One of the biggest misunderstandings of mental health issues is that it’s all in our mind. People tend to assume it’s just our brain being affected, however, there’s a complex relationship between how we feel and how our body reacts to those feelings. Agitations in our body can have a large impact on our mood, and the reverse is the same, our emotions can create physical reactions too.
Have you ever felt butterflies in your stomach, or perhaps a knot? A lump in your throat, or the feeling of very heavy limbs? The way we interpret these feelings can have different effects on our mood, so it’s important to recognise what you’re feeling and how you’re going to overcome it.
It’s common to have stomach pains or a variation when we’re feeling troubled. It’s also the little things that we do in the day that can change the way we feel, such as having too much caffeine or skipping breakfast. Our behaviours during the day can contribute to how we end up feeling and our overall mood, such as fighting with someone or getting out of bed late.
In short, our mood is the consequence of a variety of things; our own thoughts, behaviours, how our body reacts and the events that occur around us.
But let’s get down to the basics. As any mental health sufferer has probably asked themselves before, why the hell do we have these dumb emotions? Well, they’re here to help us. They allow us to enjoy life, avoid danger, get through daily life, remember how we respond to people and events, and generally survive.
I used to think being emotional towards things, no matter how big or small, was pointless and weak. But I’ve learned that feeling sad or crying is a healthy, natural response to events, and they show that you care about someone or something. Apathy is something you need to look out for, but I’ll come to that subject another day.
Tuning in to our emotions is the best way to recognise and understand them. From there we can choose how we respond. This is easy when experiencing one emotion, for example, being angry means we should maybe take five minutes and breathe to calm down. However, it becomes a bit more complex when experiencing multiple emotions at the same time, sadness, guilt, fear, anxiety, etc.
But it’s important to remember that these emotions are not the problem, they are there for a reason, it’s your mind and body telling you something is up. Try to think about what caused you to feel this way. Perhaps you did something wrong, or you didn’t get a job you wanted, or you read some bad news. Once you know what’s causing you distress, you can start the process of moving on.
The physical reactions to our mood and emotions are important to note, especially if they last longer than a day. If experiencing strong emotions causes your body to react unpleasantly, then it’s important to recognise how we can change this to start feeling better, hopefully boosting our mood. Sometimes we don’t see the link between what our body is doing and our mood until it’s too late.
These physical reactions can range from several things: headaches, loss of appetite, fatigue, crying, stomach pains, cramps, tense muscles, heavy limbs, feeling tired, numbness, cravings, etc.
This is just how people naturally respond to threats and danger, our fight or flight response. It’s there to help us survive. When we get anxious or stressed, blood is pumped faster throughout our body, there’s a surge of adrenaline, causing fists to clench or muscles to tighten. We may start to breathe harder, start to hear and see more, trying to assess the threat. We sweat more or possibly feel numb in certain areas, or we could start to feel dizzy and begin shaking. It’s okay to be anxious, for a while, but if this feeling persists, that’s when it becomes an issue. We need to learn how to control and overcome this feeling.
To reiterate, it’s important to recognise what your body is doing to see how you’re feeling. Your body is giving you clues as to how your mood is impacting your daily routine. You can use these clues to try to solve the problem, identifying your emotions and stopping the unhelpful cycle by changing the way you feel.
So what lifestyle changes can be made to improve our bodies, and therefore our mood and well-being?
Sleep is a huge contributing factor to our mental state. Too little or too much can have a huge impact on the rest of our day. Some steps to improving your sleep hygiene include; avoiding using your bed for anything other than sleep or sex (no TV or eating in bed!), only sleep when you are tired, try to avoid having short naps, creating a sleeping rhythm by going to bed and waking up the same time every day, having a routine that prepares you for bed, and if you’re struggling to fall asleep while lying in bed, find something else to do that will relax you and try again.
There are benefits to drinking, being able to relax and socialise is a good source of serotonin and dopamine which will make you feel happy, but there are costs too. Alcohol can also have a depressant effect on our mood, and if we drink to excess, well, you know how you feel with a hangover. Try to monitor how much you’re drinking and note whether you’re enjoying it or not.
