When Illness and Pain Really IS "In Your Head" (Spoiler Alert: Almost Always) and What To Do About It
No doubt you've heard it said about someone, maybe you, that what they're experiencing is "all in their head." Insinuating that it's not real.
Turns out, pain and illness really DO originate in the head more often than not. A whopping 75-90% according to several articles like this one on stress and illness. And that doesn't mean it's not real or that you're making it up. It DOES mean that our thoughts have a powerful influence over our physical health.
On the flip side, people with chronic physical illness are more likely to experience anxiety and depression. Perhaps this isn't as much of a surprise as the converse. It does seem that when screening people with physical health issues, at least in Physical Therapy practice, asking about their mental health is a standard question on the evaluation form. However, even though it may be standard, that doesn't mean it's actually being addressed as it relates to their physical recovery. I think the assumption is that once they recover physically, their mental health will follow suit.
But what if by addressing both physical AND emotional health you were able to recover BOTH more quickly with less suffering and better outcomes?
The good news is, there are so many ways to support both your physical and mental health without going to multiple care providers. In fact, the best "doctors" are the ones right outside your door. Nature's doctors...sunlight, fresh air, nature sounds, and exercise/movement.
Sunlight has been shown to impact mood more than any other environmental factor like rainfall, temperature, pollution, etc. It's a pretty easy and inexpensive way to boost your mood and physical health as well. Some physical benefits are increased immunity, hormone balance, blood pressure balance, bone health, detoxification, better sleep, blood sugar regulation, and cancer prevention. For mental health, spend 5 minutes with your "naked" eyes closed (no makeup or eyewear), out in the sun. Don't turn directly toward the sun, just be where the sunlight is on your eyes. Just that much sunlight affects your brain's production of serotonin and is an instant mood booster.
Fresh, unpolluted air benefits detoxification and can boost your mood by increasing oxygen to your brain. Pair it with deep breathing and you have a fabulous stress reliever that takes no dollars and hardly any time. One study found that after a mentally stressful event, the average time it took for blood pressure to return to normal was 3.7 minutes. With nature sounds, it took 3.0 minutes, and with deep breathing, it only took 2.7 minutes. (from "Depression, the Way Out" by Neil Nedley, M.D.)
And for an even bigger energy boost, head outside after a thunderstorm has passed through. It has not only cleared out pollutants but has also left negatively charged ions behind which is highly invigorating to your whole body.
Exercise, or better yet, whole body movement, is a powerful combination stress reliever plus physical health booster. It's one of the best ways there is to combat anxiety and depression and helps prevent and reverse disease. Though any type of movement is better than none, the most effective exercise for coping with stress is one that involves using your mind such as yard work, gardening, chopping wood, or some other type of productive physical work. (from "Depression, the Way Out" by Neil Nedley, M.D.)
What about Meditation?
No doubt you've heard meditation is a great way to help cope with stress. But there is more than one form of meditation. The one we most often hear about, Eastern meditation, is a form of escapism, or trying to cope with reality by escaping it, and puts the brain in a very passive, and influenceable state. Similar to hypnosis, the pattern of brain waves, called alpha waves, indicate there is very little frontal lobe (where reasoning happens) activity. While it can be relaxing at the time, it does not appear to help in dealing with stressors constructively. Rather it's a temporary escape from reality. In a group setting, it also opens one up to negative influences and mind control.
On the other hand, Christian meditation, which involves prayer and meditating on God's word, actually increases frontal lobe activity (Beta waves. Yet, even with this increased activity, it has been shown to be deeply relaxing and carry over to coping with stressors in a constructive way. (from "Depression, the Way Out" by Neil Nedley, M.D.)
Of course this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many other excellent natural ways that address not only physical but mental health. Not the least of which is good nutrition and gut health.
Plus specific exercises (what I like to call Nourishing Moves) to help release tension and relieve pain. I shared a fabulous Nourishing Move coupled with Christian meditation in my last Well Wishes Newsletter (sign up here). If you missed it, shoot me an email and I'll send it right over.
So if you've been struggling with a physical issue that doesn't go away or keeps coming back, take a look at your mental health and life stressors. Chances are, they are contributing in a major way to what's going on with your physical health. And please don't hesitate to reach out for help. If you have tried a few things on your own and things aren't improving or keep getting worse, find someone to help support you.
Just know that what you're feeling is absolutely valid. And if you have noticed your physical and mental health seem to overlap, you are spot on (and not crazy)!
Please note: This is not medical advice but for educational purposes only. I am not a mental health professional so cannot treat you for mental health issues. However, the lifestyle medicine approach has been shown to effectively improve both physical and mental health so if you would like therapeutic lifestyle guidance, reach out and I'd be happy to help.