In honor of Mental Health Awareness Week, we’d like to acknowledge how interconnected together mental health and physical health are. Mental illness can exacerbate constant symptoms and stressful treatments can make it difficult to feel happy and hopeful. Anxiety is understandable when you have no way of knowing what tomorrow will bring. Depression is natural when you are in pain, not sleeping well and unable to participate in activities that give you meaning. Some illnesses can even create anxiety and depression on a chemical level, through the dysregulation of hormones and neurotransmitters.
Yet, despite this complex emotional landscape, there are so many things you can do to keep your mental health in good shape even within the midst of treatment! Here are just a few of our favorites:
1. Follow your joy
Illness and the accompanying treatments will likely require giving up on things in life that made you happy. You may need to grieve for these losses – but that doesn’t mean you’ll never feel that fulfillment again, pay attention to what sparks excitement! Was there something you heard on the radio that caught your ear? Or a friend who always makes you feel calm and happy? What about that old crafting you used to do? Make time for people and activities that bring you peace, even if it means doing it for only 5 minutes or from a hospital bed.
Managing a new illness requires a reshuffling of life: activities, people, and priorities – but that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing! Most people could use a reason to weed out the people and activities that don’t bring health, happiness or meaning to their life.
So much research shows how useful meditation is. It regulates your nervous system, helps break pain cycles and is just so relaxing! It can be awkward the first several times you try to meditate and you won’t see the long-term results right away, but meditating multiple times a week can have a profound effect for both physical and mental health in the long run. Need some guidance through your meditation? There are so many helpful apps available! Insight Timer, Headspace, Stop Breathe & Think, Calm… and many more. One of these super helpful apps will be a right fit for you. When meditating, always remember there are not always graceful poses, the most important thing is to find a position that works for your body’s needs and helps to heal your mind and body.
While resting and finding joy are both important, exercise is an often underrated mood booster! Exercises you used to do when healthier may not be possible, but there are likely forms of movement that will work for you. Simply walking helps stimulate the brain to produce endorphins. Or if your body wants to be horizontal, try some supine exercises! There are plenty of resources available online, both in writing and video. Finding movements that work for you can feel empowering, and can significantly improve your mental health.
4. Speak your truth
Whether with a therapist or with trusted loved ones, you’ll need an outlet to express all of your feelings and emotions. My therapist once told me that shame (a frequent emotion tied to my illness) was like a mold – it grows best in the dark. However, if you air it out and expose it to the light, this shame will go away. Shame, fear, grief, betrayal, anger… these are all very normal emotions to have when coping with an illness. All of your emotions from your illness and even your physical pain, get better when you can freely express yourself, so let your truth be heard!
Numerous studies have found links between gratitude and improvements in mental health. To practice showing gratitude, try journaling each day to reflect on what things you are grateful for in life. This can be as simple as being grateful for a sunny day or a kind nurse who helped you in the hospital. Although we often have to track our symptoms to maintain our health, this can be a daunting and negative way to think about ourselves, but one way to brighten the day is to do a balancing act – by also tracking which parts of your body feel well each day. Once you become more aware of seeing all things to be grateful for around you, try expressing it to those around you. Not only does gratitude enhance the parts of your brain needed to feel hope and strength, but it also allows those around you who are also affected by your illness to feel appreciated, helpful and supportive.
We hope these tips will help you keep your mind healthy as you figure out your body’s rhythms. On the bad days, though, remember that you are not alone! We have all been there – we have felt fear, despair, emptiness, grief, and pain…but we have also found joy, peace and love in the lives we build through illness.
How do you heal your heart and mind? What does Mental Health Awareness week mean to you? Join our Friends in the Fight facebook group to join the conversation.