real experience with real repercussions and cannot be stopped by an individual simply deciding they no longer wish to deal with the symptoms.
The Connection Between Mental and Physical Health
Mental illness does not exist in a vacuum, and it can have a profound impact on our physical health. Similarly, the physical dimensions of our health affect our mental health, creating a bidirectional relationship. In the case of addiction, for example, the overuse of substances not only affects a person’s thoughts and behavior but also manifests physical symptoms. While this link means that mental illness can worsen physical health and poor physical health can worsen mental wellness, it also gives us the opportunity to tune one dimension and have a positive effect on the other.
For those living with SUD or another mental health condition, spending time on physical health can have a cascade effect of making it easier to function despite the presence of mental health problems. Establishing good habits can facilitate recovery and help prevent relapse.
One way to improve mental health through physical means is to engage in exercise. Working out can help us exert excess energy, improve our cardiovascular function, and maintain the bodies that we want while also giving us a boost in our mood. The healthier you are, the more inclined you’ll be to engage in exercise, which in turn serves as a reward. In this manner, exercise is a gift that just keeps giving.
Even if you aren’t the most active person or don’t consider yourself to be into fitness, there are countless ways to get moving so you can feel some of those benefits. While there are some examples that might immediately come to mind, like running or lifting weights, that is only the tip of the iceberg.
Instead of driving a short distance, you can walk or ride your bike. You can invite your friends to go on a hike and explore a natural area. You can attend a beginner fitness class at your local gym, such as yoga, Pilates, or Zumba. If you work from home, you can invest in a standing desk and foldable treadmill to get your steps in while working rather than being confined to a chair all day. There are so many options that you could do a different thing every day for months and never get bored.
Nourish Your Mind and Body
Nutrition is another way to approach both physical and mental health. We all know that eating foods high in sugar puts us at risk for an unpleasant crash, but it can also put us at greater risk for conditions like depression and dementia. On the other hand, living with poor mental health can affect the choices we make about food and lead us to choose unhealthy meals, thus impacting our physical health.
While there is no specific diet that will fit everyone and guarantee optimal health, paying attention to the level of sugar you consume can have benefits all around. Additionally, if you are struggling with SUD or another mental health condition, planning and preparing nutritious meals ahead of time can make it easier to fuel up on well-rounded meals when hunger strikes.
Sleep is another key player. If we are not receiving a certain quantity and quality of sleep each night, we are putting our body and mind at risk. Inadequate sleep and insomnia in youth are predictive of mental health problems later in life. Practicing good sleep hygiene, like keeping a set bedtime and wakeup time, maintaining a pre-bedtime routine without screens, keeping the room cool and dark, and keeping anything work-related out of the bedroom are all ways to make sleep easier.
Our minds and bodies are intimately intertwined, meaning that mental and physical health are inseparable. If you neglect one, you will pay the price with the other. They each have their unique set of needs, but there is a fundamental overlap of things you can do to keep yourself healthy in both of these areas. Learning how to best take care of your physical health to support yourself during recovery from substance abuse can be challenging when you are starting out, and it can be helpful to have experts on your side. At Family-Centered Services, we are dedicated to helping you and your family reach the highest level of health and wellbeing possible. That is why we take the time to get to know you through a detailed assessment to best tailor our services toward your unique goals. You can learn about our programs by calling (509) 991-5822.