Mental Health and Physical Health are Inextricably Connected
You take good care of yourself. You go to your annual physical, get your teeth cleaned once every 6 months. But what are you doing to take good care of your mental health? Many of the same healthy practices that we engage in to take care of our physical well being, also takes care of our mental well-being. After all, the body is a system and when we take care of our body as a whole - as a complete interdependent system - that’s when we truly thrive. And, there are also healthy practices that are specifically strongly linked with positive mental health outcomes. Below is a quick questionnaire that assesses some of the lifestyle characteristics that affect our mental health.
This 20 item YES/NO primer questionnaire* will help you see if your mental health hygiene is in good order.
1. Do you feel connected to a community of people?
2. Do you make time for regular trips with friends and family?
3. Do you feel good about your physical appearance?
4. Is there someone in your life who encourages you?
Why Is It That Some People Are More Affected by Stress Than Others?
To answer this question we could dive deep into the scientific literature, but because this is a short and sweet blog post you’re likely reading on your mobile device, we’ll keep the answer simple. Resilience is one of the keys to winning the never-ending war with stress. And -oh yes!- it’s never-ending. Resilience, simply put, is the ability to bounce back and recover from the inevitable stressors and changes that life brings us. Picture an old oak tree in the landscape of our mind. Do you see it? Now imagine how many blizzards and storms this tree has weathered, and yet here it is. The tree still stands after all this time. The tree hasn’t cracked under stressors because it’s branches and limbs are flexible, they bend under stress. If the branches and limbs instead attempted to rigidly try and keep their positions despite the forceful, stressful winds, they would have cracked. This is how the tree can continue to grow. Resilience is the ability to bounce back and recover from change and high stress. How does one learn to bend and grow with life’s inevitable changes and stressors? Resilient people share these three closely related traits commonly known as the 3 C’s:
Locating Our Place in History
Many mental health blogs focus on the holidays this time of year. The stress of getting together with relatives around the holidays has been covered before (and will be covered again) on this blog. However, this month I cannot help but want to tackle the issue of sexual harassment and sexual assault as it has been covered more and more in the news. A primer of the terms: Sexual harassment consists of bullying or coercive behavior of a sexual nature. Typically the person initiating the harassment has more power than the person being harassed, but this is not always the case; Sexual assault is the act of physically forcing someone against their will to engage in sexual touching of varying degrees. Now to understand why we’ve landed here in this moment in history in November 2017, we must take stock of the chapters that came before.
The behaviors have been around much longer than the terms. In fact, I would argue that these aren’t emergent behaviors that only came to be in civilized human history, but that’s another article for another day. Within the scope of what American History teaches us, we remember how common place sexual assault was for female slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries. Certainly free women experienced coercion by friends, relatives, and even spouses. In the early 20th centuries, women in the workplace endured harassment and assault from their coworkers and supervisors. The culture of the 1920s supported women by suggesting they quit their jobs if they couldn’t handle working in an environment where sexual harassment and assault was expected. Most women were afraid to speak out openly about the issues for fear of losing their job, their reputation, or the fear of how accusations might impact the lives of others around them. They knew, at the feeling level, their place in society. They knew the amount of power they had.
How Our Youth Absorb Messages About Their Health
There are plenty of articles on the web that address the issue of mental health and stigma. I’ve read many of them (certainly not all). Rather than pile on, I’d like to share with you a slightly different approach. Let’s first consider how information about one’s health care is distributed to an individual. For example, a baby is born in a hospital, let’s call her Emma. Baby Emma’s health is monitored and she is seen by a pediatrician for all of her check-ups. Emma happens to be born into a family in which the members get their annual physicals and bi-annual dental cleanings. Emma is being socialized in part by her family to see that her health is important.
However, Emma was born in the United States, so at age 11 she has a pretty good chance of being overweight or obese. Certainly, her parents are doing right by her, by modeling going to the doctor and dentist. How about exploring what her parents typically shop for at the grocery store? Is Emma eating a “healthy” diet? What is Emma learning in school about nutrition? Furthermore, what is she learning about her overall health in school? They cover that sort of thing in P.E. right?
This Pain Feels Too Great to Bear
"I can't believe this is happening to me." How do couples cope with a loss that is invisible to the rest of the world? When we lose a grandparent or a pet, society has given us rituals of mourning, venues to express our pain, cultural normalizing takes its cue. But not all losses are equal. People who experience infertility and pregnancy losses all too often suffer in silence. Sadness, shame, guilt, loneliness, all experienced in isolation. This article is for all of the families impacted by such losses, and should be shared with the greater community at large to raise awareness of issues that remains under discussed and under studied. October marks another pregnancy and infant loss awareness month. Let's all do our part to raise our society's collective awareness around these issues.
