It’s All Mental (And Physical!)

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.

All-Around Health

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?

10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Kelsey
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 23:35:25

    Hey, I’m a “healthy living blog”-reader/”lurker” and I just felt compelled to let you know how much I appreciate your musings. You come across as extremely thoughtful, introspective, searching, loving (of other people, and at least desirous of truly loving every facet of yourself whole-heartedly one day), intelligent… I’ll stop there, but I could go on. 🙂 Anyway, I just realized how much I do appreciate your blog when I inadvertantly whispered “yes!” to myself as the page loaded and I saw that a new entry was up. 🙂 No other blog holds that kind of power over me, and I thought it was a bit funny too, so I thought I’d let you know that you have a kindred spirit you’ve never met all the way across the country who greatly admires you.


  2. Annie
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 23:47:57

    I love this post!! I am in a clinical psychology PhD program and my research is focused on bridging the gap between physical and mental health. My thesis was on how vascular disease (high blood pressure, diabetes, etc) leads to changes in certain areas of the brain which result heightened depression and anxiety symptoms.

    I struggled throughout my first year of graduate school — it’s really emotionally and spiritually challenging, and I had just moved across the country which presented it’s own challenges. Sometime in my 2nd year, I found healthy living blogs, which changed the way I viewed and ate food. This had a huge impact on my mood and overall level of well-being!


    • caronae
      Sep 29, 2010 @ 00:24:59

      That’s awesome that blogs have had that much impact on you — your phD program/thesis sound really cool! Blogs are definitely centering for me too. I will, hopefully, be starting law school next year and am really nervous too.


  3. Joanne
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 06:22:03

    Sunflower butter – awesome. Love it.

    For me, physical and mental health are definitely intrinsically linked. I just can’t have one without the other. I’m not happy if I don’t eat well and treat my body right and conversely, the more upset I am, the worse my eating habits will be and the less I feel like going to the gym. It’s a vicious cycle either way so it’s definitely best to keep on top of both!


  4. Kate
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 08:16:29

    great post! thanks for all the article links too. this kind of stuff gets me really excited. i definitely think the two are related. there have been so many studies done in regards to your thoughts and how they determine your health and what not. i could write a novel so i will spare you. i really think some of my research next semester is going to be focused on this. can contact you to share more if i go with this topic?


  5. Gabriela @ Une Vie Saine
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 10:42:07

    Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. I cannot even begin to tell you how much my mental well-being is tied to my physical health, both on a day-to-day and large scale basis. Granted, there are Olympians who are depressed, and cancer patients who see the beauty in the every day, but on a basic level, I think that happiness leads to self-respect, which leads to an innately healthy lifestyle. On days when I’m feeling down, I’m ten times more likely to binge on chocolate or be tempted to restrict; on days when I’m at peace with myself, I get some of my best runs and cleanest eating in. That’s not to say people can’t be happy without loving broccoli or hitting the gym frequently, but I do think that humans are hard-wired to make the best choices for themselves when they’re the happiest.

    Very well-written, introspective post!!


  6. Banan
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 22:14:14

    It’s been a while since I left a comment but I read your blog daily.
    Wanted to thank you for linking those articles up.
    I find that my mental health improves with exercise. These days, I literally have no time for exercise (without sacrificing the little sleep I get) except for maybe 1 or 2 days a week. I’ve compensated by taking brisk walks during breaks at work and trying to eat healthier.
    I’m glad things are going well for you with your new male friend and classes.


  7. Elizabeth H, blogger for SunButter
    Oct 11, 2010 @ 09:51:43

    Hello, Caronae,
    Glad you’ve discovered SunButter! As a SunButter blogger, I’m happy to report that it goes nicely with apples. And oatmeal. 🙂 If you’re interested in more, here’s our online recipe box:
    I also appreciate your perspective, and I totally echo your thoughts on weight lifting. If I miss my barbell class, something is definitely missing. Thanks for a great post! Take care.


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