Psychotherapy has historically been the practice of a client (or couple or family) meeting with a therapist to talk through life's struggles, mental health symptoms, the past, the self, relationships, and much more. It often begins with an assessment of sorts, leading to a diagnosis and treatment plan. Clients are offered a number of tools and modalities, all aimed at building psychological health through coping skills, cognitive strategies, and insight work. This can be highly effective for people, especially when the therapeutic relationship feels attuned and safe and participation is active. But when people feel stuck, there is often a big piece of the puzzle missing.
In my years of providing psychotherapy, more and more I have noticed that mental health cannot be extricated from physical health and a person's lifestyle. I see a real disconnect when it comes to well-being, with modern medicine dividing up health into all its various disciplines depending on the organs affected. You have bloating and irritable bowels? Go see the gastroenterologist. You have breathing difficulties? Better visit the pulmonologist. You are awake all night with racing thoughts? Time to make a psychiatric appointment. Our bodies don't work that way, however. Instead, they are systems, each cell connected to and influencing all the rest. If we want wellness, we have to think more holistically about the things that cause dis-ease and adjust our lives to minimize the impact of these, while maximizing the things that foster wellness.
During an intake, I ask about sleep patterns, diet, relationship quality, movement, and stress because all of these pillars of health affect a person's mental health in significant ways. In fact, you often cannot have mental health and ease if even one of these pillars is out of balance or unaddressed. It can be a lot of work to stay on top of our health, and we often feel like we don't have time to plan healthy meals AND meditate AND sleep for 8 hours AND put in a full day of work AND have time for leisure. It's true. Capitalist societies do not reward self-care. They also require us to believe that we SHOULD be coping just fine, so that when we are not, we will be more likely to buy products that offer a "quick fix" to our suffering. It's super convenient for those who stand to profit. But the rest of us are left unwell, dis-eased, and feeling like it's our fault for not trying "hard enough."
If you are thinking about making some lifestyle changes in service of your physical and mental health, here are some ideas for where to start, along with some simple tips to incorporate right away. For more of these, check out our upcoming virtual group: Well Within.
Mind your eating:
- Focus on whole foods and items with 5 ingredients or less on the label. Quick tip: Shop the perimeter of the grocery store.
- Try to eat lots of colorful plant foods, with at least 5 different vegetables per day. Quick tip: Make your plate look like the rainbow!
- Pay attention to the quality of products you put into your body. When you can, eat organic. Try to avoid ingesting toxins: limit alcohol, be aware of possible food sensitivities, know what the animals you're eating have eaten. Quick tip: Follow the "dirty dozen" and "clean fifteen" guidelines: https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/
- There are many types of culinary interventions for mental health. Food is medicine. It can either contribute to or curb inflammation. Quick tip: Get out those herbs and spices from your pantry and get cooking (especially healing are turmeric, ginger, garlic, onion)!
Mind your movement:
- Moving continuously throughout the day may be more important than having one big exercise event in the middle of an otherwise sedentary day. Quick tip: Get up every hour and spend a few minutes walking and stretching.
- Move your body in a way that feels good to you. You can do this anywhere, not just the gym. Quick tip: Turn on your favorite song and dance. That's 3-4 minutes more movement than you otherwise would have gotten.
- High-intensity interval training are some of the best workouts for overall health. Quick tip: There are lots of free HIIT workouts on Youtube; you could do a different one each time to keep things interesting!
- Keep more intense workouts to the first half of the day so they don't interfere with sleep.
Mind your sleep:
- Aim for about 8 hours per night. Try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day.
- Create an environment in your bedroom conducive to sleep: temperature around 68 degrees, dark, comfortable, tidy.
- Spend at least 20 minutes outside each morning to help regulate your circadian rhythm.
- Create a bedtime routine that involves intentional relaxation and "winding down."
- Avoid screens at least an hour before bedtime, ideally 2. Start dimming lights around this time, too. Keep electronics out of the bedroom.
- Drink your caffeine before noon. Even better, limit caffeine altogether.
- Finish your last meal at least 2-3 hours before you attempt to go to sleep.
- Try not to do anything too stimulating right before bed. If you are having racing thoughts, write in a journal, and leave the journal outside of the room.
Mind your stress:
- Try to wake up slowly and calmly, to keep cortisol from spiking first thing in the morning.
- Develop a morning routine to help ease you into the day. Possibilities: light stretching, journaling, meditation, setting an intention, a gratitude practice, mindfully drinking your coffee and tea.
- Prioritize 15-30 minutes of self-care time each day. If you need to, break it up into 3-5 minute "bites" throughout the day.
- Employ breathing practices to manage your nervous system. Prioritize slow breathing over big breathing. Make sure your diaphragm moves with each breath.
Mind your relationships:
- Whom you spend time with matters. Try to surround yourself with people who validate, support, and are genuine with you.
- Think about what boundaries might be needed in your relationships. Remember you don't owe anyone a justification for your boundaries. Examine your own relationship values, and make sure your behavior aligns as closely as possible.
- Figure out how to feel connected each day. This is more difficult in a pandemic. Even if we aren't able to physically be with people, maybe spend time writing a letter to someone, joining a community virtual group, doing an outdoor yoga meetup, or practicing a loving kindness meditation that involves some theme of feeling connected to the larger whole.
- When you are physically with people, try to be as present as possible. Put away your distractions and attend with all of your senses.
Mind your mind:
- Notice your thoughts and the stories you tell yourself. Are they friendly, encouraging, and kind? If not, see if you can cultivate a new dialogue.
- What we pay attention to matters. Be very careful about what messages you are exposing yourself to. Manage your social media consumption.
- Give your mind some "down time" every day. This can be just a few minutes of quiet, where you are not tasked with "doing" anything.
- Focus more on what you do want, rather than what you don't want. Practice gratitude. Practice contentment.
**This blogpost is for educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional care by a doctor or other healthcare professional. This blogpost is provided on the understanding it does not constitute medical or other professional advice or services. If you are looking for help on your medical journey, seek out a qualified medical professional. **