In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, I thought it might be special to discuss a paradoxical element of my work: when I start to work with a new client, my first questions are about their physical health and functioning. I want to know how their diet and nutrition is, how often and what they do for exercise, what their sleep quality and quantity is like. I wonder how many hours they work, and if they let themselves take breaks during the day. I ask how often they take the time to take care of themselves, and if they are resting at the end of a tough week, or just collapsing.
Often, these questions are the first place we start. This can be a little confusing to folks who are coming in to work on their mental health, and my first questions are about physical functioning. I will often suggest that they get an updated physical, ask their doctor about starting an exercise program, and recommend they set up an appointment with a nutritionist. I’ll encourage people to add acupuncture, massage and personal trainers to their list of care providers.
Why do I start here? Because proper physical care fuels mental health functioning. Physical functioning (especially the top 3 building blocks of sleep, movement and nutrition), create the foundation that mental health builds upon.
Proper physical self-care can decrease and even eliminate some of the tricky negative mental messages that we feed ourselves. Often folks who are feeling depressed or struggling with anxiety stop caring for themselves physically. They tell me they are eating poorly, don’t exercise, and they are often either oversleeping or having trouble with insomnia. They isolate from others and get really stuck and closed up in their own awful feeling world. Returning to basic self-care challenges those negative thinking patterns, and helps lighten bad feelings, both by boosting good neurochemicals in your brain, as well as by reminding yourself that you are worthy and deserving of your own kindness and care. These positive patterns then build on each other and can help make you feel better over time.
Choosing health is even more important now than ever before as we are living in an increasingly toxic world that pushes us away from self-care and into an incredible array of stressful situations. Our food is frequently more of a combination of chemicals, super sweetened additives, and chemical dyes than anything resembling real food. On top of our poor food options, we are also bombarded with screens that over activate our brains, making sleep elusive. Then we are constantly too busy to get outside, move our bodies and get in daily exercise. This is a horrible combination for those crucial building blocks!
Choose health and combat the negative side effects of our modern world by eating natural, real foods, minimizing sugar and junk foods, and making regular exercise a systemic part of your life. Set aside time in your schedule to work out and be diligent about getting the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep per night. Take breaks to attend to your own self-care. Paradoxically, the time you spend taking care of yourself will fuel your productivity and performance, giving you more energy and allowing you to be more productive, attentive, and sharp. Spending time attending to physical health makes it easier to attend to your mental health. Starting from a place of feeling better physically builds that confidence that you can also feel better mentally.