Just how closely is your mental health connected to your physical health? Your mental health and physical health might be more connected than you think. Envision your mental health and your physical health as two sides of a shiny new coin. On the mental health side is your emotional, psychological, and social well-being. Flip it over, and you and you will find your physical well-being. This includes things like your genetics and lifestyle factors, such as diet and exercise. Each side might seem uniquely different and have isolated needs at first glance, but when we look at them a bit closer, we see just how related they are to one another. And no matter how hard you try, you simply cannot separate one side of the coin from the other. What happens when you keep one side shiny and clean, and the other side becomes dirty and dull?
In the last few months, the coronavirus pandemic has dealt a blow to life as we know it. As we entered the new decade of 2020, pandemics were certainly not on our radar, and terms such as social-distancing, flatten the curve, and self-quarantine were not rolling off the tongues of the masses. But now we feel a direct threat to our physical health. Daily counts of those infected are updated hour by hour on our news channels, and millions of Americans are at risk of catching it before all is said and done.
We have joined a new normal. We all know what taking care of our physical health looks like. We obsessively wash our hands for thirty seconds in hot water, we wear masks and gloves outside the home when we need to buy essentials, and we obsess over every cough, sneeze, and body ache. We think back if we may have had an exposure during an outing, and we constantly wonder if we are coming down with the coronavirus. Many of us try to focus on staying healthy in other ways, as well. We practice social distancing. We take care to eat healthy immune fighting foods, including foods high in anti-oxidants and fresh fruits and vegetables. We try to get the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep at night, and we try to walk or get some other form of exercise each and every day. We focus on the physical. We want to feel safe, and by focusing on the tangible, we have a sense of control over our lives and well-being. This feels comforting and good.
But what about our mental health? Are we taking time to focus on this all too neglected aspect of total health? Do we even have the tools, resources, and know-how to take care of it? And what happens when we do neglect it? Will it make us sick in other ways, not directly related to the coronavirus?
Anxiety and stress are at an all-time high. Not only are we scared of ourselves and loved ones getting sick, but many of us are juggling the pressures of remote work while tending to our children’s needs and schooling. Some of us have lost our jobs, and the future economy seems so uncertain. Some of us are devasted, grieving the loss of a loved one. And still, many of us cannot even pinpoint why we are feeling so stressed and on edge.
We are feeling the anxiety and stress not just mentally, but physically as well. For many, this feeling is so new or unpleasant that we might suppress it or “talk” ourselves out of our own anxiety. Holding feelings in can be very dangerous to our health in the long run. Acute stress can turn into chronic stress, and chronic stress can actually decrease our life span.
Recognizing the Physical Effects of Anxiety
Anxiety and depression look different on different people. Some people function so well we might be surprised to learn they are even suffering from anxiety or different emotional challenges. It is important to recognize the physical effects of anxiety because when we are able to identify and acknowledge the physical symptoms, it is easier to control them moving forward. Short term physical symptoms include:
- Sense of impending doom
- Racing heart or heart palpitations
- Feelings of panic
- Trouble concentrating
- Loss of appetite
Longer-term impacts of stress and anxiety on physical health can include:
- Increased risk of cardiovascular disease
- Weakened immune systems
- Gastrointestinal disorders including irritable bowel syndrome
- Frequent migraines
The good news is that once you understand what anxiety looks and feels like, there are simple steps that you can take to reduce the symptoms and regain control over your life. Here are three tips to get you started.
- Be Mindful of Trigger Events. A trigger event is an experience that draws us back in time to an unpleasant thought, feeling, or experience. Be aware of what is causing the physical symptoms of anxiety in your day to day life. Remember that you have the power and control to avoid many things that bring you stress. It may be helpful to disconnect from the constant news cycle on TV, social media, or your smartphone. Watch something on TV that brings you pleasure and a sense of calm and relaxation. Or curl up with a good book instead.
- Make Friends With Your Fear. It is important to recognize that the feelings and emotions you are experiencing are normal and valid. Pandemics and the uncertainty that comes with them are scary. You are not a superhero. Understanding your feelings is a big part of feeling better. Remember analysis over paralysis. Simply put, fear is not your enemy; it is a natural response to scary things we can’t control or don’t fully understand. Fear feeds itself. Instead of letting your thoughts spiral out of control and get the better of you, think of what it would look like to have a healthy relationship with your fear. Sit in a calm setting and write a list of what makes you fearful. Putting your fears on paper allows you to reframe your thinking and gives you the pause you need to think about why you are afraid.
- Focus On The Here and Now. Focusing on what you are missing can make you feel depressed. Looking too far into the future can make you feel anxious. But being in the present is enjoyable. Keeping your thoughts and mind in the present makes you feel centered and relaxed. Structure and routine are key to keeping you grounded and focused. Try to create a daily schedule that includes little things that bring you joy and calm. Try that new recipe. Read that book you have been longing to read. Do something meditative like a puzzle or a craft. Up until now, our lives have likely been so busy. Appreciate the pause and allow yourself to focus on the now.
About the Author: Lyz Best is passionate about reducing the stigma with regard to mental health and advocates to make mental health accessible to all. She is the online community manager for 7Chairs, a leader in providing professionally facilitated online emotional support groups. Her work has appeared in Runner’s World and The New Yorker. She is the author of Your Father’s Voice, published by St. Martin’s Press.
The opinions and views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in this article or linked to herein.