Today’s Happy Note: Sunbutter. I know that sunflower seed butter is made from a kind of a modified sunflower seed and has some added sugar and oils. But I. Don’t. Care. It is my new favorite nut butter and I am in love. Nut butter heaven. If that is a real place, I am so going there.
Marathon Training: Yesterday was a day off running. I did about 15 minutes of yoga then lifted my beloved weights for 45 minutes. I really do love weight-lifting. It’s oddly relaxing. Anyone with me on this?
Today was a speed workout day. It may officially have been the longest speed workout of my life:
2 mile warm-up
4 x (2 mile @ Tempo pace, 1/2 mile easy)
2 mile cool-down
It ended up being a whopping 14 miles! That’s longer than my long run on Sunday. It was a really good workout — I felt strong and fast, but not too fast; I think I paced myself pretty well. I definitely needed a succesful workout, mentally. I was super anxious to get started and have been feeling a bit down about running lately. This brought my spirits back up! I estimated the distance for the fast portions using the street numberings on lamp posts in CP (a well-kept but amazing secret — the first two numbers on any lamp post correspond to the street cumber you are at, and there are 20 blocks to a mile).
An awesome mid-week workout, although 14 miles is kind of a time-suck.
I want to talk a little bit about the intersections between mental and physical health today. I think that it’s easy to become too focused on the physical aspect of health: mainstream media frequently portrays a narrow, singular conception of health which is framed largely around the exclusion of non-physical elements. For example, you see advertisements at drug stores with people working out at a gym and eating salads and taking supplements. Or there are segments on news shows telling us “how to get healthy” by doing this new exercise or eating this new superfood. One of the reasons I think that Caitlin’s book, Operation Beautiful, is wonderful (and has been so successful) is because it addresses a legitimate need for emotional health information and empowerment, both amongst individuals who already consider themselves to be relatively healthy(e.g., bloggers) and amongst those who don’t know where to start, physically or emotionally. I try to deal with things holistically, although I am not always successful. But the fun part is the journey, not perfection.
In the last two years, I have had a physical health crisis and a mental health crisis. My experiences with each were very different, but both were powerfully formative for my conception of myself — I learned so much about my unique strengths and talents from each. I began to understand my way of seeing the world; where I fit into things. I think these crises helped me to figure out love — how to love myself and others. I am not saying that you need to have a crisis in order to take care of yourself though! There are simple things that we can all do, everyday, to make our lives the best they can be. After all, I think that’s what health is about: living our happiest, most vibrant lives.
If my years in college have taught me anything, thus far, it is that I need to take the time to be healthy. Taking time for myself has saved my life.
Before talking about the spaces between emotional and bodily health, I want to share some research/articles on the matter. Some of these are more scientific than others, but I think that they all involve a good overview on the relationship or specific facets of the relationship.
How Does Exercise Improve Mental Health?
Psychoendoneuroimmunology — relationship between stress and mental coping skills and somatic illness
Meditation Can Boost The Immune System
Exercise As an Antidepressant
Finding Thinner Peace II — eating right for our mind and body
Exercise, Mental Health, and Mental Ability
The Connection Between Mental and Physical Health — great roundup of articles
Improving Emotional Health — a more general but still useful overview of emotional wellbeing and its intersections with physical indicators
Surgeon General’s Report on Mental Health — this has almost nothing to do with bodily health, but is a comprehensive overview of mental health (including disorders)
Most of these articles focus on the relationship between mental health and exercise. I think this is certainly important, but it would be shallow to consider it the only significant aspect of the way our emotional and bodily health intersect.
For me, physical health means a constellation of things: regular exercise/movement (running, yoga, and weights), a good diet full of lots of plants, protein, and healthy fats, regular communication with my doctors, management of my clotting problem and my hormonal/endocrine disorders, and generally taking care of my body — proper rest, attention to appearance, stretching, etc.
Mental health also means a variety of things, for me: managing my depression/anxiety/mood, actively seeking happiness and contentment, healthy social relationships and connections, a sense of calm/inner peace/spirituality, and a general awareness of my place in the world.
By no means do I think that people conceive of physical and mental health in the same ways. Even a more generic inquiry into “health” would yield vastly different responses from similar individuals. My point here is to notice and acknowledge what being physically and emotionally healthy means, for me, and to think about how these definitions relate and overlap and inform one another.
There is a certain calmness that washes over me on occasion. It happens when I feel best about my body and content with my life. It represents my ultimate healthy state. In it I feel alert, safe, and well. I notice what my body is thinking and wanting and what my mind is thinking and wanting. Sometimes these things are different, and that’s okay. I accept myself for where I am at in that moment. I am exquisitely attentive yet also tuned out from the rest of the world. My body has moved sufficiently and been well-fed, and my intellect has been active and my emotions have been even-keeled. This is, I suppose, my ideal intersection point.
Of course, this is not my everyday reality. No one who knows me well would ever think to describe me as a calm or collected person. I can be hysterical or just plain crazy. On a regular basis.
My thought patterns have a huge effect on how I feel, physically. When I notice that I am harshly judging myself and hating my body, I tense up — I can feel the pit of my stomach clenching and my shoulders hovering up by my ears. Or, for another example, when I hear from my doctor that my INR is too low (for the third time in two weeks, as was the case today), I start panicking. My thoughts race, I can’t do school work, I am suddenly unhappy.
I wish I had a graph or something scientific whereby I could chart the precise overlap of my mental and physical health over a given period of time. For now, vague descriptions like this will have to do. All I know, in conclusion, is that there is a connection between my body and mind beyond my spinal cord: yes, my spine runs into my brain stem which opens up into the cerebrum. But something more is happening here. I have a sudden change in mood after a quick, sweaty run. I feel different sensations in my chest and lungs and stomach when I have more fulfilling interactions with those around me.
I think the conclusion is that I don’t know precisely what is going on. Rather, I am attuned to the patterns and the existence of the connection. And I think that the details of this connection are probably different for different people.
And that’s okay.
How do mental and physical health intersect for you? Or you more appreciative of one over the other? How do you balance the varied roles that they play in your life? What would you change, if you could?