Ask an MFT is an opportunity to answer questions from my followers on social media who would like some insights into the world of marriage and family therapy on many different topics. I want to reassure my readers that their identities are protected. While I get many questions, not all of them are useful for the general public so I can only respond to a select few each time.
Q: What can I do if I don’t want to go to therapy, but I know that my relationship needs work?
Robin: The first thing I would recommend you do is to explore and write about what is going on in your relationship that needs to change. Therapy can be a very powerful experience to bring about change, but it is not always needed. Most research-informed therapists will tell you that the change that comes about in therapy is roughly 70% attributable to the client. You are the one doing the work, you are the one making active changes to the ways in which you are thinking about your life and the ways in which you are taking action to bring about change. Here are several questions to get you started:
The Connections Betweens Our Beliefs and Our Overall Health
In a nutshell, being religious is strongly associated with better overall mental health and well-being. The devoutly religious have fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression in addition to having a better ability to cope with stressors. A 2005 study on adults in their 60s and 70s in the U.S. found that religious beliefs buffered against depression associated with poor physical health. And for those of you thinking, “well sure, people who are religious tend to enjoy the benefits of social support by attending weekly services at various houses of worship,” the buffering effects of religion was present even after controlling for social support. In a 2013 study, researchers found that patients who were being treated for depression and self-harm responded better to treatment if they believed in God. Of course, these results do not show causality.
Dr. Harold G. Koenig, director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University Medical Center, found that more religious people had fewer depressive symptoms after conducting a meta-analysis of 93 studies between 1872 and 2010 on religion and health. According to Koenig, "People who are more involved in religious practices and who are more religiously committed seem to cope better with stress. One of the reasons is because [religion] gives people a sense of purpose and meaning in life, and that helps them to make sense of negative things that happen to them."
NEWS FLASH: Your Childhood Influences the Kind of Parent You Are
With the kids out of school, many families are going on vacations, sending their children to summer camp, and of course there are those families whose schedules don’t change a bit other than having to figure out alternative arrangements for childcare. For many parents, the summer months can actually bring on more stress around the house because of having to adjust to a different routine from the previous nine months. As a parent it’s important to recognize that’s it’s not just the adjustment itself that brings about a stressed out family, but indeed, how you as a parent respond to the stressors that are presented to you.
What could be triggering this response in you, you might wonder? Think back to your own childhood and how you felt around your parents when summer came along and you were rushing to the airport, or going off to camp, or sitting at home in a very unstructured environment. The experiences (good and bad) we had when we were children get brought forth and influence the way we parent. Often, when these experiences have not been fully processed they can lead to unresolved issues that influence how we respond to our own children’s behavior. And as parents, we are especially vulnerable during times of stress to act on the basis of our unresolved past issues.
How Can Democracies Fail?
After listening to an episode of The Waking Up Podcast with Sam Harris, I felt compelled to share the important message that his guest Timothy Snyder was speaking on. Timothy Snyder is an American author, historian, and professor at Yale University whose latest book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century is becoming more and more relevant, especially if you’re an American. Snyder argues in his book, “We have to spread out our political imagination and have a broader sense of what’s possible. The danger is that we just go day by day and then every day seems normal, even if today is much worse than yesterday; We’re very good at getting used to today, and then tomorrow the same thing happens.” This article will give you a taste of what Snyder’s book is all about. Can our democracy’s constraints contain our President? And, what can we do to make sure those constraints *do* contain our President?
Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century. One advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so.
What Is Mindfulness Meditation?
As April comes to a close, we raised our collective awareness of Autism, Sexual Assault, and Child Abuse Prevention here in the United States. April is also Stress Awareness month, and it could certainly be said of all awareness months, that we shouldn’t limit our acknowledgment of these causes or issues to just one month. And of the many things in our lives that contribute to or compromise our well-being, stress is an incredibly pervasive and potent adversary. That is why I feel no hesitation or regret from piling on to the mountain of articles, blog posts, and books that make the case for mindfulness meditation as an effective tool to mitigate stress. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry, because you are in good company. Here in the U.S. only about 6% of the population practices meditation according to the 2012 NHIS Survey. Mediation is on the rise, and for good reason.
Couples who practice mindfulness have a higher ability to identify their emotions and communicate them to their partner in more functional ways that de-escalate conflict. These couples are simply less angry and less anxious.
Robin S. Smith is a psychotherapist practicing in Bethesda, MD. Robin created The Couple and Family Clinic Blog to provide useful articles on issues related to mental health as well as articles on local, national, and international news stories. Learn more about Robin on the About Page.