In pursuing a degree in psychology, a couple depressive and psychotic episodes interrupted my original plan. In that, I’ve discovered I never really wanted a degree in psychology. In that , I discovered I’m stuck with it and must make the best out of it because starting over sounds excruciating.
And so I make this post in honor of all the adamant advocates who insist on equating mental health with physical health, despite the fact that they need very different treatments, have different levels of valid (or invalid) research, and that one is ostensibly more tangible and reliable than the other.
What’s the point?
I think sometimes when we are caught up in our head, we disconnect from the flesh and organisms which keep us breathing and conscious. Our body becomes a poorly oiled machine, and we creak and groan getting out of bed in the morning, and groan and creak getting in the bed at night. One thing which was missing from my mental health treatment in the past was a consult on my physical health.
One sleep doctor told me I needed to lose weight. That was the extent of the care given to my body after my last psychotic episode, even under the watchful eye of my psychiatrist, therapist, and physician.
And so I notice this huge disconnect in ourselves as well as in the health field. There is a reason many of us diagnosed have a higher percentage of eating highly processed foods, calorie dense foods, and refined sugar/corn syrup filled foods–it’s not just because these foods become a comfort (because they do), but also because dealing with voices and visions and mood swings take our focus away from the rest of the world, the rest of us, and without some gentle pushing and encouragement from the team around us, we’re not able to hop on the physical health track.
I did not gain one hundred pounds until my moods were so unregulated and my psychosis was so encompassing that I forgot my body even existed. This is after being a very fit, very active teenager and young adult. Medication with weight side-effects didn’t help.
What bothers me now is that doctors prescribe medications without also setting us up with a nutrition coach or a dietitian or whatever we can afford/our insurance will pay for, who can help us balance those debilitating side effects with healthier options.
I lost the weight because I was ready and because I did all the research about what foods start up metabolism, how restricting and counting calories is horrible for weight loss, and the importance of regular exercise. Within 6-8 months, I healthily lost half the weight and gained an incredible amount of mental stability for being off medication.
This has kept my depression at bay for the first time since I was eleven years old, wishing I could kill myself. I’m now 24. It has significantly reduced my anxiety, and has helped me manage paranoia. When I reintroduce a steady, less healthy diet for a couple weeks (such as a ridiculous amount of carbs, high amounts of refined sugar, and large portions), my paranoia ramps up, my panic attacks take over, and I feel miserable both physically and mentally.
Food isn’t just fuel for our bodies, it’s medicine for our minds. It keeps our blood sugars level, our energy converting, our organs functioning, and our serotonin happy–let’s not forget the abundance of serotonin that lies in our gut.
When we stuff ourselves with foods that raise our sugar levels and our dopamine levels, we crash and want more sugar. We get a lesser high each time, and a lower low each time; it’s like cocaine. The higher weight we get from fatty foods, the less movement we enjoy, and the more anxious and insecure we feel. This keeps us from experiencing the world, withdraws us from social activity, and that alone can ramp up experiences of any mental health condition.
And so pop-advocates are right: mental health and physical health should be treated the same in that both must be addressed in order for the whole person to be healthy. When we are so lost in our mind, we need something to ground us back in our physical body, and one way that can be done is relearning how to show compassion through healthy action toward our physical form.
It’s mistaken to believe what you put into your body doesn’t effect your mental health. It’s mistaken to believe that the majority of our struggle comes from chemicals; the fact is there are social factors, economic/financial factors, genetic factors, and physical factors. Some of these we have more power to change than we think, and physical factors tend to be the easiest, as hard as it is. When I stopped telling myself “well, there’s nothing I can do about it” in regards to my experiences, I found there was a whole hell of a lot I could do, not just to cope, not just to exist, but to heal and nurture all the undressed wounds I’d left bleeding for so many years. One of those wounds was my physical health.
What can we do?
It’s evident that changing eating habits is not a simple feat. It takes a lot of discipline and motivation and readiness–readiness being key. If discipline and motivation aren’t your thing, a good support team around you which you trust may work to gently encourage progress and give healthy reminders when your progress falters (because it will falter).
If you don’t have much of a support force, and your doctors aren’t much help, starting slowly will be your best bet. If you feel you aren’t ready to embark on that kind of a journey, don’t. Starting before you’re ready will only make you falter in your discipline. That will disappoint you and the discouragement will eventually convince you to quit.
So, Are you ready?
1) My first suggestion would be research. Read some stuff about food. The good stuff. Stuff about why carbs are good, why sugar is good, why certain fats actually help you burn stored fat in your body. I say start with this kind of research because it’s a reminder to you that food is good! There is nothing you need to avoid, only things eaten in moderation and with careful consideration. Things eaten for fuel, not out of emotion.
2) Next, find some foods that kickstart your metabolism. Foods like kale, spinach, raspberries, and blueberries, or spices like Tumeric. These are great pre and post workout snacks (and seasonings) that will help your body use up some of its fat storage.
3) Plan your meals. When I started my weight loss journey, I ate a kale, spinach, tofu (seasoned with tumeric) salad, topped with raspberries and blueberries for lunch. For breakfast, I ate an avocado and two boiled eggs, or two fried eggs in olive oil. For snack, I’d have a banana or protein drink, generally after a workout. For dinner I’d have a lean meat (99% lean turkey, or baked chicken, or baked fish (cod usually), a veggie, and a perhaps a cup of rice or other programmed starch/carb.
I thought I’d be hungry with this meal plan, as I was used to eating 3000-4000 calories a day easily, but I didn’t go hungry for a moment. The exercise utilized the fuel I put in my body, and the fuel properly energized my muscles and my mind. I gave up sweets only because I’d been heavily addicted and knew I’d compromise my health plan if I allowed myself to eat two cakes in three days as I had before.
4) Set a consistent workout schedule. I worked out 3-5 days a week, all around the same time. I started with bike riding again, and graduated to the gym, and eventually high interval training workouts. The thing to remember with exercise is that the more weight you lose, the toner you get, the more intense your workouts have to get in order to maintain the same loss. Starting slow can ease you into the mental and physical pain.
5) Remember your mental health. If anxiety or depression tells you not to go one day, and you really can’t convince yourself otherwise, don’t go. You still have an obligation to be compassionate with yourself. This doesn’t mean give yourself an excuse. This means accept that this day is painful and that you need rest. It means the next day may be painful too, but if your rest is productive and useful, the next day can be easier and you can return to your routine. If you take a restful week, that’s not a failure either. It’s you doing what you need.
With those five little things, I lost 56 pounds in about 6 months. My paranoia was much more under control, my blood pressure went down, my heart rate went down, my anxiety went down, and I haven’t seen my depression in almost two years.
This is not a cure. It’s an understanding that our physical health plays into our mental health, and if one is ignored, the other is sure to deteriorate.
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