As our attitudes towards mental health are changing, we are becoming more open and accepting that just as we can enjoy positive physical health, so we can enjoy positive mental health. I wonder though, how much of a connection we make between the two, or whether the perception still exists that our physical health is very much separate from our mental health.
The philosopher Rene Descartes is widely attributed to having established the idea that our minds are separate to our bodies. This suggests that the two are able to function independently of one another. If we consider how far medicine and technology has come, we could argue that this is true. It is possible to keep someone’s body alive when there is no brain activity and when people suffer complete paralysis of their bodies, with locked-in syndrome, we know that it is possible for people’s minds to be as active as they have always been.
It could be argued though that the relationship between our bodies and minds is far more nuanced and complicated than I have presented above or than there is space to explore here. Quite often, it can feel more comfortable to break things down into a series of parts, rather than consider it as a whole. Having a painful knee and seeing an osteopath or chiropractor can teach us about how the pain in the knee isn’t necessarily caused by the knee, but it can be caused by a problem in our hip which we experience as knee pain. Just because we experience pain in our bodies, doesn’t mean the cause is in the site of our pain or discomfort. Our feelings and our bodies have much more to do with each other than we often give them credit for, and we can often dismiss physical sensations as being unrelated to our emotions, but the two can be very closely connected.
How many times have you felt embarrassment and blushed? Or jumped when something has scared you? Felt butterflies in your stomach when nervous? Had headaches or felt physical tension when stressed? I could go on, but I don’t want to bore you. The point I’m making is this: our bodies and emotions are inextricably linked, and both have a huge influence on our mental state. Just as our emotions can tell us important information about how we feel, so can sensations in our bodies. I wonder how attuned to these we are.
Have you ever felt that you have to shout to make yourself heard? This is what can happen to our bodies when we have held or unexpressed emotions which may feel too difficult to acknowledge. In some cases, these unexpressed or buried feelings can have a profound physical impact.
While I have briefly discussed the impact of our emotions on our bodies, our physical health can also impact upon our mental health as well. When we feel unwell physically, we may also have lower levels of emotional resilience. Not being able to do what we want to physically, can have a profound impact on mood and how we feel about ourselves.
The good news is that the two can also have a positive impact on each other. Looking after our physical wellbeing can positively impact our mental wellbeing and vice versa. By getting active, our bodies release endorphins which help us to feel good about ourselves. Through the act of smiling at, or laughing with people, it can help us to feel better about ourselves.
The more positively we are able to view ourselves and the kinder we are to ourselves, the less likely we will be to hold onto those things which can be harmful to us. Sometimes we can benefit from a little help to find the way forward. But there is a way forward.