I’m no nutritionist but there are simple changes everyone can make to their diet to improve their mood and help their bodies. What we eat can have a direct impact on how we are feeling, so it’s important to monitor and moderate what we eat and when we eat it. A good diet can do wonders in helping us achieve our goals, boosting our mood, and having enough energy throughout the day. There are far more educated people than me who can tell you what’s best, but the biggest change I personally made was no longer skipping breakfast and drinking plenty of water throughout the day, every day. Those two changes alone helped me feel more energetic, less tired, and a bit less grumpy. In general, a good diet has a balance of everything we need, carbohydrates, proteins, fats, fibre etc, but most importantly, everything in moderation. Follow those rules and you should start to see an improvement.
Most people drink tea, coffee, or eat chocolate. Caffeine is found in all these things, and can help us feel more awake, aware, and alert. In moderation, it can be a benefit, but consuming too much can have a detrimental effect on our bodies in the long run, to the point where we become dependent on it to get through the day. This can cause us to become restless, nauseous, induce headaches, become irritable as well as a whole other number of issues. Withdrawal symptoms can also be just as bad. Try supplementing your caffeinated drink for water, invest in a good bottle and fill it up at the start of the day, carrying it with you always. A lot of the symptoms associated with caffeine withdrawal or dependency are very similar to that of anxiety.
Any medical professional who tells you to go outside and do exercise to improve your mood and beat depression should be ashamed of themselves. It’s the absolute bare minimum they can suggest to someone in order to get on with their day and it’s useless advice because more often than not the sufferer has tried that already. Despite all that, having a routine or regular physical session of anything at all is good for the brain and will release lots of dopamine and serotonin into your brain. This could range from walking the dog at the same time every day to a weekly gym session or kick about, or even just some yoga or meditation in your own garden. Set yourself a target such as 20 minutes of exercise and try to beat it. A good amount of physical activity will boost your mood, even for a little while, and additionally might help you sleep better.
Take your medication friends. It’s been prescribed to you for a reason. Sometimes it’ll have tough side effects, which you’ll have to power through. If you can’t make it through, talk to your doctor and tell them your medication isn’t working or making you feel worse. But take it every day, at the same time, and follow the instructions that have been given to you.
On a personal note, I’ve had a tough relationship with all six of these things at some point or another in my life.
Sleep has been a challenge for me for a few years now, the best thing I can recommend is not spending all your time in bed when you’re not sleeping. Don’t eat or work in bed, get a desk and work at that instead. Make your bed every day and change sheets regularly.
I’ve never been much of a drinker, but I used to go all out when I did, best decision I ever made was to just cut it out completely and only ever drink water.
During university my diet was terrible, I would binge on all kinds of sugary foods and eat at random times all over the day. People tend to think because you’re not overweight or large, you don’t have a diet or food problem, and I can tell you that is absolutely not the case. The link between food and our mental health is huge, and I’d consume enormous amounts of sugar, feel good for ten minutes and then feel awful for the rest of the day. The same applied to soft drinks too, the caffeine would have bad consequences. Again, everything in moderation.
I’ve always been active, walking or cycling everywhere I go, but being referred to a gym by my GP really helped me get out of a dark place when I was unemployed. Instead of sitting in my room all day with my thoughts, I could go out and spend a few hours on a rowing machine or treadmill, trying to beat my personal best. It’s a good distraction. These days I don’t go to the gym anymore, but I do have a yoga mat at home and a couple of weights, and I do my own little sessions in my room when I can.
And finally, medication. Quite recently I thought I was well enough to stop taking it, so I tried without telling my GP. I had a pretty bad reaction to that and soon realised I wasn’t quite ready to do so, and quickly started taking my SSRIs again. This might have set me back a few months, I’m not sure. But my only advice is to keep taking it, and only stop when you have discussed it thoroughly with whoever prescribed it to you.
Hopefully, this was of some use. Many of these suggestions are common sense but sometimes we forget how important the little things are to our mental health, and how we need to keep them in our daily routine. What works for others might not work for you, so try to find a rhythm and pattern that suits you, and stick to it.
Stay safe, and be well.