I've spent many years focusing on my mental wellness. I've been to therapists, used daily affirmations, and developed a consistent meditation practice. Only recently, however, have I come to truly appreciate the intimate link between my physical and mental health. Today I'd like to share 5 tips for healing your mind through your body.
When we experience a physical symptom, like a stomach ache or tight shoulders, we often assume that the symptom is purely physical. We think, "My stomach hurts because I ate tacos for lunch" or "My shoulders are tight because I've been spending too much time at the computer." In reality our symptoms are rarely just physical. Instead, our body is often a mirror of our mind. In other words, when your body hurts, the root cause is often psychological.
If you think about a time when you were experiencing a lot of vague health problems, you'll probably notice that some area of your life was also out of whack at that time, and you weren't feeling 100% well psychologically. When I felt stuck in my 9 to 5 corporate job, my body was giving me all kinds of signals to get out. I was experiencing chronic infections, pain and skin problems - but my doctors couldn't figure out what was wrong with me. A few weeks after I quit my job, all of my symptoms disappeared. As Lissa Rankin says, when you're going through tough times, you either grow, or you grow a tumor.
Start paying attention to your body. The next time you experience a physical symptom, ask yourself, "What is my body trying to tell me?" Then take action on your answer.
Many of us (myself included!) have developed poor eating habits. We eat in the car on the way to work. We eat in front of the TV. We order takeout 5 nights per week. Taken together, these unhealthy habits wreak havoc on our mental wellness. I guarantee that if you start to clean up your sub-optimal scarfing patterns, your brain will benefit. Here are a few ideas:
I recently had the pleasure of meeting Julie Daniluk, a Registered Holistic Nutritionist from Toronto. Julie's new book, Meals That Heal Inflammation, has radically changed my eating patterns. In her book, Julie points out that many of today's most common diseases, such as arthritis, heart disease, and even cancer are linked to inflammation. Inflammation is "an immune response to injury, toxins, allergy or infection, and causes pain, redness, heat and swelling in the affected area." Seventy percent of our immune system cells are found in the lining of our digestive tract, which means that our immune response is highly affected by the foods we eat.
Julie recommends avoiding inflammatory foods such as white sugar and harmful fats and processed foods, and opting for anti-inflammatory foods such as natural sweeteners, healing fats, and vegetables instead. Julie also points out that many emotional issues such as anger, fear and anxiety not only cause an inflammatory response in our bodies but are also stored and expressed in our gut as well. In order to experience true healing, we need to not only deal with our emotional issues (through resources such as therapy) but also pay close attention to what we're putting into our bodies. When our body feels well, our mind will often follow suit.
Julie's book is an absolute wealth of information. She includes close to 200 pages of tables, tips and techniques covering which foods to eat vs. avoid, the links between various diseases and food choices, and a comprehensive five-step anti-inflammatory menu plan. If you'd like to experience improved digestion, clearer skin and a more even-keeled mood, I highly recommend Julie's book. I've personally tried close to 10 of Julie's recipes so far and they're fantastic! I've made my own almond butter, kale chips, healing soups and stews and even a healthy version of shepherd's pie.
Meals That Heal Inflammation has also inspired me to try going gluten - and dairy-free, and I've been amazed at the results. I picked up The Gluten-Free Vegan by Susan O'Brien for some extra recipe ideas and I've been happy to see that my heartburn has disappeared, I don't feel bloated after I eat, and my skin looks great. I've even tried going vegetarian for a week or two at a time. I'm not sure if I'll ever completely give up red meat, but I will say that during my meat breaks, my digestion does seem to move along more smoothly.
Start paying attention to how your body feels after you finish a meal. If something doesn't feel right, try taking a break from a particular food group and see if your symptoms improve. And be sure to pick up a copy of Julie's book for more tips!
Even if you eat a ton of fresh, local organic foods, you might not be getting all of the nutrients that your body and mind need. This is because the quality of our soil is rapidly depleting. I highly encourage you to consult a naturopath who can recommend supplements for your unique situation. Two supplements that I take every day are probiotics (for a healthy gut/immune system) and fish oil (for a healthy mind, heart and nervous system). I also recently added a multi-B vitamin, calcium and vitamin C to the mix (on the recommendation of my naturopath).
In order to function at an optimal level our brains require many vitamins and nutrients. If you aren't getting all of these healthy requirements from your food, then your mental wellness can suffer. For more on optimal supplementation, check out Kris Carr's Supplementation Guide.
I'm a huge advocate for psychotherapy. I think that anyone who is suffering from any type of unresolved emotional issue should most definitely spend time with a therapist. However I also believe that talk therapy can only take us so far on our journey toward mental wellness. We often store emotional trauma in our bodies, not just our minds. This is why we often have a recurrent physical symptom that doesn't seem to have any physical basis. If you're only treating your issues from the neck up, you're missing out on immense healing that can occur through your body. (A note from Owning Pink: We wholeheartedly agree. For more information on this important but often overlooked work visit Steve Sisgold - fellow Owning Pink blogger and Lissa's personal Body Centered Therapist. To read more about Steve's work with Lissa click here.)
If you want to experience true wellness, you need to get out of your mind and into your body. Whether this happens through exercise, sports, dance, or yoga - it doesn't matter. What matters is that you stop spending so much time up in your head analyzing everything, and get into your body instead. Your brain takes all sorts of cues from your body. If you're constantly in fight or flight mode, with tons of cortisol shooting through your veins and a stomach that's balled up in knots, your mind will assume that you are anxious. The beautiful thing is that when we relax our body, we trick our mind into relaxing as well. It's like your mind takes a look at your body and says, "Well, my muscles seem to be pretty relaxed right now, so I can relax too."
It seems counter intuitive, but in order to experience psychological wellness, you need to go out of your mind.
Look, no one's perfect. I still eat foods that are bad for me, I don't do yoga every day, and not all of my skincare products are natural. I don't always eat local or organic, and I love chocolate. The point, however, is that every day I recommit to doing what's best for both my body and my mind. I might not always get it 100% right, but I'm trying. I encourage you to do the same.
Start small. Maybe you could try going dairy-free for a week or start taking a probiotic. You might start by simply paying more attention to what your body is trying to tell you. I'm not a nutritionist or a naturopath, so I can't advise you on exactly what you body and mind need. Start to see yourself as a mini science experiment - try a few things out - keep what works and drop the rest.
Most of all, realize that whole-self wellness involves not just the mind, but the body as well.
Bethany Butzer, Ph.D.
When you comment on an Owning Pink blog post, we invite you to be authentic and loving, to say what you feel, to hold sacred space so others feel heard, and to refrain from using hurtful or offensive language. Differing opinions are welcomed, but if you cannot express yourself in a respectful, caring manner, your comments will be deleted by the Owning Pink staff.