As I drive by a gym on the way home from the office, I notice the parking lot seems fuller than usual. This could be due to the cold weather, but I suspect the crowds has something to do with the new year. How many people do you know that make New Year’s Resolutions to start exercising, eat healthier foods, lose weight, stop or reduce the alcohol, etc.? These are some of the more common goals I hear from people, and there is nothing wrong with having these goals. I have hope for people to stick with them past January every year as it takes approximately 66 days for habits to form.
“People do not decide their futures, they decide their habits and their habits decide their futures.”
F. M. Alexander
This blog is in support of anyone wanting to make improvements in how they take care of their physical body with hope that any changes result in lasting habits.
One of the first places I start with many of the clients I help is asking questions about how they take care of themselves physically. I assess for sleep hygiene (see previous blog), exercise, energy levels, appetite and eating habits, avoidance of harmful substances, and relaxation strategies. The importance of physical self-care becomes evident once clients start making improvements in these areas as there are several overlaps and influences between physical functioning and mental health. Clients will immediately report feeling better with their moods, their anxiety, their depression, and even relationship concerns once they learn to manage their sleep hygiene, start exercising, etc. This is not a cure-all for sure, but it is a great place to start treatment.
Let’s take a look at each of these areas more specifically.
The parts of your brain responsible for quality sleep are focused on cues, comfort, and consistency. The more consistent your sleep schedule and environment, the better your sleep becomes. If you have a pre-bedtime routine that involves doing the same behaviors in the same order every night (with decreasing levels of stimulation), the more likely you will go to sleep when you want. One of the biggest barriers to quality sleep is engaging your brain while in bed. So, stay off those smart phones/tablets, stop watching your show on Netflix, and do not read while in bed. These wakeful activities should only be done away from bed, preferably in another room. Making your bed as comfortable as possible is another way to help improve sleep. This includes reducing noise or light interference, having the right bedding and pillows, and adjusting the temperature to your preferences. Avoiding caffeine use, especially late in the day is an obvious way to assist with sleep. But, a less obvious strategy is to avoid exercise too close to bedtime. Although exercise tires your muscular and skeletal systems, it stimulates the nervous system. This is the difference between ‘tired’ and ‘sleepy’. Put at least 2 hours between exercise and sleep for optimum benefit. I often hear that sleep problems are caused by racing thoughts. One strategy for dealing with this sleep barrier is to give those pesky thoughts attention earlier in the day. Any form of emotion focused coping like journaling or social support can help with this (look for a future blog post on this subject). Last, but not least, avoid alcohol and other drugs (more on this below). Although some substances, including alcohol, can make you sleepy, they often reduce the quality of sleep and can interfere with long-term sleeping habits.
Consistent exercise is one of the best things you can do for your body and mind. The good news is that there are so many options. Running. Weight Training. Yoga. Biking. Swimming. Sports. Even walking or standing are better than a completely sedentary lifestyle. If you have trouble getting started, talk with people you know who exercise or hire a personal trainer. Not only does exercise improve your muscles, joints, energy level, and stamina; it does wonders for one’s mental state of mind. I know that I feel more clear-headed after a long run, especially if the weather is good enough to run outside. Also, exercise and body improvements often lead to increases in self-esteem. Cardiovascular types of exercise (in which the pulse is raised for a specific time period) are the ones I most often recommend to clients. This is especially helpful for reducing baseline heart rate which improves one’s ability to manage stress or anxiety. Finally, it is wise to consult with your medical physician if you have any health concerns that might limit or prevent certain types of exercise.
Appetite and Eating Habits
Do you have a comfort food? Do you feel like your eating habits are out of your control? Let’s face it. Some foods are hard to resist and some stressful situations can trigger unhealthy eating habits. This could be on the sweet or savory side and/or be involved in portion control. There are many print, online, and professional resources that provide information on healthy eating habits, but people typically have a good sense about whether they eat healthy or unhealthy foods and whether they eat healthy portions or not. In working with clients on this issue, I ask them to pay close attention to the times they eat better (including situational stress) and the times they eat worse. There are often hidden emotional triggers to unhealthy eating. The goal is to understand the connection between one’s emotions and eating habits. Other influences include the media and celebrities, family/friend peer influence, finances that might limit food choice options, and culture in general. Once patterns are examined, people can make more informed and in-control decisions about their eating habits.
Sudden changes in appetites (either greatly decreased or increased appetite) can be a sign of a mental health or medical condition. It might be important to have your appetite assessed by a professional within context of other signs and symptoms.
Avoidance of Harmful Substances
We all know that we shouldn’t drink too much. We shouldn’t smoke. Don’t do drugs. But, what about caffeine? Is too much caffeine harmful? How about prescription medications? It’s important that you are well informed about any chemicals you consume and the impact it has on your body and mind. For example, many prescription ADHD medications are stimulants that help with ADHD, but cause anxiety symptoms to worsen. Caffeine and alcohol can be a cause of sleep disruption. Whatever harmful substances you struggle with reducing or avoiding, consider going longer periods of time between use or decreasing the amount used and assess the results. You could also pair your substance use with discomfort to make it less appealing. Do you feel any better physically or mentally? If you continue to struggle or if your substance use creates legal, work, or relational problems; you might seek professional help.
Do you experience recurring muscle tension? Has your dentist talked with you about wearing a night guard on your teeth because of grinding or clinching damage? Your body cannot be relaxed and tense at the same time. So, if you struggle with physical tension, you would probably benefit from physical relaxation. Like exercise, there are many forms. Progressive muscle relaxation. Massage. Deep breathing. Some more common behaviors that are physically relaxing are things people do every day like hot showers, sexual release, and stretching. Pay attention to the tension in your body. Do you have spots that tend to be sore or tense often? What are some methods you could use to relieve some of that tension? Combined with adequate sleep, exercise, healthy eating, and avoiding harmful substances; relaxation can help you feel better physically and mentally. I often prescribe relaxation as a strategy to manage anxiety symptoms, especially if anxiety symptoms are physical in nature.
Energy level is an important indicator of how your body and mind are doing physically, mentally, and emotionally. If you find that your energy level is too low it might be due to inadequate or poor quality sleep, lack of exercise, unhealthy foods, substance use, or other causes. Energy problems might also be a sign of a mental health or medical disorder. If your energy level is consistently too low (despite attempts to make above changes to your physical self-care habits) or is consistently too high, you might consider consulting a psychologist or medical physician.
If you or someone you know is struggling in any of these areas of physical self-care, feel free to give me a call at (405) 614-2846 to schedule an appointment or for a quick telephone consultation.